Progress on multi-denominational schools too ‘slow’

Government must deliver 236 new schools by 2030 to meet its target

The Government has been criticised for its “slow” progress in providing access to multi-denominational education as new figures show Catholic schools account for 89 per cent of primary schools.

The Programme for Government commits to improving parental choice by meeting a target of delivering 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030.

However, new figures show there are 164 multi-denominational schools compared with 2,750 Catholic primary schools.

A Department of Education report on enrolment for the 2021/22 school year states that multi-denominational schools are the fastest growing sector, with the number of such schools up 28 since 2018, while the number of Catholic schools is down by 26 over the same time-frame.


“These clear trends in school ethos are a result of the closure of small schools with declining enrolments and the amalgamation of schools in close proximity to each other, as well as the opening of new multi-denominational schools in response to parental choice,” the report states.

However, the Irish Human Rights Commission’s (IHREC) said it has asked the United Nations to directly ask the State to account for its “slow progress on the divestment of patronage from Catholic schools”.

Complex process

Sinéad Gibney, IHREC’s chief commissioner, said that while divestment of patronage is a complex process, there was significant road yet to travel to achieve the Government’s target.

“Throughout our work around education, we have consistently emphasised the need for equity of access, parental choice and human rights principles in respect of pluralism, inclusivity and meeting the needs and dignity of children. These human right principles need to be the State’s benchmark in relation to education.”

In a statement, the department said 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 remained the Government’s objective.

It said almost 100 new primary and post-primary have been established since 2011 with a multi-denominational ethos.

A further 20 new multi-denominational primary schools have been established under the patronage divestment process and a more recent “reconfiguration” process.

Four years ago the department requested Education and Training Boards to identify pilot areas where there was likely to be unmet demand for multi-denominational education and to conduct surveys of pre-school parents in these areas.

The department has refused to release the findings of these surveys to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The department said it has been engaging with representatives of Catholic bishops – the Irish Episcopal Conference – with a view to developing an agreed approach to the next phase of the reconfiguration process.

“Publication of the surveys has been deferred while this process is underway,” the department said.

A spokesman for the Irish Episcopal Conference said bishops were “proactively engaging” in relation to reconfiguration of patronage. “Bishops are supportive of an educational landscape which reflects the reality of the increasingly diverse society in our country,” a spokesman said.“A true plurality of patronage across the country should ensure parental choice whilst enabling patrons to be true to their own ethos and characteristic spirit.”

He added that any move to divest must involve a meaningful engagement at local level, supported by the Department of Education, with parents, teachers and the wider parish communities served by existing Catholic schools.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent