Outside the gates of Catholic national schools in the affluent suburbs of Malahide and Portmarnock this week, there was only one topic of conversation among parents.
Fear, uncertainty and anxiety have been coursing through school communities on foot of a Department of Education request that one Catholic school out of eight in the area should divest its patronage.
“I’m not a holy Joe by any means, but this isn’t something any of us wants,” said one mother of two, waiting outside St Oliver Plunkett’s national school in Malahide with her buggy. “My child is happy here. There’s a sense of community. I don’t see why we should have to change.”
My child has been learning religion, so are we just going to suddenly stop that? What about the nativity play, the Holy Communion and Confirmation. Will that all stop?
Another mother of three, who describes herself as an occasional churchgoer, is also fearful of how changes could impact on her two children at the school.
“My child has been learning religion, so are we just going to suddenly stop that? What about the nativity play, the Holy Communion and Confirmation. Will that all stop?”
A grandfather, waiting to collect his two grandchildren, says anxiety over the divestment debate is affecting the pupils. “My granddaughter was asking her parents the other day: ‘Will I still be a Catholic?’ It’s just not right the way all this is being handled.”
The department’s move is part of a wider plan to increase access to multidenominational schools for parents. At present, 90 per cent of primary schools are under Catholic control.
But so far, the process has been marked by a blizzard of scaremongering and wildly inaccurate claims over what may happen to schools if taken over by a nondenominational or multidenominational patrons such as Educate Together.
Much of it has been circulated on parents’ WhatsApp groups and school social media platforms, as well as at information meetings and in school correspondence.
In the case of Oliver Plunkett’s, the parents’ association warned that a change in ethos could spell the end of the school carol services, garden fetes, healthy eating programmes and its Book Buzz school reading programme.
It also highlighted the potential consequences of a narrow vote in favour of divestment. “To avoid another Brexit-type disaster, we implore you to attend the meeting. This is your opportunity to raise your questions/concerns,” parents were told.
At Scoil an Duinnínigh on the Feltrim Road in Swords, parents were warned that references to God such as “dia duit” may not longer be permitted, while music with religious references would not be allowed.
St Sylvester's Infant School in Malahide warned there would be "no more Christmas concerns, no more Halloween and Easter celebrations", while grandparent assemblies and St Patrick's Day celebrations would be cancelled.
The sheer volume of misinformation prompted Minister for Education Joe McHugh to issue a rebuke to school authorities along with a warning to cease issuing claims that have no basis in fact.
Christmas will not be cancelled. Neither will any typical school holiday like Easter or St Patrick's Day. Pancake Tuesday won't be banned
“It is a bad example to be setting, particularly for those of us working to educate our young people,” McHugh said.
“Just to be clear – Christmas will not be cancelled. Neither will any typical school holiday like Easter or St Patrick’s Day. Pancake Tuesday won’t be banned. Nor will holidays or celebrations associated with the ancient Celtic/pagan festival of Halloween,” he said.
The controversy has highlighted flaws with the divestment process and challenges facing the State in promoting greater choice for parents in a system dominated by the Catholic Church.
Some 95 per cent of primary schools are under the control of churches, and 90 per cent of those are under the patronage of the Catholic Church.
Almost everyone – including the churches – agrees that placing so much control of primary schools in the hands of religious denominations is out of step with the needs of an increasingly diverse society. Few, however, are willing to concede control. It is seven years since plans to pave the way for the divestment of schools from religious ownership were announced in a blaze of publicity.
The report of the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism, established by former minister Ruairí Quinn, recommended that religious schools in about 28 areas divest to multidenominational patrons.
Progress has been slow and divisive: only about 13 have completed the divestment process to date. There have been a range of obstacles, such as local resistance to change, parental fears and opposition from local bishops.
In the few cases where divestment has occurred, they have tended to involve schools where enrolment was declining or where parents had lost confidence in schools for a combination of reasons.
The glacial pace of progress prompted Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin in recent times to criticise elements of the church for “dragging their feet” over the issue.
To help speed the process up, a new divestment model – rebranded as a “reconfiguration process” – was drawn up two years ago by the department. While the old model required a school to be closed down and re-opened, the revamped process envisages “live transfers” of patronage.
However, this new process has come in for heavy criticism from parents on all sides of the debate.
Laura Mulvey, whose daughter attends Scoil an Duinnínigh, wants her school to remain under its Catholic ethos but says she is frustrated at not being able to get clear answers over the divestment process.
“The lack of information and clear and transparent answers to parents’ questions are causing stress and anxiety in both children and parents of children in the school,” she says.
Under the process, parents are being asked to vote on whether to remove their school’s Catholic patronage without any idea of who might take over.
There is also no input from multidenominational groups such as Educate Together, the State-run Education and Training Board or the gaelscoil patron An Fóras Pátrúnachta.
In this information vacuum, there has been no shortage of evidence of scaremongering over the implications of what might happen.
It strikes me that this process, together with a not insignificant amount of misinformation, has been cynically engineered to obtain a particular result for the diocese
David McAlinden, whose daughter attends one of the schools being canvassed for divestment in Malahide and is in favour of divestment, feels the process is deeply unfair. He says parents were told that if they voted to change, but are unhappy with the available options, there would be no way back.
“It strikes me that this process, together with a not insignificant amount of misinformation, has been cynically engineered to obtain a particular result for the diocese,” he says.
Progress after the Ruairí Quinn announcement seven years ago proved achingly slow and divisive, partly due to local opposition and because it involved having to wait for a school to either close down or amalgamate. The late Prof John Coolahan, who chaired the forum, said the absence of a “stick” to wield against the Catholic Church was another key flaw.
The Richard Bruton system of “live transfers”, devised two years ago, was to speed up the process. The department, which devised the process in consultation with Catholic Church representatives, says it is aimed at reflecting the wishes of parents and the school community and is not aimed at forcing change on any school.
McHugh has signalled that he is open to reviewing this process once a pilot phase in a total of 16 areas has been completed this summer.
But school management sources say this process is once again set up to fail and is still under too much church control. They say a revamped approach will be required, to give parents more certainty over what they are voting for – by allowing for joint patronage or for the gradual transfer of patronage, along with guarantees over access to religious education or sacramental preparation outside school hours.
Fr Gerry O’Connor, who has chaired numerous school boards of management and has been involved in the attempted divestment of a Catholic school, says many parents still feel a strong connection with the ritual of the church.
“There are threshold moments in people’s lives that many still want to rejoice and the Church ones still connect on a level that, perhaps, secular versions don’t,” he says.
Divestment, he says, sounds like a very good idea in theory, but many parents feel a strong attachment to their local school.
He gives the example of the Ballyfermot area, where parents of children in 10 Catholic schools (and no alternative) took part in a series of votes. No school wanted to divest, so the status quo remained.
You're dealing with parents, teachers and the wider community. It can be very hard to get all three to move in one direction. It's so much easier in a start-up school
"You're dealing with parents, teachers and the wider community. It can be very hard to get all three to move in one direction. It's so much easier in a greenfield or start-up school. While Archbishop Martin has tried to push divestment, it can get very complicated at a local level."
An irony in the current debate is that what seems like a radical move in some quarters – breaking the link between church and State in education – would in fact be a return to the original vision for our primary school system.
The "Stanley letter" of 1831 – a letter from the chief secretary of the British government to the Duke of Leinster, then Dublin's leading nobleman – is widely considered as the foundation for the national school in Ireland.
Stanley’s vision was that these schools would be non-denominational and religious instruction should be separate.
Within a few decades, however, the power of the various churches ensured the vision was not realised and national schools became denominational in character.
Almost 190 years later, it seems the State is still grappling with how to find a satisfactory model which best meets the needs of its young citizens.