‘We’re thriving’: How one Catholic primary school changed its patronage

Breaking the deadlock on creating multidenominational schools

Catherine Barry, principal of Two Mile Community National School, Aughaleemore, Killarney. The school is one of a small number where patronage has been transferred away from the Catholic Church. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Five years ago the small primary school at Aughaleemore, on the outskirts of Killarney, was facing certain closure.

Pupil numbers dropped to just 17 in 2015/16; when it reopened in September, parents chose not to send any of their children back.

Today, the school isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving. Enrolment has climbed to 40. Next September it is projected to exceed 50 pupils. School principal Catherine Barry says she hopes to have a third teacher soon and is hopeful of getting pupil numbers back to its previous high of 90 pupils.

"We're attracting children from the local area as well as Killarney and Beaufort. Parents are going out of their way to send their children here; it's wonderful," says Barry.


So, what changed?

Following a survey of local parents, the Bishop of Kerry agreed to transfer the patronage of the old Cahorreigh National School to the State-run Education and Training Board; it reopened as Two Mile Community National School in August 2017.

In the process, it became the only multidenominational school in the Killarney area.

“We see ourselves very much as a school for the whole community,” says Barry. “We don’t advocate any one religion over another. Whatever your belief, all children are welcome. That belief is very strong.

"We have children from Catholic, Church of Ireland, Muslim and Hindu homes... probably a majority have parents who were born Catholic, but don't necessarily practise it."

Pupils from Two Mile Community National School, Aughaleemore, Killarney, and principal Catherine Barry. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Large sections of the population must choose religious schools; there are no multidenominational schools in Cavan, <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_location">Leitrim</a>, Longford and Monaghan

Despite its success, Two Mile Community National School is highly unusual.

It is one of about 20 schools where patronage has been transferred since a school divestment process was launched by then minister for education Ruairí Quinn in 2012.

The plan was born out of a recognition that society is more diverse than ever and parents should have greater access to multidenominational education for their children.

However, 89 per cent of all primary schools remain under Catholic control.

The current programme for government commits to improving parental choice by meeting a target of delivering 400 multidenominational primary schools by 2030.

However, latest figures show there are just 164 multidenominational schools compared with 2,750 Catholic primary schools.

This means the State will need to deliver more than 200 multidenominational schools within eight years to meet its target.

In the meantime, large sections of the population must choose religious schools; there are no multidenominational schools in Cavan, Leitrim, Longford and Monaghan.

The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHREC) recently took the Government to task over its "slow progress" in providing access to multidenominational education. It has asked the United Nations to directly ask the State to account for its progress on the divestment of patronage from Catholic schools.

Sinéad Gibney, IHREC’s chief commissioner, says: “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 rights principles need to be the State’s benchmark in relation to education.”

In response, the Department of Education says 400 multidenominational primary schools by 2030 remains the Government’s objective. It says almost 100 new primary and post-primary schools have been established since 2011 with a multidenominational ethos.

A further 20 or so new multidenominational primary schools have been established under the patronage divestment process and a more recent "reconfiguration" process. This latter was aimed at speeding up the process by allowing the Catholic Church to retain ownership of school buildings and to lease them back to the State.

However, even this appears to have stalled. It is four years since the department requested Education and Training Boards to identify pilot areas where there was likely to be unmet demand for multidenominational education and to conduct surveys of pre-school parents in these areas.

The department refused to release the findings of these surveys to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act. In the meantime, the pre-school children at the centre of the survey are well established in primary school.

The department says 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 under way,” the department says.

A spokesman for the Irish Episcopal Conference says bishops are “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 says.

“A true plurality of patronage across the country should ensure parental choice while enabling patrons to be true to their own ethos and characteristic spirit.”

Principal Catherine Barry and some of the pupils of Two Mile Community National School, Aughaleemore, Killarney. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Change is a challenge. Parents and staff need information. They need to discuss the implications of changing patronage

While there is little sign of significant progress on this front, does the experience of Two Mile Community National School provide a template for the future transfer of patronage in other schools?

In its case, there was strong demand locally among parents for a change in patronage.

"We just wanted to save our school," says Tim Horgan, one of the parents involved in seeking out the school's reconfiguration.

"A lot people have pubs and other things in their local area, but we just have a school. It is our identity," says Lisa Casey, another parent involved in the process.

They wrote to the patron, the Bishop of Kerry Fr Ray Browne, advising him that they were investigating alternative options and invited the Kerry Education and Training Board to give a presentation.

Séamus Conboy, of Education Training Board Ireland (ETBI), says this is a crucial step: schools considering reconfiguration should approach their existing patron and seek permission to engage with the ETB.

“Once approval is given, it is imperative that members of the board of management, staff and parents are given accurate information about the potential patron,” says Conboy.

Ann O’Dwyer, director of schools in the Kerry ETB, played a key role in informing the wider school community about potential changes.

“We were very clear that it was a multidenominational model and we felt the community needed to understand the difference before they decided,” she says.

O’Dwyer says the community wanted to know more about the management of the school and the question of faith formation during school time.

Parents were advised that, under the new model, sacramental preparation would take place outside school time and that many of the duties, such as the employment of teachers, financial affairs and IT support would no longer fall to the board of management; the ETB would manage these areas directly.

When parents were asked if they would consider enrolling their child in the school under new management, more than 95 per cent said yes.

Within months the patronage had been transferred by the Bishop of Kerry, a new principal was appointed and the school reopened in August 2017.

Other schools where patronage have been transferred are also thriving. Canal Street Educate Together, Dublin 8, was the first school to be successfully divested in 2013. It started with 38 students; it has since expanded to 380 students.

If there are lessons to be learned, says O’Dwyer, transparency and openness are key when it comes to addressing the concerns parents and staff might have.

Controversy, for example, erupted in Malahide and Portmarnock in 2019 when parents were being surveyed on plans to transfer the patronage from one of the local schools; there followed a blizzard of inaccurate claims over what would happen to schools if they were taken over by a non-denominational patron such as the end of Christmas concerts, Halloween or Easter celebrations.

“Change is a challenge,” says O’Dwyer. “Parents and staff need information. They need to discuss the implications of changing patronage. What happened recently in Dublin was unfortunate and we need to correct that. Parents need to receive accurate information.”

Primary school patronage: by numbers
89%: Catholic
8%: Multidenominational
3%: Church of Ireland