Half primary schools may lose Catholic patronage, says Quinn


MORE THAN 1,500 Catholic primary schools will be transferred to different forms of patronage, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said yesterday.

Speaking at the launch of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, he said about 50 per cent of the 3,000 Catholic primary schools in the State would be divested.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, he said, has noted that 90 per cent of all Dublin primary schools are under his patronage, while the percentage of the population who actively want a Catholic education could be as low as 50 per cent.

The Minister cited a 2007 survey by the Catholic Bishops Conference on Education where only half of the Catholic parents surveyed said they would choose a school under a religious denomination. Earlier this month, Fr Michael Drumm of the Catholic School Partnership said a transfer figure of 10 per cent was more realistic.

Yesterday, Mr Quinn said he believed “we should be ambitious about what we wish to achieve in this area. If we aim high, there is a greater chance of success. Am I doctrinaire or rigid about the 50 per cent figure? Absolutely not.”

Everything, he said, would depend on local circumstances and demands. The forum will have three main themes:

Establishing the demand for diversity, taking into account parental wishes;

Working out the practicalities of managing the transfer or divesting of patronage; and

Examining how diversity can be accommodated in areas where there is not sufficient demand to justify a separate school.

The advisory group to the forum, chaired by Prof John Coolahan, will examine arrangements for the delivery of religious education in a way in which rights of all members of the school community are acknowledged and respected.

Mr Quinn said: “In schools under Catholic Church patronage, the rights of parents to withdraw their children from faith formation classes must be addressed in real and practical ways.”

Parents and local communities will be consulted before any transfer takes place.

Prof Coolahan acknowledged the fear among some communities “that the church and religion would be taken away”. Pluralism, he explained, is not a threat. The State is not trying to uproot or erode rights. It is about giving those of all faiths and none the same rights, he said.

Thirteen groups – including school management bodies and the National Parents’ Council – have been invited to make written submissions. These will be considered at a three-day public session in late June. The public may also make submissions.

Each of the main groups will be cross-examined. As the advisory panel is independent, it will also question department officials about their priorities. The group hopes to prepare a final report for the Minister by the end of the year.

Educate Together, the multidenominational school patron, has hailed the formal opening of the forum as a “great opportunity” for Irish education. Paul Rowe, the group’s chief executive, said he had high hopes this will give every parent a choice in the type of education for their child.