Primary education on the cusp of historic change in school management


ANALYSIS:The pace of change will be slower than that preferred by the Minister

MORE THAN 1,500 Catholic primary schools – or 50 per cent of the total – will be transferred to different forms of patronage, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn predicted. The Minister was roundly criticised by some Catholic Church representatives for this statement.

Fr Michael Drumm of the Catholic School Partnership said a transfer figure of 10 per cent was more realistic.

It is clear from the report, published today, that the pace of change will be slower than that preferred by the Minister. But it is also clear Irish education is on the threshold of historic change in school management.

The establishment of a national forum on school patronage had been a long-standing demand of the main primary teachers’ union, the INTO. It has pointed out how current arrangements – where the Catholic Church controls close to 3,000 of the 3,200 primary schools in the State – are out of kilter with an increasingly diverse Irish society.

Ruairí Quinn was the first Minister to respond to this demand. His decision to establish the forum was made during his first days in office. Its mandate? To provide a roadmap for the transfer of Catholic schools to other patrons. Quinn’s initiative was welcomed by some, if not all, elements in the church. Comments by Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, had also been a catalyst for change. In 2007, he 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.

Quinn was also tapping into increasing public support for change. At the opening of the forum last year, he cited a 2007 survey by the Catholic Bishops Conference on Education where only half of the parents surveyed said they would choose a school under a religious denomination.

Opinion polls also suggest an appetite for change. The most recent Irish Times poll on the issue indicated clear majority support (61 per cent) for State control of primary schools.

Yesterday’s report from the advisory group to the forum, chaired by Prof John Coolahan, acknowledges the increasing demand for a more diverse system of school patronage.

Coolahan is mindful of all traditions in his report. He echoes the fears of those communities among some communities “that the church and religion would be taken away”. But he also defends the rights of those parents and their children who want to opt out of current arrangements.

This balanced and respectful approach permeates today’s report. Coolahan has provided a roadmap for change. But the power to drive any change will reside with local communities.