Steiner school to go to court over recognition

 

The Republic's first Steiner school is taking the Department of Education to the High Court seeking recognition in order to obtain State funding.

The Cooleenbridge primary school in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, was originally started in a old schoolhouse near Scariff by a group of families in 1986. Many of them had come to the area from Dublin, Britain and the US in search of a more holistic lifestyle. The Steiner method, with its emphasis on a broad education emphasising the arts and practical work, was attractive to them.

The school was the second Steiner school in Ireland. The first one, near Holywood in Co Down, now has both primary and secondary sections, but also operates without State funding. A group of parents opened another Steiner primary school in Dublin, now moved to Naas, in 1987.

In the past 12 years the Cooleenbridge school has grown from 21 to 115 pupils. It has survived and expanded by its pupils paying a voluntary contribution and by extensive fund-raising at home and abroad. It runs concerts and festivals and sells tapes of Irish music to Steiner schools and sympathisers around the world.

In 1991 the school council, which is made up of 11 parents and two teachers, wrote to the then Minister for Education, Ms O'Rourke, seeking State recognition as a primary school.

They also put their case in person to Ms O'Rourke and to her successor, Ms Niamh Bhreathnach, and made submissions to the National Education Convention and the Education Green and White Papers. In February 1995 Ms Breathnach wrote to the school saying it did not meet the Department's criteria for recognition. At the same time she also turned down the Dublin school's application. Mr Pearse O'Shiel, Cooleenbridge's spokesman, said yesterday they had written back asking what those criteria were and how could the school meet them.

"There was no response and since that date there has been no response to those questions," said Mr O'Shiel, a former teacher at the school who now runs a preschool programme jointly with the National University of Ireland, Maynooth to train teachers in the Steiner method.

The school's legal advice was that its constitutional rights had been breached in a number of ways, both by the Department's refusal to recognise the school and by its failure to identify the procedures under which such recognition could be applied for and obtained, said Mr O'Shiel.

He understood the rules for national schools under which Cooleenbridge was refused recognition had "no legal basis and are therefore operated in a discriminatory manner." He did not believe the situation would be improved by the new Education Bill.

The legal papers in the action were lodged in the spring of 1995, and it will come before the High Court in November. Mr O'Shiel said they had had no contact with the present Minister for Education. However, he believed Mr Martin had been told about their case by supporters of the school in his Cork constituency. He said the school had been "very reluctant" to take the case, but saw it as the only way to ensure its survival.