School patronage: Change comes slowly

Move to give priority to the needs of children in an increasingly pluralist society is a step in the right direction

 

It is five years since plans to facilitate divestment of schools from religious ownership were rolled out. Greater access to multi-denominational education was promised in a State where 96 per cent of primary schools remain under the patronage of religious bodies.

But progress has been lamentable. Just 10 schools have completed the process due to local resistance and foot-dragging by some members of the clergy. Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced ambitious plans earlier this week to accelerate divestment.

He aims to transfer the patronage of up to 200 schools within the next decade or more. The revised process, he says, takes on board lessons learned. For example, it involves “live transfers” of schools rather than the slow process of closures and land transfers. In addition, religious bodies will be able to lease their schools to new patron bodies.

A move which gives priority to the needs of children in an increasingly pluralist society is a step in the right direction. However, there are concerns over the independence and transparency of the new process. The precise manner in which demand for multi-denominational education will be measured remains unclear. Education and Training Boards will be involved but they are also possible patron bodies for new schools. This raises potential conflicts of interest.

Clarity is also needed on how new patron bodies will be selected to ensure they meet parents’ wishes. All potential patrons should have an equal opportunity. A further concern centres on the leasing of land from religious organisations to new patrons.

Existing divestment plans are on a cost-neutral basis. Under the new process, leasing bills will be footed by the State. Given that the latter is in dispute with several Catholic religious congregations over meeting the cost of compensation to children abused in residential institutions in the 1970s, this arrangement requires scrutiny.

There is near universal agreement, including on the part of the churches, that greater diversity is needed in the education system. But change must be fair and transparent – and faster.

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