There has been much discussion in this newspaper lately about primary school admission policies and the availability of school places in Ireland. Educate Together is under unprecedented pressure from parents all over the country to provide places in our schools that ensure equality of access and esteem to all children.
As an independent charity working within the structures of the State education system, Educate Together is limited in what it can do to address this demand and is disappointed with recent developments, which have affected access to our equality-based model.
There is also much confusion regarding school patronage divestment. The process began in March 2011 when the Fine Gael/Labour Government established the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, with the aim to create more diversity and inclusiveness in the primary school system.
Parental surveys were conducted in 43 areas around Ireland and recommendations were made for Catholic primary schools in 25 areas to divest to Educate Together. But since then progress has been unreasonably slow. Why? And what does the Government plan to do about it?
In a recent interview on an Irish Times podcast, Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan stated that nine schools had been divested – eight of which had been divested to Educate Together. However, of these eight schools, only two are in buildings that have been vacated by a Catholic school, and just one – a Church of Ireland school in Co Mayo – has transferred patronage.
This level of progress barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done to provide the basic right of parents to access a school of choice.
Meanwhile situations such as the one in Dublin 6 arise. In Dublin 6, non-Baptised children within the catchment area for local schools are last on the admissions list because all of those schools are denominational. These schools are entitled to accept children of their denomination from outside their area before they accept the non-Baptised child across the road.
Dublin 6 was listed as a “divestment area” in 2012, but there are no schools available for divestment. Furthermore, there are no plans to open a new school, as the population is considered to be stable.
So, no divestment, no new school – what’s to be done? Perhaps unsurprisingly, a parent-led campaign for an Educate Together school in Dublin 6 has garnered almost 500 expressions of interest in the two months it is running.
Unfortunately, even where new Educate Together schools are being opened, parents cannot access them unless they live within the Department of Education’s defined “catchment area”, a stipulation introduced in 2011. In contrast, as in Dublin 6, older and mostly denominational schools can continue to prioritise enrolments on the basis of religion.
Until the State can offer choice within each area, children who are not Baptised will languish at the bottom of their local schools admissions lists and parents will be obliged to send children to the only faith-based schools that will take them.
Discussions on the remaining areas where schools are to be divested are said to be ongoing between the relevant denominational patrons and the department. The department has reported positive engagement with Catholic dioceses. But the fact is there are children in communities all over the country that need school places right now. There are parents under pressure to find those places.
And there are schools that are categorising those families as somehow less entitled to an education within their community on the basis of their privately held religious beliefs.
These families have waited long enough. Educate Together calls on the Minister to outline what concrete actions will be taken to move the divestment process forward. With a general election due next year, the Minister has limited time to fulfil the Labour Party’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness and drive the pace and nature of the reforms so badly needed.
Educate Together, as an under-resourced non-profit organisation operating on a bare-bones budget, is overwhelmed by support for its model. We have a duty of care to our nationwide constituency. We will continue to work hard and lobby in their interests and in the interests of diversity and inclusivity.
Our assessment suggests a network of 300 Educate Together national schools is needed. This makes up only 10 per cent of the primary education system. If Ireland is to have a balanced education system in which children of all backgrounds are respected, then real progress on school patronage must be made now.
Paul Rowe is chief executive of Educate Together, which has a network of 74 primary schools and three second-level schools in Ireland