Stress has been sown within five Educate Together school communities
It is time for the Government to honour commitments to families under the divestment process
Why did the Government embark on a programme to bring more diversity to Ireland’s school system without the adequate resourcing or will to ensure its success? Photograph: Getty Images
Five thriving non-denominational national schools with growing waiting lists – Tramore ETNS, New Ross ETNS, Trim ETNS, Tuam ETNS and Castlebar ETNS – have been told by the Department of Education that they must downsize and cap their intake of children this September.
Amidst the media furore around limits imposed on these Educate Together schools, there is something getting lost. This is the personal impact on those families that have children in the schools, the staff of the schools and the parents who have a legitimate expectation that their children will be admitted this year.
A letter from the department to Tramore ETNS telling the school that it could only enrol 13 junior infants this year was described as a “bombshell’ by Eilish Kelly, the school principal. With 29 children on the waiting list, she is being put into the position of refusing entry to over half her pre-enrolled children.
A similar situation has been described as “heartbreaking” by the principal of Trim ETNS, Karen Reilly, who has 43 pre-enrolled junior infants.
We have fallen in love with our school. Our eldest son started there last September, and we have been blown away by how accepted and included he has felt
It has to be remembered that this is the time of year when all schools offer places to families with four and five year old children. In these five towns the Educate Together schools provide a vital and long overdue alternative to Catholic or Protestant primary schools.
Are some families in these towns to resign themselves to accept places in schools that are not of their choosing?
Is our Government really going to force them to attend religious schools against their lawful preference and conscience?
It’s an unenviable position for any parent to find themselves in. Ciara Fitzgibbon from Tramore is one of those parents. “We have fallen in love with our school. Our eldest son started there last September, and we have been blown away by how accepted and included he has felt. Unfortunately for our three younger children, these restrictions will exclude them from joining their older brother.”
The five schools were opened in the last few years under the “divestment process” – a Government-led programme that responded to the fact that families in many Irish towns wanted alternatives to religious-run schools.
So far progress on divestment has been glacial. Only eight Educate Together schools have opened under its aegis, with a further 16 areas still waiting. More worrying is the fact that most of the schools that have opened have not been provided with adequate accommodation, with real room to grow.
One reason given by the department for the current situation in Tramore, New Ross, Trim, Tuam and Castlebar is lack of accommodation. We have been told that this is simply an issue of scarcity of resources.
But that raises an obvious question – why did the Government embark on a programme to bring more diversity to Ireland’s school system without the adequate resourcing or will to ensure its success?
Educate Together, alongside parents, principals and school communities, is confronting the department on this because it is unfair and discriminatory in the broadest sense
The results are plain to see: thriving and popular Educate Together national schools – in many ways schools at the heart of the communities they serve – being forced to turn away children and families.
This is not about unreasonable demands for state-of-the-art new builds – it is simply time for the Government to honour the commitments made to the families under the divestment process.
Obviously this situation hits many raw nerves in contemporary Ireland – the place of religion in schools, parental choice in education, and Ireland’s evolution to a multicultural and diverse society.
But it’s also about something more prosaic and no less important: it’s about the needless stress faced by these committed young teachers, the uncertainty that has been sown amongst five school communities, and the young children that will be obliged to attend a different school from their sibling, or beginning their educational careers within a school ethos at odds with the everyday life of their families.
Educate Together, alongside parents, principals and school communities, is confronting the department on this because it is unfair and discriminatory in the broadest sense.
Speaking to and working with teachers and parents impacted by the restrictions, however, brings home the very real pressure and upset that they have suffered, and we strongly urge the Department of Education to work with us to end it.
Paul Rowe is chief executive of Educate Together