10 April, 2012 - Minister Quinn publishes the report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector

The Minister for Education and Skills, Mr. Ruairí Quinn T.D., today published the report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.

Welcoming the report, Minister Quinn said "We live in a changed and changing nation. There is a general acceptance that a greater diversity of primary schooling is necessary and I welcome the readiness among partners to embrace this. The key issue is how best to promote and develop this diversity. The Advisory Group report will assist us in this complex area".

The Minister thanked the independent Advisory Group members, Professor John Coolahan, Chair of the Group, Dr. Caroline Hussey and Ms Fionnuala Kilfeather for their considerable work and commitment to the Forum.

The Minister said "This report outlines the history and evolution of patronage in Irish society. It also shows the need for the primary school system to now adapt to the needs of a more diverse society". 

247 submissions were received from interest groups, parents and members of the public and were considered by the Advisory group. Primary and post-primary pupils also participated in the consultation process.

The report notes that while 96% of education provision at primary level is denominational arising from the historical development of Irish primary education, there is clearly increased demand for new forms of multi-denominational and non-denominational schooling, as well as increased demand for Irish language schooling. 

Minister Quinn said "Parental choice should be our main concern. Over recent decades, Irish society has been undergoing major political, social, economic, cultural, demographic and educational change. Primary school provision needs to reflect this changed society and provide for increased diversity."

Minister Quinn has asked that the Education Partners and interested parties examine the report and take time to reflect on and digest the recommendations.  The Minister is considering the report's findings and recommendations and he plans to outline his official response in May. 

As per the commitment in the Programme for Government, a White Paper on pluralism and patronage in the primary sector  will follow. 

The recommendations of the Advisory Group can be broadly divided into three key areas:

  • Divesting patronage where there is a stable population and demand for diversity of schools
  • dealing with Irish medium primary schools
  • promoting more inclusiveness in all schools, including 'Stand Alone' schools where divesting patronage to another body is not an option

The report recommends achieving diversity of patronage by using the existing stock of schools in areas where the population is stable. Where there is a cluster of denominational schools but also parental demand for alternative school patronage, the report recommends that transfer of patronage be achieved with assistance from the Department. 

The Advisory Group cautions against a 'big bang' approach and advises that change of patronage should happen in a phased way, through the adoption of a catchment approach, taking account of the preferences of parents. 

The report recommends that phase one of this work would involve examining school patronage in  43 towns and 4 Dublin areas identified by the Department in 2010, arising from a request by  the Catholic Church, as likely to have substantial demand for diversity. This will involve 18 dioceses and scrutiny of approximately 250 schools, out of which approximately 50 may be divested.

A three stage process is recommended, whereby the DES would gather information on the demand for divestment through parental surveys. This would be followed by a report on the options for patronage and finally patrons would be required to respond within a definite timeframe. 

This would occur alongside a programme of provision of new schools in areas of population growth, the patronage of which would be based on parental demand.

The report makes a number of recommendations concerning the  provision of Irish medium schools, including the piloting of the concept of a "satellite" school, which would be linked to a well established 'parent' Irish medium school.

For communities served by one 'Stand Alone' school, where transfer of patronage is not  an option, the report makes recommendations aimed at ensuring such schools are as inclusive as possible and  accommodate pupils of various belief systems. There are approximately 1700 of these schools, which are at least 3km from their nearest neighbour. The report suggests the development of a protocol which would facilitate all  schools in developing clear policies accessible to parents on how they manage diversity and ensure an inclusive and respectful environment for all their pupils.

"The Forum on Patronage is a key commitment in the programme for Government and is another indication of our drive to reform and ensure fairness in our schools.  However, I am very conscious of the need to balance making real progress in divesting patronage in the short-term and the longer term aim of ensuring commitment by all concerned to more inclusiveness and diversity in schools," said Minister Quinn. 

Given the demands on the resources available at primary level, the Minister is also mindful that such changes should, wherever possible, be cost neutral.

The Advisory Group report is available from the Forum webpage of the Department website at: link


Notes for Editors

Overview of Advisory Group report
The Advisory Group report gives a comprehensive analysis in Section I of school patronage as an issue in the development of the Irish primary school system and in Section II provides an overview of the current school and demographic profile. The report has drawn from a range of studies conducted in recent years on attitudes towards religion, aspects of religious practice and views on religion in schools and the control of schools.

Section III highlights the work already initiated by the Department of Education and Skills  which complements the work of the Forum, including the establishment of the Community National Schools since 2008, the new application arrangements for patronage and the requirements and criteria to be used in deciding on future forms of patronage announced by the Minister for Education and Skills in June 2011, the publication of the Department's Discussion Paper on a Regulatory Framework for School Enrolment (June 2011), with its ensuing consultations, and also the establishment of the  Forum itself.

Section IV addresses the issue of divesting, or transfer, of school patronage. The report finds that it is not socially or economically desirable to build new schools in areas of relatively stable population. It finds that it is generally accepted that in such areas, where there are a number of denominational schools and a demand from parents for an alternative form of school patronage, that the main target for divesting is from an existing patron, most often the Catholic Church, through the Department of Education and Skills, to a new patron. The Advisory Group advises that change of patronage should happen in a phased, incremental way, and that a catchment area approach should be adopted. For Phase One, the Advisory Group recommends that this would include examining provision in 43 towns and 4 Dublin areas, identified by the Department in August 2010 at the request of the Catholic Church, to identify a number of schools which may be divested for distribution to other patrons. This would involve 18 dioceses and scrutiny of approximately 250 schools, of which approximately 50 might be divested.

The report sets out three phases to the piloting of divesting. This would involve data collection by the Department on existing provision in the areas and on the preferences of parents. Following consultations with school communities, the Patrons would then provide the Department with a range of options for divestment. The Department would then evaluate the options and submit a report to the Minister.

Section V addresses Irish medium primary schools. The Advisory Group recommends that there should be an analysis of the way Irish medium schools evolve and consideration given to the concept of the 'satellite' school which would be linked to a well established 'parent' Irish medium school. Parental demand for Irish language schools would also form part of the piloting of divesting in 47 areas suggested in Section IV.

Section VI addresses the 'Stand Alone' school, i.e. schools, many in rural areas,  which are at least 3km away from the next school and which constitute about 1700 of  3200 primary schools, where provision of diversity through a choice of school under another patron is not an option. The Report pays particular attention to how these schools can become more inclusive and respectful of the Constitutional rights of parents and their children, who are often from a range of theist and non-theist backgrounds. To this end, the Advisory Group presents a possible framework for the development of a protocol for an inclusive school. Areas suggested for inclusion in a protocol include: having Boards of Management of denominational schools reflect the diversity of the local community; development of mechanisms for Whole School and self-evaluation by schools of practice on diversity and ethos; ensuring equitable enrolment policies; dealing effectively with the Constitutional right to opt out of religious instruction; ensuring education about religions and beliefs and ethics is available to all pupils

Issues underpinning diversity in all schools are addressed in Section VII. These include further elements of the proposed protocol, including the development by Boards of Management of policies on religious and cultural celebrations in schools, on the display of religious artefacts and the conduct of communal prayers and assemblies, where these take place.  The report recommends that the Rules for National Schools which date from 1965 be reviewed, in particular Rule 68, which makes references to religion as 'the most important subject in the curriculum' and to the need for a religious spirit to 'inform and vivify the whole school day’. These are considered outdated and have been the subject of much criticism, nationally and internationally.  It is also recommended that Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics should be part of the curriculum for all children and that the NCCA be asked to develop an ERB programme and an Ethics programme for the primary school, in line with the Toledo Principles. The report envisages that such programmes would be supplementary to existing programmes such as, 'Alive O' and, 'Goodness Me, Goodness You', which already include elements of ERB and ethics.

The importance of continuing to make provision for social inclusion and for children with special educational needs while catering for diversity is also emphasised.

Section VIII deals with the resources required to implement certain recommendations in the Report.  Section IX lists all the recommendations in one dedicated section.

Forum terms of reference
The terms of reference of the Forum were to advise the Minister on:

  • How it can best be ensured that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none;
  • The practicalities of how transfer/divesting of patronage should operate for individual primary schools in communities where it is appropriate and necessary;
  • How such transfer/divesting can be advanced to ensure that demands for diversity of patronage (including from an Irish language perspective) can be identified and met on a widespread basis nationally.

In undertaking this work the Forum would, in particular, have regard for the following:

  • The expressed willingness of the Catholic Church to consider divesting patronage of primary schools;
  • The current financial constraints within which the State is operating, the need for continued restraint into the future and the requirement in this context to make maximum use of existing school infrastructure in catering for future demands.

Advisory Group members
The Minister appointed an Advisory Group to oversee the Forum and meet these terms of reference. The Advisory Group was chaired by Dr. John Coolahan, Professor Emeritus at NUI Maynooth. The other members of the Advisory Group were Dr. Caroline Hussey, former Registrar and Deputy President, UCD and Fionnuala Kilfeather, former Chief Executive of the National Parents Council - Primary.

Consultation process
The Advisory Group conducted a number of meetings in public and sought submissions from main stakeholder groups and the public as part of its work. 215 written submissions were received and these were examined by the Advisory Group. Public working sessions with the main stakeholder groups were held on 22, 23 and 24 June 2011 and a further plenary session was held on 17 November 2011. Following the November session a further 32 submissions were received. These working sessions were broadcast live over the Internet and recordings of the working sessions are available from the Department website, along with all the submissions received and other Forum documents. link

The fourteen main stakeholders involved:

  • Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools
  • Catholic Primary Schools Management Association
  • Department of Education and Skills
  • Educate Together
  • Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge Teoranta
  • Gaelscoileanna Teoranta
  • Irish National Teachers' Organisation
  • Irish Primary Principals' Network
  • Irish Vocational Education Association
  • National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education
  • National Parents Council – Primary
  • The Board of Education of the Church of Ireland
  • The Council for Education of the Irish Episcopal Conference
  • The Islamic Foundation of Ireland

The Advisory Group also held consultation sessions with primary and post-primary pupils to ensure their views were considered as part of the Group's deliberations.