The Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD, today announced new plans aimed at providing more multi-denominational and non-denominational schools across the country, in line with the choices of families and school communities.
The Programme for Government commits to increasing the number of multi-denominational and non-denominational schools with a view to reaching 400 by 2030. On current population growth trends, new schools will account for approximately one third of the additional multi-denominational schools required to hit this target, so transfers of existing schools from religious patronage will be required to hit the target.
(Following patronage processes which give significant weight to parental demand, the vast majority of new schools which are established come under multi-denominational patronage, and these processes will continue).
The new plans, which will provide additional multidenominational schools in either of the nation’s languages, will be implemented alongside the current process, which was commenced through the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism under previous Minister Quinn. That process identified a total of 28 areas where schools should be transferred through amalgamations and closures. This process will continue alongside the new process being announced today.
The new process will draw the lessons from previous model, which have only delivered a total of ten transfers to multidenominational schools. Those lessons include:
- The importance of working with the current landowner, school staff, school communities and local communities on a collaborative and open basis
- The downsides of amalgamation, closure and opening a new school as a model, given all the complexities, including legal complexities, that can be involved
- The possibilities of live transfers, whereby a school continues in being, with staff, pupils and the majority of the board of management remaining in place (if they wish) but transfers from the patronage of one organisation to another
- The value of a lease arrangement from the current landowner to the new patron, removing the need for complicated property transfer
Minister Bruton and his Department have consulted widely with the main school landowners, with different patron groups as well as a range of education stakeholders before developing the plans announced today. The Minister has written to the Catholic Bishops to outline his proposals and seeking their nominations to working groups which will need to develop detailed protocols for patronage reassignment implementation and school amalgamations.
Minister Bruton today also announced that Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board and Educate Together have agreed to start discussions in relation to a possible partnership to provide Educate Together second-level provision in the Newbridge area in Co. Kildare. Minister Bruton welcomed this development as an excellent example of constructive cooperation between patron bodies in introducing greater choice and diversity to the system along the lines already successfully concluded between City of Dublin ETB and Educate Together for Clonturk Community College in Whitehall in Dublin.
The Minister reiterated his view there is no one model that will provide the answer to this complex issue, there is room for a number of different multi- and non-denominational to respond to different parental wishes through the different process now in place, including existing providers like An Foras Patrunachta, the Community National Schools and Educate Together, in the context of an expanding population and increasing demand for multidenominational education.
Since Minister Bruton took office nine months ago, a total of 20 additional multidenominational schools have been established or sanctioned.
Minister Bruton said:
“My central target as Education Minister is to achieve the best education service in Europe. This means being the best at supporting disadvantaged students, the best at providing the skills needed for a growing economy, and also the best at dealing with complex issues around diversity, inclusion and parental choice.
“I believe that we should acknowledge the role of religious organisations in providing a system of national education for nearly two centuries. I also believe that a desire on behalf of many parents to have their children educated within their faith is welcome and should be respected.
“However Ireland has changed and continues to change. 96% of our primary schools are under religious patronage; only 66% of marriages last year were in religious ceremonies. While this may not be a direct proxy for choice of schooling, it is clear that there are many more parents seeking multidenominational education for their children than there are places in multidenominational schools.
“This new process for supporting transfers of schools to multidenominational patrons, in response to the wishes of local families, is based around principles of transparency and cooperation. We recognise the massive contribution that existing patrons have made to their communities over many years, and also the equally major contribution that local communities have made to developing their local school.
“Where the need for a transfer to a multidenominational patron is identified by surveys, the existing landowner, in cooperation with the local school community, will decide what multi-denominational patron to transfer to. The transfer will be by way of a live school transfer, with existing staff remaining in place, where this is the wish of the parties involved. In most cases the new patron will lease the building from the landowner.
“I believe this process is of major importance to the future of education in Ireland, and to providing a system which reflects the changing needs of families. I urge all parties to engage in this process constructively, with a view to reaching solutions that achieve the wishes of all involved”.
There will be two main stages to the new process:
1. Firstly, the identification phase. The Education and Training Boards, as the State’s local education authorities, will manage this phase. The ETBs will each identify towns or areas where there is likely to be demand from families for greater diversity and work with pre-school services to establish evidence of this demand among the cohort of pre-school parents, via surveys.
There will then be discussions between individual ETBs and the existing landowners concerning the possible transfer of existing schools to accommodate this demonstrated demand for diversity.
Each ETB will then prepare a report for the Department outlining the levels of demand within their functional areas and the responses of the existing patrons as to how this might be accommodated through the reconfiguration of existing school provision. This report will be published on the Department’s website, with quarterly reports on implementation.
2. Secondly, the implementation phase. In the event that the identification phase reveals a level of demand for multidenominational schools sufficient to justify transfer of at least one school from denominational to multidenominational patronage, a process will commence to give effect to that. There will be a role for the existing landowner in consulting with local community and school interests and take into account proposals from different prospective multidenominational patrons.
In most cases it is envisaged that transfer would be by way of voluntary live school transfer, rather than the amalgamation and closure model which was followed previously, with all of the complications and legal difficulties and time delays involved. It is expected that in many cases the school property will be leased from the existing landowner.
NOTES TO EDITORS
The Identification Phase will be carried out by the relevant ETB as follows:
- Identification of demand for diversity in individual towns/areas on the basis of views collected from parents of pre-school children in those areas.
- Discussions between ETBs and existing patrons concerning accommodation of the demonstrated demand for diversity.
- Reports from ETBs to the Department of Education and Skills outlining levels of demand for diversity within their functional areas and the responses of patrons as to how this might be accommodated within existing school provision.
- Publication of reports from ETBs on demand for diversity and responses of patrons and follow-up by way of quarterly updates on progress.
The Implementation Phase will involve existing Patrons as follows:
- Consultation with local schools and community on accommodating the demand for diversity by transferring patronage of an existing school to a new multi- or non-denominational patron.
- Agreement on transfer to a new patron following discussions with all potential patrons and school/community consultation.
- Application to the Minister for transfer of patronage of the selected school.
2017 marks five years since the publication of the report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.
The Forum was guided by a highly expert Advisory Group and held public sessions and consulted widely on the issues arising.
The Forum's Report was published in 2012 and recommended steps to ensure that the education system at primary level could provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools to cater for children of all religions and none.
One of the principal recommendations was on divesting of school patronage, where it was envisaged that existing patrons would make buildings surplus to requirements available for greater diversity if sufficient demand for a school under different patronage could be demonstrated.
However, the reality is that, despite very substantial survey work and negotiations undertaken by the Department, only ten new multi-denominational schools have been established under the Patronage Divestment process over that period.
Patronage of schools involves ownership of schools and school property and in the consultation process, it became clear that divestment is seen as taking away property from the patron or trustees as landowners.
The landowner has misgivings and there is no way forward without meeting these concerns
The common misconception, that the State could simply withdraw funding from denominational primary schools and use it to establish newmulti-denominational and non-denominational schools in the same building instead, is exactly that – a misconception. The ownership and control of school property is acomplex issue, both constitutionally and in terms of property law and rights.
Typically, it can involve religious trusts, trustees, religious orders, the bishops both as landowners and school patrons and the State.
The ownership of the vast majority of school property by religious orders and trusts is an historical legacy of the way in which Ireland’s education system developed.
In some cases where church authorities have been amenable to transferring property, local parish communities have resisted divestment on the basis that they have contributed to these valuable community assets over the years.
Another difficulty with progressing patronage divesting was that the process relied substantially onschool premises becoming available as a result of school amalgamations or closures which, in themselves, can be lengthy, costly and contentious processes.
In devising this roadmap to accelerate the transfer of patronage in order to increase the number of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools, the Minister proposes to concentrate on the reconfiguration of existing school provision.
By this the Minister means facilitating voluntary transfers of existing schools to alternative, non-denominational or multi-denominational patrons in areas which demonstrate a demand.