20 June, 2012 - Speech by Minister Ruairí Quinn TD - Response to Report of the Advisory Group on the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector

Speech by Mr. Ruairí Quinn TD Minister for Education and Skills

Response to Report of the Advisory Group on the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector 20th June 2012

I would like to start by thanking you all for joining me here today. 

Many of you were here a little over a year ago when I officially launched the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, and I know that many of you also attended the Forum Working Sessions here in June and November last year.  

I think that it is fitting that we are here together again as I outline my response to the Report of the Advisory Group to the Forum.

You will all be aware that one of my major priorities following my appointment as Minister was to establish the Forum.

The Forum is a key commitment in the Programme for Government and also something that many stakeholders in the education sector had been calling for, for many years. 

So I was keen to get work underway without delay.

It was clear from the outset that there is a compelling need for the patronage of our schools to reflect the changes that have already taken place in wider society. 

Ireland has changed, demographically and socially. 

We now have a much more diverse population than we had even two decades ago. 

In addition, many people’s views about the place of religion in society and in their own lives have undergone profound change.

This has lead to an increased demand for new forms of multi-denominational and non-denominational schooling, as well as increased demand for Irish language schooling.  

This increased demand calls for a plan for the future which will create a better match between the type of school provision available and the make-up of the communities they serve.

It also means that existing schools, particularly single primary schools catering for entire communities, need to be able to provide for a very diverse range of religions and nationalities.

In charting a way forward, it was my view that all stakeholders should become involved in multilateral discussions on this topic.  

It is particularly important that parents’ views be reflected and that parents be engaged in all aspects of the process.

This involvement has happened.

We now have the results of the discussions so far, in the Report of the independent Advisory Group. 

I would like to thank most sincerely, all those who made submissions and attended stakeholder meetings, for their input. 

In particular I must thank the members of the Advisory Group, Professor John Coolahan, Dr Caroline Hussey and Ms Fionnuala Kilfeather, for the tremendous effort and care that they took in progressing the work of the Forum, in consulting with stakeholders and in producing their final report. 

You have completed an important public service – for me, the Department, Education stakeholders and most importantly the parents and children of Ireland. 

I thank you most sincerely for this.

It was a complex task. 

Extensive consultation was undertaken which was followed by an in-depth analysis of the issues involved.

I was confident from the outset that the knowledge and expertise you brought to the task would bear fruit. 

I think everyone will agree that confidence was well founded.

This is an excellent report. 

It is carefully considered and insightful and has certainly provided food for thought.

It has achieved what I had hoped, in identifying the issues that need to be addressed and in suggesting ways forward.

The Report provides a most illuminating history of developments in the area of school patronage and religious education in Irish society, which I would urge any of you who have not already done so to read for its insights.

It then looks at how we may plan for future patronage arrangements.

In particular, it examines how demand for different types of patronage can be met in certain areas of stable population by divesting (or transferring) patronage of certain existing schools where there is evidence of parental demand for same.

The recommendations of the Report outline the practicalities of how this might be achieved.

The Report also examines Irish language provision and the growth experienced in existing Irish medium schools.

It makes recommendations in relation to policy development in this area.

The third area dealt with is the issue of promoting greater inclusiveness in all schools and in particular in ‘Stand Alone’ schools which serve entire communities. 

I thought it important that a period of reflection be provided following the publication of the report so that all could consider the findings and recommendations. 

I have listened to and read with interest the many views that have been expressed since then.

Now that we have all had some time to consider the Report,   I would like to outline my own thinking on the way forward. 

Response

In developing my response to the Advisory Group Report, I’ve been conscious of the need to balance making real and substantial progress in the short-term in divesting of patronage, with the longer term need to ensure buy-in by the education partners to agreed arrangements for more diversity and inclusiveness, particularly in schools where choice of patronage is not available.

I think the Action Plan which I will now outline strikes the right balance.

Development of a White Paper

You will be aware that the Programme for Government commitment to setting up the Forum envisaged the drawing up of a White Paper for consideration by Government.

This White Paper would ensure that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number of schools, catering for all religions and none. 

Since publication of the Advisory Group’s report in April, there has been considerable debate on its recommendations, particularly in relation to how all schools can become more inclusive.

Becoming more inclusive means ensuring that across the system as a whole, there is respect for the diversity of traditions and religions from which pupils now come.

This has to be done in a sensitive manner which takes account of where we are coming from as well as where we hope to go.

I recognise that these areas are complex and very significant and I have decided that there should be a public consultation process on the findings and recommendations in the report with regard to promoting more inclusiveness in schools.  

I will issue a formal call for submissions from education stakeholders and any other interested parties in September, with a deadline for receipt of end November. 

After this, the Forum Report findings and recommendations in this area and the submissions received will be considered in the preparation of a White Paper, to be prepared by early 2013.  

I will be asking the National Parents Council (Primary) for advice on the development of an information leaflet, which will be circulated to all primary schools in the autumn to inform parents about the consultation process.

Ethics, Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics Programmes.

The Advisory Group expresses a particular concern for children who ‘opt out’ of religious education classes in denominational schools and therefore go through their primary schooling without any instruction in religious beliefs or ethics.

The Group believes that all children should have the right to receive Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics.
They recommend the development of ERB and Ethics programmes for all.

As many existing religious education programmes already provide for some ERB and ethics, the Group suggests that in those cases, any new programmes can be supplementary to what is already provided.

I should point out that the Forum report also says unequivocally, that ERB and Ethics will be in addition to, and not in any way a replacement for, faith formation in denominational schools.

I think this is an important issue for a modern society and so I have decided to progress this recommendation immediately.

I will be asking the NCCA to explore with the education partners and religious interests the development of ERB and Ethics programmes.

The inclusive processes of the NCCA will allow an opportunity for all interested parties, including faith and non-faith interests to have their views taken into account as to the place of such programmes.

Irish Medium Schools

The report makes a number of recommendations concerning the provision of Irish medium schools.

I have decided to proceed immediately with the analysis of the start-up and growth of Irish medium schools as proposed by the Advisory Group.  

This analysis will inform future policy development in this area.

Divesting

In relation to divesting, the Advisory Group recommends that we commence the process of divesting of patronage in 47 identified areas of stable population with likely demand for diversity.  

I agree in principle with the approach to divesting outlined in the Forum Report and intend to commence this process immediately.

In relation to the areas to be surveyed, as you know, the 47 areas referred to in the report were identified at the request of the Catholic Church back in 2010 and the list was drawn up based on criteria applied to data from the 2006 Census.   

Since I published the Forum Report in April, new data has become available from the 2011 Census.   

I asked my officials to review the impact of this new population data on the proposed list of areas to be surveyed.    

Based on the use of the updated census data, a number of new areas now meet the criteria previously applied and a number of areas now no longer meet the criteria.  

I have decided to update the list of areas to be surveyed to reflect the new data available from Census 2011 and to take account of areas where primary school diversity is already provided or planned. 

In summary, this means the number of areas to be surveyed in the initial phase is 44.

The divesting process will involve the gathering of evidence by the Forward Planning Section of my Department on the scale of divestment required in the identified areas. 

My Officials have examined the practicalities of conducting surveys of parental choice on such a scale in detail, and they will be consulting with patron bodies on the tasks to be completed in the coming months.

I believe there will be a lot of interest in each area where a survey will be conducted and I am anxious that the local debate and surveys take place in a calm and respectful manner.

Parents will be given full information on the different types of schools and the different patron bodies.  

Helplines will be put in place during the survey period to deal with any queries from parents.

My Department will consult with the patron bodies on a code of practice which will ensure that local discussions are conducted in a reasonable fashion.

I have decided that the New Schools Establishment Group’s remit will be expanded to support the divesting process. 

I want to thank the members of the Group for agreeing to take on this additional role. 

There is a large public expectation that the divestment and transfer of patronage will be substantial and happen quickly.

In my own personal opinion, where the church agrees to transfer patronage of one or two schools in a town, it seems reasonable that the remaining catholic schools could be more outwardly publicly celebratory in the manifestation of their Catholicism.

However, this matter links back to the development of a White Paper, and I look forward to seeing the range of submissions which we will receive in the coming months.

Conclusion

Before I finish, I want to highlight one other issue dealt with in the report.  

The Advisory Group has emphasised the importance of continuing to make provision for social inclusion and for children with special education needs while also catering for diversity.  

This is an important issue that we must not lose sight of and I thank the Advisory Group for emphasising this point.

Again thank you all for your time and the input you have provided to this process to-date.   

The Forum has been a great success and I am pleased that its work has been completed and we can now move on to the next phase of implementation. 

I look forward to working with you to implement the Action Plan and in providing greater diversity and choice of schools into the future.