Emma O Kelly looks at moves to change the Catholic dominance of the Irish school system
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has the opportunity to bring about a huge and historic shift in the Irish education system. If he manages to end, or significantly reduce, the dominance of the Catholic Church in Primary education he is guaranteed a place in the history books of the future.
Mr Quinn is aware of his historic opportunity. He told school managers last week that he expects a reshuffle in two and a half years' time. He turned 65 on Saturday and is, in his own words, 'in a hurry' on this issue.
He says he would like to see around half of all currently Catholic Primary schools transferred to multi-denominational patronage.
All the main education players, including many in the Catholic Church, acknowledge that - like free education in the 60s – this is an idea whose time has come.
They acknowledge that the Catholic church cannot continue to run 90% of the country's Primary schools. But that doesn’t mean that change will come without pressure.
The Minister's timeframe is as follows; A forum chaired by Dr John Coolahan will begin its work shortly. John Coolahan is a highly experienced and widely respected writer and academic. The forum will hold sessions in public and will receive submissions from interested parties. It will submit a report to government by October.
Ruairi Quinn says by 1 January he hopes to have a template in place for those schools that choose to divest.
There are however important issues to be resolved. Among them, will the Catholic church insist on religious instruction (ie: preparation for Communion and Confirmation) for Catholics during the school day for any new school it divests to?
In its last policy document on this issue (2007), the Catholic bishops say they are agreeable to divesting schools 'provided these arrangements respect the rights of Catholic parents, in particular in relation to religious instruction of their children within the school curriculum.'
Other documents released in recent years under Freedom of Information legislation call this a 'minimum non-negotiable requirement'.
This position is in contrast with, for example, the Church of Ireland one which leaves religious instruction (as opposed to religious education) to the parish not the school.
Is this still the position of the Catholic Church? The church has published a position paper on Wednesday 6 April which does not clarify this. It says 'in any case of a change of patronage of a Catholic school, provision will have to be made for the rights of Catholic parents and their children.'
Minister Ruairi Quinn favours a model akin to that of the Educate-Together schools, where religious instruction such as preparation for Communion and Confirmation takes place outside of school hours, although often on the school premises.
The UN has also repeatedly called on Ireland to establish more Non and Multi-denominational schools.
And then there’s the issue of buildings. What happens when the church - the diocese or one of the Religious Congregations’ lately established trusts - owns the building of a school that is to be divested?
The Catholic church's latest position paper suggests that where Catholic schools amalgamate due to falling numbers, the Catholic patron ''might make any buildings that are surplus to requirements available.'
This position paper goes on to state 'in any case of a change of patronage of a Catholic school… local communities will understandably raise the issue of finance given the large transfer of resources from parish to school over many decades.'
What does this mean?
One Dublin Primary school building belonging to the Holy Faith order sold recently for in excess of €550,000, according to the Irish Times. Given current economic circumstances the state will not want to buy such buildings.
Will the state look for a transfer of suitable school properties as part of the churches compensation for clerical sex abuse?
If so, to what extent? And will it succeed?
Ruairi Quinn has set a target widely regarded as far too ambitious. He says he’d like to see around half of all Catholic primary schools divested. He also says he wants to see movement sooner rather than later.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has revealed to RTÉ News that he’s already talking to five or six schools in his archdiocese who have approached him with a request to divest.
Both of these men have been energetic of late on this issue. This has conferred a sense of momentum. But momentum is what’s lacking in the position paper published today by the Catholic Church. It runs to around 6,500 words but says very little on the issue of primary school patronage and divesting.
Both church and state are mindful of parents who may fear and oppose change in local long established schools that work well for them.
Both are keen to stress that change will only come with the agreement of parents and school communities.
But there is also the other kind of parent, the parent who is purplexed and infuriated by their lack of choice under the current church dominated system. For those parents and their children change cannot come fast enough.
Emma O Kelly