The Minister for Education has said he wants to accelerate the divestment of some Catholic primary schools in order to provide for parental choice.
Outlining plans to provide an average of 20 new multi-denominational and non-denominational schools per year between now and 2030, Richard Bruton said he had asked his Department to develop a road-map and set a target for each of the next five years. The targets will include brand new schools and also divested ones.
Mr Bruton told journalists that while all school patronage models had merit, in terms of divestment he particularly wanted to see the development of state-run primary schools known as Community National Schools.
These schools are run by the country's Education and Training Boards or ETBs, formerly known as VECs. Unlike other multi-denominational schools, CNS schools provide for preparation for the Catholic sacraments of Communion and Confirmation during the school day.
The Minister said the fact that the State was the patron of Community National Schools had a lot of merit.
He described their provision of faith formation as part of the school day as "a good option" which meant different parental demands could be met. He said he hoped this was a model that the Catholic Church would be happy to divest to.
During his first briefing to journalists, Mr Bruton said he would like to see CNS schools develop as "a more flexible model". He said he would like to explore the possibility of joint patronage between them and other patron bodies.
Mr Bruton said he was not ruling out any existing types of school, and he wanted to see a range of offerings. However in terms of divestment he said a state model offered the opportunity to make progress quickly.
Mr Bruton said divestment and the provision of more choice for parents was something that the Government clearly wanted movement on.
In recent months the Catholic Church has indicated that it favours the Community National School model as one to divest to.
The divestment process was established under former minister for education, Ruairi Quinn.
It is aimed at parts of the country where parents currently have no option but to send their children to religious-run - mostly Catholic - primary schools.
These are areas of stable population, where there is no need for a new school to be established but where there is no multi-denominational option. The idea is that an existing Catholic school would divest to a different multi-denominational patron.
However divestment has not been successful to date. So far just two Catholic schools have transferred school buildings to different patrons under the process.
Multi-denominational body Educate Together has said it welcomes the commitment in the Programme for Government to address the need for multi and non-denominational education.
However it said that in parental surveys conducted in potential divestment areas, the overwhelming preference of parents was for Educate Together schools. Educate Together said this was the case in 25 out of 28 areas where the need for change was established. It said the Community National School model had not proved popular with parents.
Educate Together said it would "absolutely not" enter into any joint patronage agreement for any school that offered religious instruction during, as opposed to after, the school day.
Community National Schools
The Community National School model is a relatively new one, developed by the Department of Education over the past 10 years. Their approach to religious education is unique, both here and internationally, with pupils separated for religion classes at key times of the year to enable Catholic faith formation to take place.
Documents released to RTÉ News four years ago under Freedom of Information legislation show that the Catholic bishops told the Department that the provision of Catholic religious instruction as part of the school day was a "minimum non-negotiable requirement" for their support for the new model.
However, in the early days of its development, many organisations expressed grave concern about splitting up children in order to provide for Catholic sacramental preparation.
In the documents the VECs, which ran the schools, said this could be seen as "segregation". Teachers said dividing classes along religious lines went against the ethos of equality.
Protestant churches here also warned against this approach, as did the State's own National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
However, one departmental document stated that "it should be borne in mind that there is a commitment to meeting the requirements of the Department of Education and the Catholic Church".
'Segregation is something we should be working against'
A group campaigning for more multi-denominational schools has said it is disappointed and concerned by Minister for Education Richard Bruton's announcement that Community National Schools are his preferred model when it comes to the divestment of Catholic schools.
Education Equality said it was concerned that CNS schools did not treat children of all beliefs with equal respect because of the way in which children are divided up according to religion during the school day.
Chairperson April Duff said segregation was something we should be working against, rather than actively encouraging. She said anecdotal evidence gathered from parents showed that those divisions were carried through into the playground, with children sticking to groups of their own religions.
She said the troubles in Northern Ireland should teach us a lesson about the wisdom of dividing people, particularly children, according to religious beliefs.