The Catholic Bishops' Conference looked for a "binding commitment" from the State that Catholic children would be given priority access to Catholic schools, in exchange for the divestment of a small number of Catholic primary schools to multi-denominational status, documents received by RTÉ News reveal.

They show that at a meeting last June, the bishops told the Minister for Education that their support for the divestment of a number of their schools was "dependent on the ability of schools remaining under Catholic patronage to operate fully as Catholic schools, including the ability to prioritise enrolment of Catholics".

According to notes of that meeting, the Bishop of Meath, Tom Deenihan, told the minister and department officials that recent legislation had created "difficulty" in this respect.

He was referring to legislation passed four years ago which outlawed the practice of Catholic schools favouring children who had been baptised over others when it came to admissions.

The practice had become the subject of great controversy and was regarded as unfair by many, including the Department of Education, given that 90% of publicly funded schools in the country are Catholic.

The documents relate to discussions held over the past 18 months between the Department of Education and the Catholic bishops, aimed at progressing the divestment of Catholic schools in nine areas around the country.

All of the areas have a large number of Catholic primary schools and little or no multi-denominational provision.

From an early stage in the talks, the bishops' demand that Catholic schools once again be allowed to discriminate in favour of Catholic children in terms of admissions was seen by the department as a key stumbling block.

The department reminded the bishops that the legislation was due to be reviewed in 2023, however officials noted: "It has been made clear that the prospect of the review [...] does not provide the assurance that the IEC (Irish Episcopal Conference) is seeking that their concerns will be addressed before they are willing to adopt a national approach to reconfiguration".

At a high-level meeting last June, attended by Minister for Education Norma Foley, the archbishops of Dublin and of Cashel and Emly, as well as the bishops of Galway and of Meath, the minister was told that Catholic schools must be able to give preference to parents who are committed to the Catholic ethos.

The bishops said their commitment to advance was "dependent on the ability of schools remaining under Catholic patronage to operate fully as Catholic schools including the ability to prioritise enrolment of Catholics where there are more applications than places".

Bishop Deenihan referred to the "difficulty" that the Admissions Act had created in this respect.

He said that in some areas non-Catholic parents were choosing Catholic schools for reasons other than ethos and that this could prevent Catholic children from enrolling when schools were oversubscribed.

According to departmental notes the church acknowledged that the issue affected a small number of schools but it said "a binding commitment for some movement on this" was needed so that individual bishops could have reassurance.

Bishop of Meath Tom Deenihan said non-Catholic parents were choosing Catholic schools for reasons other than ethos

The notes state that the bishops' concern about Catholic children being unable to enrol in Catholic schools because of demand for places from non-Catholic children was an issue being raised by them "continuously".

However, research carried out by the Department of Education and shared with the bishops last November revealed that the bishops' concern was without foundation.

Data showed that just 159 Catholic primary schools, or 6% of the total, were oversubscribed.

It found that multi-denominational primary schools were four times more likely to have more applicants than places.

"The data shows that in the case of virtually all schools, parents had a nearby alternative with a Catholic ethos", the bishops were told.

It found that in many cases parents were choosing those oversubscribed schools over another Catholic school that was geographically closer to them.

"This shows that there are many strong factors other than a school having a Catholic ethos which influence parents on school choice for their children," the department said.

The data identified just 15 Catholic primary schools that were oversubscribed and had no nearby Catholic alternative.

The department said it believed the concerns of the bishops could be "managed", and officials suggested "good co-operation at a local level between schools on admissions processes and use of other criteria such as distance to school" could play a role.

One month after this data was presented, on 13 December, the Catholic bishops wrote to the department signalling their agreement to proceed with the divestment of some Catholic schools in nine areas around the country

"I am happy to inform you", the letter read, that the bishops "will engage and co-operate fully with the Department in seeking to facilitate a more diverse patronage in those areas identified as having no such provision at present".

In the letter there is no mention of the concerns that dogged the negotiations, regarding access for Catholic children to Catholic schools.

However the letter does refer to "assurances in regard to schools remaining under Catholic patronage".

A hybrid approach

The talks with the bishops considered a number of approaches that could be taken, aimed at achieving more diversity of provision for parents.

They included a hybrid approach, such as that recently adopted by one Catholic Gaelscoil in Dublin.

As part of a deal reached between the Catholic church and Irish medium school patron body An Foras Pátrúnachta, Scoil Chaitlín Maude in Tallaght, has agreed to separate children into two distinct groups during the school day, based on their parents' preference for a Catholic religious education or a multi-denominational Ethics and Morality programme.

The plan was due to be implemented with junior infant pupils from last September.

However, RTÉ News has learned that the development has been postponed until next year.

The agreement underpins Scoil Chaitlín Maude's transfer from church to An Foras Pátrúnachta patronage.

It includes a legal guarantee that a Catholic religious education programme approved by the Catholic bishops will continue to be offered in the school, with ongoing oversight from diocesan representatives.

In the documents received by RTÉ News the deal was described by one Catholic church representative as a "good model", with potential elsewhere.

The notes show the Department of Education expressing support for the expansion of this model to other primary schools.

The documents also reveal frustration on the part of Department of Education officials at the slow pace of change.

The Programme for Government commitment to the creation of at least 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 is referenced, as is the fact that there are currently just 159 primary schools here classified as multi or inter-denominational.

"It has taken 25 years to increase the provision of multi denominational or interdenominational from virtually zero to 5% of the total number of primary schools", one departmental briefing note reads, hinting at the huge challenge ahead.