Parents of primary and pre-school children are to be surveyed as part of a renewed effort by the Department of Education to encourage more Catholic schools to divest to multi-denominational patronage.

Secretary General at the Department of Education Bernie McNally said the department remains fully committed to delivering on a Programme for Government promise of achieving 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030.

Currently just 150 of the country's more than 3,000 primary schools are multi-denominational - 90% are Catholic.

Speaking at an education conference in Cork, Ms McNally said the department had "learned a huge amount" from a recent pilot scheme in a small number of towns and the four biggest cities about "what works and what doesn’t work" when it comes to reconfiguring the patronage of primary schools here.

That pilot, which focused on areas with a preponderance of Catholic schools and either no or not enough multi-denominational education provision, consulted with 63 Catholic primary school communities but resulted in the transfer of just two primary schools.

A report from a retired Department of Education inspector on a failed pilot attempt at reconfiguration in one north Dublin suburb paints a picture of a bitter and divisive process "troubled by suspicions and lack of trust from an early stage".

"We have learned that we need accessible, succinct, and accurate information for parents," Ms McNally told delegates at the annual conference of the country’s Education and Training Boards (ETB).

Hopes of moving forward

She said there was no date set as yet for the parent surveys, but that the department would publish an action plan and its learnings from the pilot phase by the end of this year.

Ms McNally said parents would complete the surveys "in the privacy of their own homes" and that they would have access to "accurate" information in advance.

She told RTÉ News: "We need more specific local information. We need to give all parents an opportunity to contribute."

The recent failed reconfiguration process in north Dublin featured public meetings where vehement opposition was expressed to proposals that one out of a group of Catholic primary schools in the area would become multi-denominational.

Ms McNally said that the surveys would be aimed at capturing the views of parents who may not be comfortable speaking at a public meeting in their community.

"The learning from the pilot includes the need to answer questions in a very objective way, because sometimes misinformation can thrive," Ms McNally said.

In her address to delegates at the conference she said: "This is a really sensitive area and we do have to tread cautiously."

She said the department has had constructive engagement with all the education partners and was very hopeful that they could now move forward.

Schools slow to reconfigure

Although recent governments have committed to working towards the divestment of a proportion of Catholic schools to multi-denominational status, progress has been extremely slow.

Since reconfiguration was first proposed in 2016, just three viable Catholic primary schools have transferred to multi-denominational patronage.

Those schools all transferred in the past year and are in Athlone, Nenagh and Dublin's south inner city.

Three other very small rural Catholic schools have also transferred patronage in recent years, but they were all schools with a handful of pupils at risk of imminent closure due to falling enrolment.

The Programme for Government commits to expand and prioritise the transfer of "viable" schools to Community National School patronage.

Community National Schools are multi-denominational primary schools that come under the control of the State's ETB sector.

In feedback to the Department of Education on the recent pilot scheme, the ETBs expressed concern at the manner in which the pilots were run in communities.

They say parents could not have been expected to vote for change when they did not know exactly what was being proposed.

In the feedback, seen by RTÉ News, ETB Ireland said the process needed "radical reform before any other school communities are engaged on the question of reconfiguration".