Educate Together would like to commend the diligent and robust reporting carried out by TheJournal.ie on the topic of the relationship between the Irish education system and religious authorities.
The article ‘It tends not to be prime property that’s handed over: 8 schools opened in 3 years’ that deals with the issue of divestment is particularly timely as Educate Together will open two ‘divestment’ school next month: Riverview ETNS in Dublin and Castlebar ETNS, Co. Mayo. Both schools have faced challenges and Educate Together would like to take this opportunity to thank parents, teachers and communities that have remained positive throughout the development of these schools.
In 2011, the Government established the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, with the stated aim to create more diversity and inclusiveness in the primary school system. Parental surveys were conducted in 43 areas around Ireland and recommendations were made for Catholic primary schools in 25 areas to 'divest' to Educate Together.
Of the areas identified as in need of alternative schools through the process of 'divestment', Educate Together has succeeded in opening schools in Dublin 8, Tramore, Trim, Tuam, New Ross, Malahide/Portmarnock and Newtownwhite, Co. Mayo.
Finding suitable buildings for all of the ‘divestment’ schools has been challenging, but in all areas where schools have been opened, Principals and school communities are working constructively in either temporary or permanent accommodation. Many of these schools have not yet been informed of their permanent accommodation and this uncertainty is not ideal for developing schools.
Furthermore, a number of areas are still waiting for their divestment schools: Arklow, Ballina, Clonmel, Cobh, Dungarvan, Fermoy, Kells, Killarney, Leixlip, Loughrea, Nenagh, Palmerstown/Dublin 10, Passage West, Shannon, Westport and Whitehall and Educate Together hopes that these schools will be forthcoming in the near future.
If the same parental preference surveys were taken again now, it is Educate Together’s assessment that the numbers of families seeking equality-based schools would be significantly higher. Educate Together is a sparsely funded educational charity with very tight budget lines: in fact, Educate Together funding has decreased in the last three years despite the growing demand for Educate Together schools. This surge in demand is being fuelled by the reputation of Educate Together's existing schools rather than as the result of a massive marketing campaign.
Minister Richard Bruton’s pledge that to increase non-denominational and multi-denominational schools to 400 by 2030 is welcome. However, if divestment of schools is to play a significant part of this development, it is imperative that the Department of Education and Skills revises current practices. As the foremost provider of equality-based schools and the main choice of parents during the 2011/12 surveys, Educate Together suggests the following adjustments:
- The process of sourcing accommodation is most effective when the Department of Education and Skills consults with both Educate Together and the local community. Educate Together suggests that there should be wider and more effective consultation on accommodation offered in order to gain more clarity on the future growth and development of the schools.
- The divestment programme must be properly funded and resourced for progress to be made. Annual ring-fenced funding needs to be put in place in the Department of Education to support the building of new schools and the reorganisation and amalgamation of existing facilities.
- A dedicated team should be established in the Department of Education and Skills to advance the divestment programme.
- The State must ensure that buildings offered by Church authorities are appropriate and realistic. Educate Together will not open schools that are inaccessible, that are not viable in the long term, and do not serve the needs of the communities they are meant to serve.
- Currently, new divestment schools are only allowed to open if buildings are given to the State by the Catholic authorities or if existing State-owned accommodation is available. Making the rights of families dependent on the benevolence of religious authorities or the chance availability of vacant state assets is not an acceptable response and this policy must be reviewed.
- The divestment programme should be rolled out to other areas of the country not yet consulted. Providing all children living in Ireland with schools in which they are equally valued and treated is essential for the future health of our education system.
If Ireland is to have a balanced education system in which children of all backgrounds are respected, then real progress on divestment must be made.