Educate Together CEO calls for urgent action on school choice in Ireland 

Educate Together CEO Emer Nowlan addressed Educate Together’s Annual General Meeting today, calling for urgent action to ramp up the provision of Educate Together schools.  

In her remarks at Griffith Barrack Multi-Denominational School, Dr Nowlan expressed deep concern about the lack of progress at system level over the last decade, highlighting the growing demand from families for choice in the education system. 

“Successive governments have let citizens down. Educate Together schools are thriving, wherever they have been allowed to open, and it is simply not fair that access to this popular option depends on where you live. It is time for a clear strategy and a concrete, funded plan, so that families seeking this option can make their preference known and this ever-growing demand can be met.”  

Education in Ireland continues to be dominated by religiously-managed schools, with over 90% of all primary schools still having Catholic patronage, despite declining numbers of stated Catholics in the country.  

Successive government ministers and departmental officials have undertaken a range of divestment and school reconfiguration initiatives over the last decade, but progress has been far too slow and ineffective, with just 12 Educate Together schools being allowed to open through this process since 2012. The State has a target of 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030, but there is no clear strategy or interim targets towards achieving this.  

Educate Together is calling for immediate progress in three key areas: 

  1. Hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Education and address school patronage 

Educate Together urges the Government to fulfil its commitment to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on the Future of Education as soon as is practicable. There is strong broad support for the idea of increased choice in education, but no consensus on how to proceed. A Citizens’ Assembly is the ideal forum to build momentum for real change. It is vital that this forum is held, and that it provides the basis for specific steps to increase the number of equality-based and multi-denominational schools across Ireland as a matter of urgency.  

  1. Enable new schools to be opened in line with parental demand  

Before 2009, if sufficient demand was identified for an Educate Together school in an area, an application could be made for recognition of a new school. Schools were opened in urban centres around the country – places like Letterkenny, Mullingar, Tullamore and Waterford. These schools are now making a positive contribution to their communities and providing choice for families. In contrast, in 2023 there are growing numbers of families in communities who have no way to make their preference for an Educate Together school known.   

  1. Review and reform the school reconfiguration programme  

Educate Together has identified significant weaknesses with the current pilot reconfiguration process: parents are not given sufficient information, key members of the community are not given the opportunity to engage, and the format used to consult with stakeholders has been ineffective. This process as currently configured can be described as the wrong people asking the wrong people the wrong questions and was always unlikely to result in positive change.  

If transfers are to be part of a realistic plan, improvements are necessary: 

  1. The process of selection of areas or schools for transfer should be transparent and based on clear criteria, such as objectively measured levels of demand. 
  2. All parents and the wider community should have a role in deciding what type of multi-denominational school their school will become. 
  3. Patron bodies should be visible, and able to engage with parents, school staff and boards of management from the outset, so that schools can gain a clear picture of what change will look like. 
  4. Annual ring-fenced funding needs to be put in place so that schools can be properly supported through a process of change.  

Educate Together is calling for immediate and decisive action to meet the growing demand for equality-based / multi-denominational education in Ireland.