IT USED TO be thought that Educate Together schools were niche schools for a small minority of atheist parents and immigrants.
But they are not. They are multi-denominational schools that cater for parents who want to send their children into classrooms where being Catholic is not the status quo; who do not want their sons and daughters to spend long periods of school-time participating in religious formation, or being excluded if they choose not to, and who wake early in the morning to send their children to schools that reflect a new Ireland. They are the new normal.
However, you wouldn’t know this by looking at the current patronage of the 3,250 primary schools throughout the state.
A total of 96% of state funded primary schools in Ireland remain under the patronage of religious bodies – and of these, 90% are owned by the Catholic church. Yet, if you look at other statistics you will see that parents want change.
Reflects our values
As far back as 2012 a Red C poll carried out for the Irish Primary Principals Network showed that three out of four parents would send their children to schools run by patrons other than religious bodies if they had a choice.
Several years ago, the Department of Education embarked on a strategy to accommodate the changing reality of how parents wanted their children to be educated and provide a sufficiently diverse range of primary schools to cater for children of all religions and none.
This ‘patronage divestment process’ saw a modest number of Educate Together National Schools open across the country between 2014 and 2016, including my own local school in Trim, Co Meath.
Educate Together says it agreed to open these schools on the basis of their long-term viability as full stream developing schools.
For me, a father of two young children living in Trim, Co Meath, the opening of an Educate Together National School in the town was hugely welcome. I want my two-year-old girl and my six-month-old boy to go to school together, not segregated because of their gender; in an environment which caters for all faiths and none.
No matter that the school had to be temporarily housed in a former golf club – the important thing was that the school ethos reflects our values.
‘Oversubscribed but half-stream’
However, much to the surprise of myself and other local parents, we learned just recently that Trim ETNS will be a half-stream school from this year. This means that instead of offering places to a full class complement of 26 junior infants each year, only 13 places can be provided.
And it turns out that we are not alone. Four other Educate Together schools which opened as part of the recent divestment process – in New Ross, Tramore, Tuam and Castlebar – are also going to have half-class intake.
This means that my wife and I now have less than a 1-in-3 chance of getting our eldest child accepted. We are not at all happy with these odds and that is why we set an Uplift petition.
So far, around 1,000 people have signed our petition calling on the Department of Education to allow our school to be a fully-fledged eight class school. Two of the other affected Educate Together schools have also set up similar online petitions.
Surely if the divestment process driven by the Department of Education is to be meaningful, schools like ours must be allowed to grow to full stream intake, or even double stream, provided that the demand is there?
The cap on growth is certainly not due to lack of demand, which the oversubscribed Educate Together in Trim can testify to – over 40 children were signed up for this year’s intake alone. The other four affected schools are also either over-subscribed, full to capacity or expecting further increases in the coming years.
Instead, in conveying its decision, the Department stated that it will not support the development of a divested school that will “adversely affect existing primary schools in the area” and this goes to the heart of this issue.
Commitment to diversity
On the one hand the government says it is committed to greater diversity in primary education, but on the other it is clearly stating that it will not tolerate any threat to the 96% stake that denominational schools have in Ireland. And because religious patrons are under no legal obligation to change the status quo, their monopoly over Ireland’s primary education system is now being copper-fastened by government policy.
I have heard it said over the last few days that one of the reasons that this is likely to continue is that it is long standing government policy. However, I seem to remember a lot of other long-standing policies which were swept aside in a tidal wave of public demand for change. The marriage bar and the seeming impossibility of same sex marriage spring to mind.
The question now is will the government, this government that seems to work so hard to represent that New Ireland, continue to support policies that deny, inhibit and threaten the development of Educate Together schools in Ireland while ensuring that as long as religious bodies want to hold onto 96% of their educational share, they will be protected in doing so? Reversing the decision on these five affected schools, as well as allowing Educate Together schools to grow where there is demand is the action now needed to show the commitment to diversity is real.
Ronan Moore is a secondary school teacher and author and is the Social Democrats’ General Election candidate for the constituency of Meath West.
This piece was originally published in TheJournal.ie and can be read here.