Monday, January 30, 2017

Decision time for cautious bishops on transfer of 150 schools

Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom BurkeMinister Richard Bruton is outsourcing decisions about which of the country's 2,880 Catholic primary schools will remain under Church control and which will become either multi-denominational or non-denominational.

Under his latest business model, up to 150 schools will be leased as "going" concerns, but under new management. 

Teachers and parents who want the traditional brand of Catholic schools will go elsewhere, or they can stay if they wish.

The current owners will be paid an annual rent of anything up to €20,000 a year for each property.

The new buzzword is reconfiguration, not divestment. 

Under the Bruton blueprint the local education and training boards (ETBs) and the local bishops will take the initiative.

The ETBs will identify in which towns or areas there is likely to be demand for greater choice. Parents will be consulted, of course. But not all parents.

This time round parents of children in existing church schools will not be asked for their views about the future of their children's schools. 

Instead, it will be parents of pre-school children who will be asked to vote on a simple choice - do you want a multi or non-denominational primary school or a denominational school?

In other words, parents of children who are not in primary school yet will decide if one of the local primary schools be run by a different patron. It will be up to the bishop as patron to decide which local school to transfer if there is sufficient demand, but as a sweetener the minister will offer to lease the school from him.

No doubt, critics will object to the idea of using public money to rent schools from the Church - even though the same taxpayers paid for most of the building and running costs of those schools for years, if not decades.

And they will point out the same Church owes the State hundreds of millions of euro arising from the massive bill for victims of child abuse.

Mr Bruton is hoping that something like 150 schools will be transferred, which will help him meet the Government's commitment to have one in every 10 of the country's 4,000 primary and second level schools either multi or non-denominational.

Annual rent for a school could be from €10,000 to €20,000 a year. This would mean handing over anything up to €3m a year to the local bishops to do with what they will.

That €3m is less than the cost of a large new school but would amount to a tidy sum over a decade or longer.

It would also go against the view in the report of the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage that schools should be transferred at no cost to the taxpayer.

But it may well be the only way to get the Church to hand over some schools.

Mr Bruton is effectively challenging the bishops to do something they have been cautious about to date in the divestment process - take firm decisions about which schools will transfer to new patrons. 

Until now, they have encountered the Nimby (not in my backyard) response when the idea was suggested that one local school be vacated to make way for another patron.

Now, they will have to display real leadership and run the risk of incurring the wrath of some local parents or politicians.

If there is a demand for a multi or non-denominational school, the choice will effectively be left to the bishop who will be expected to engage in consultation.

The main options are Educate Together, which has a network of non-denominational schools, the ETBs, which has 11 multi-denominational Community National Schools, An Foras Pátrúnachta, which runs both denominational and multi-denominational all Irish schools, and smaller groups such as the Steiner movement which has a couple of schools in Ireland.

The big winners could well be the ETBs, which as local statutory education agencies are being charged with surveying the territory.

From the Catholic Church's point of view, the Community National Schools are the least-worst option as they allow a limited amount of time for specific denominational activities during the school day. 

In other words, they will still prepare Catholic pupils for First Communion, unlike Educate Together which believes this is best done outside school hours and that all pupils follow a common ethical programme called Learn Together.

Ironically, the minister picked the start of Catholic Schools Week to make his announcement.

God or her secular equivalent loves a trier, and Richard Bruton certainly is one.