Monday, January 30, 2017

School facilities to be leased instead of transferred to non-religious patrons

School facilities will be leased out by bishops and religious orders instead of fully transferred to new non-religious patrons, under Education Minister Richard Bruton’s plan to speed up the widening of choice for parents.

With only 10 school properties so far handed over to multi-denominational patrons under current divestment arrangements, he is announcing details of a new process to encourage more divestment of religious-controlled primary schools where parents want alternative patrons.

The ability of some religious orders to retain ownership of school properties while they might still owe the Department of Education millions of euro for redress over industrial school child abuse could cause political headaches for the minister.

But his department told the Irish Examiner that this process and the redress issue are entirely separate.

“It is envisaged these transfers of patronage will be voluntary in nature,” it said.
Rather than transferring property to a new multi-denominational patron, a process Mr Bruton says has proved complicated in many areas so far, school properties will now be leased by the existing landowner in most cases where a new patron is required and selected.

The decision on which alternative patron takes over a school will be left to the landowner, usually the local bishop or a trust acting for religious orders, instead of the minister or his department. 

Such a policy could lead to concerns that bishops or religious bodies might try to keep control of schools away from patrons whose treatment of religious education they do not support.

However, Mr Bruton says the new process should respond to the wishes of local families, and is based around principles of transparency.

“Where the need for a transfer to a multi-denominational patron is identified, the existing landowner, in co-operation with the local school community, will decide what multi-denominational patron to transfer to,” he said.

The minister has outlined the proposals to Catholic bishops and wants them to make nominations to working groups that will develop protocols on the reassignment of patronage and on school amalgamations.

Where they wish to do so, existing staff and pupils whose parents allow it, could remain in place under the new patron in an existing school building, or should be free to transfer to local schools that remain under religious patronage. 

The plans are part of the Programme for Government.