Press Release – Saturday 13 April 2013 – Embargoed 12.30pm
Attn: Newsdesks, Photodesks and Religious Affairs Correspondents
Catholic Schools Partnership response to the Reports from the Department of Education and Skills on Surveys of Parental Preferences in 43 areas
The report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector (April 2012) recommended that surveys of parental opinion on school patronage should be conducted in selected areas around the country. In August 2012 the Department of Education and Skills (DES) presented proposals for an online survey to representatives of patrons. After studying the proposals the Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP) wrote to the DES seeking clarification on many issues (see appendix 1). After receiving these clarifications the CSP wrote to the DES acknowledging the efforts of officials to make the survey instrument as robust as possible while noting the responsibility of the New Schools Establishment Group to guarantee the integrity of the survey process so that all parties can have confidence in the outcomes (see appendix 2).
The DES carried out a pilot survey in five areas in October 2012 and issued its report in December 2012. The CSP raised serious concerns about the presentation of the data in this report (see appendix 3). In April 2013 the DES issued its report on a further 38 area surveys. A summary of key data from all 43 areas can be found in appendix 4.
The response of the CSP to these two reports concerning the 43 areas can be summarised as follows:
- The reports published by the Department of Education and Skills on school patronage are welcome. For the first time we have a measure of the number of parents who would avail of greater choice of school patronage. It is important that any proposals for change are based on accurate measurements of parental preferences.
- These are not surveys in the ordinary sense of the term as they are not based on representative samples. Rather it is a consultation process with parents. What we learned is that somewhere between 0.6% of parents (in Roscrea) and 8% of
parents (in Portmarnock) with children in schools would avail of another form of patronage.
- The surveys provide a notable affirmation of Catholic schools. In looking to the future it is clear that many parents wish to have their children educated in Catholic schools. In total, 306 Catholic schools have been surveyed as part of this process.
- The level of participation in the surveys is very disappointing with as few as 10% of parents participating in some areas. The average level of participation is approximately 19%. Those who predicted high levels of interest in the surveys have been proven wrong. Evidence from school principals and others on the ground suggests that, in most areas, it was very difficult to get parents to participate in the process.
- The number of parents who say that they will avail of change is lower than predicted. As a result, the reports conclude that there is insufficient demand for a viable school under a different patron in 15 areas. In the other 28 areas the establishment of one school under a new patron is recommended. All of the partners will need to give detailed consideration to what is best in these areas as there is no one size that will fit all. In the case of Ballina the total number of pupils in the 16 schools surveyed is 1,954. The parents of 44 children in these schools said that they will avail of an English language multi-denominational school if such is available to them. That is 2.2% of the pupils in the area. Anyone can see that responding to this level of demand will not be easy because these 44 children are probably scattered across 16 schools. This situation is replicated in many other areas as the figures in appendix 4 demonstrate.
- It is notable that in areas with significantly higher participation rates by parents (Malahide, Portmarnock, Rush, Shannon, Skerries, Tipperary) the outcomes of the surveys are very similar to those in the large majority of areas with rates of participation of under 20%.
- In seeking to respond to the limited request for change, attention must be given to the large majority who have expressed no such interest. An issue that will arise in many of these 28 areas is the level of displacement that may be required in trying to cater for the views of a minority who want change. Goodwill and generosity will be required on the part of all stakeholders.
- The most important decision made by the authors of the report is the choice of a four-teacher school as the threshold for a viable school under a different patron. It is notable that the minimum required enrolment for a new school for many years has been set at 17 pupils in junior infants rising to 51 pupils by year three. Thus the viability of the school is dependent on reaching 51 pupils in a three-year cohort. It appears then that there are two different criteria being used in determining the viability of a new school depending on whether the new school emerges from a process of reconfiguration or whether it is a new start-up school. It is important that Patrons be given clear, objective criteria in planning for the future.
Where do we go from here? The Minister for Education and Skills has requested that Catholic patrons give consideration to a reconfiguration of schools in 28 areas. Catholic bishops have made clear their openness to greater diversity of school provision based on verifiable parental demand. In seeking to develop a process that takes account of the rights of all stakeholders in our schools the CSP proposes the following:
- In response to the Minister’s request it is necessary to put in place a structure of engagement between the DES and the Patrons’ representatives. As consultations in local areas continue it becomes clear that the practical problems differ from one place to another. Engagement between the DES and Patrons will be important in attempting to formulate creative responses to complex situations. In all of this it is imperative to reassure local communities that no change will be implemented without widespread support in the area.
- The CSP will continue to roll out a Process for understanding, supporting and taking ownership of the characteristic spirit in a Catholic school. This will help schools to reflect on their core identity and to develop their sense of Catholic mission in today’s world. In some cases it may lead to schools being open to a change in patronage as it becomes clear to all involved that Catholic identity is not central to the characteristic spirit of the particular school. In this instance change is not imposed from outside but is allowed to express itself from within the school community.
- The CSP, in co-operation with the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA), is launching a project to help Catholic schools develop their capacity for dealing with children of all faiths and none. Such children are already present in most primary schools and the aim of the project is to foster best practice and share it across all schools. Survey work on this important issue has already been conducted by the CPSMA and this will contribute to the development of the project.
- Action needs to be taken concerning deeds of variation. The Minister gave a commitment at the AGM of CPSMA (12 April 2013) to deal with the matter during the course of the next year. This is a complex legal issue but the deeds are a fundamental guarantee for denominational schools and are based on an agreement reached many years ago between denominational Patrons and the Minister.
The CSP looks forward to making progress on each of these four steps in its on-going engagement with the issues raised in the report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.