Read the full text of speech by the Minister for Education at CPSMA AGM in which he raised the possibility of Catholic primary schools falling to between 50-60% of overall provision.

Reaction to address by Minister for Education and Science

Fr Michael Drumm, Executive Chairperson of the Catholic Schools Partnership

The Catholic Church welcomes the prospect of greater diversity of school provision

Such a plan must respect not only parental choice but also teachers rights and the interest of other stake holders.

Minister O’Keeffe raised many interesting issues including the possibility of clustering schools under a single board of management and under a single principal. He reaffirmed the commitment of the government to a plurality of school patrons.

He acknowledged the fact that Catholic primary schools are models of inclusivity. He also dealt with the important issue of school provision into the future.

The Catholic Church welcomes the prospect of greater diversity of school provision. The Ministers mention of an eventual reduction of Catholic provision in demographically stable urban areas to 60% needs to be verified on the basis of assessment of parental choice. We have not yet seen any research from the Department of Education and Science to support this figure. To facilitate parental choice the DES must make clear what are the available forms of patronage. Before parents can make a choice they must know what alternatives are available.

As agreed at our meeting last November, we look forward to working with the DES in developing a framework and criteria within which a coherent plan for changing patronage of schools can be developed. Such a plan must respect not only parental choice but also teachers rights and the interest of other stake holders.”

Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keefe TD

Catholic Primary Schools Management Association AGM
5 March, 2010

source – www.education.ie

In overall terms, I know it has been acknowledged that the Catholic primary sector, which currently represents over 90pc of overall provision, may ultimately fall to between 50pc and 60pc of overall provision ….

I do not believe we need any major discussion forum in relation to this likely change. General demographic change combined with changed public attitudes to religion has already happened.

Introduction

I am delighted to be with you today for the annual general meeting of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA). It gives me the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution the CPSMA and the thousands of those working in a voluntary capacity on boards of management continue to make to primary education in every part of the country. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the important role that Eileen Flynn plays as general secretary of the CPSMA and I thank her for her work over the past year in helping my Department deal with the many challenges facing us in the primary education sector.

General economic position

In the year since I spoke to you at your last annual conference, we as a Government have taken tough and difficult decisions to stabilise the public finances. While today, we are still in a very difficult position and our economy remains weakened, we have made progress and crucially there is recognition abroad that Ireland is intent on sorting out its problems. International confidence is important – not just in terms of the bond market but also a stable environment is a key consideration for those who might bring further direct foreign investment to Ireland and increase employment. While progress is being made, I acknowledge that these are very difficult and challenging times for everyone living in Ireland – those working whether in the public or private sectors and, in particular, those who have lost jobs. It is also clearly a difficult time for the education sector and for you as managers in our schools.

School Building Programme

However, while we live in very challenging times, we are continuing to prioritise investment in the education sector. I was pleased to announce details of 52 school building projects which can go to tender and construction as part of the Governments 579 million school building programme.

At primary level, over 14,500 pupils will get permanent school places while at post-primary level 1,900 students will benefit from new permanent school accommodation and a further 7,400 pupils will benefit from major extension and refurbishment projects in their schools. As well as that, 51 major school building projects will begin the design process and appoint design teams during the year. I also announced seven new primary schools to open in September in rapidly developing areas  two of which will be Catholic schools.

Over the coming weeks, I will announce school projects under the Summer Works Scheme which includes measures to promote water conservation and cut water bills. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the role of school authorities in the delivery of these building projects.

Extra teaching posts

In relation to the extra teaching posts announced in the Renewed Programme for Government, I am pleased to say that, following consultations with the education partners, including the CPSMA, virtually all of the first tranche of these posts have now been allocated to schools.  One hundred of these posts are being allocated to primary schools that had increased enrolments in the current school year and which, as a result of last years pupil-teacher ratio change, lost out on a teaching post in this year by either one, two or three pupils.

In the interests of transparency, I have published the list of these schools on my Departments website. Because these posts are additional to those required to cater for demographic growth, we will also be able to make some improvement to the staffing schedule for the 2010/11 school year. These improvements, which have also been published, will be targeted at medium-to-larger schools which are typically under the greatest pressure in relation to class sizes.

Funding

In relation to funding for schools, the first tranche of this years capitation grants was recently paid out to all schools. This involved payments totalling 77 million to schools and the balance of the grant will be paid out, as normal, in June. I was also very pleased to recently provide funding of 22 million for information communications technology (ICT) equipment for primary schools. I have established a steering group, including a nominee of the CPSMA, to oversee and advise on the range of issues to be addressed in progressing the integration of ICT in the classroom.

An extra 2.8 million is also being made available to primary schools for books. This is in addition to the 3.8 million allocated to DEIS primary schools for books in 2009. In line with the desirability of streamlining grant payments and minimising administration, my officials are considering the mechanisms that can best be used and, in particular, the use of the capitation grant process as was the case for the distribution of the support to DEIS schools in 2009. I would urge schools to use the funding to the greatest extent possible to set up book rental schemes if none already exists in your schools.

Child protection guidelines

I would also like to acknowledge the input of the CPSMA as an education partner to the working party I have established to review the child protection guidelines for schools. With the publication last year of the Ryan and Murphy reports, we are reminded that none of us can ever become complacent about child protection in our schools. You will be aware that I have also recently stated that ensuring that the Stay Safe Programme is implemented in all schools as part of a comprehensive set of practices, procedures and guidelines to ensure child safety is important. It is for this reason that I have indicated my intention to have it included as a mandatory requirement for all schools in any revision to the current arrangements that emerges from the working party.

Conference theme: Catholic schools – the next generation

The theme of your conference, Catholic schools – the next generation, provides me with an opportunity to reflect on some of the recent public debate and discourse in relation to the future structure of the primary school system and in particular in relation to patronage. While I am conscious that there have been some calls for the State to take control of all primary schools, let me make clear that government policy continues within the framework set in the Education Act of 1998. It in turn reflects the position in the Constitution which refers to education being provided by schools that are recognised by the State or established by the State. Government policy is to continue to provide for a plurality of provision under a system of patronage by supporting schools to which the State grants recognition and by intervening to directly establish state schools where warranted.

Our system of patronage, with its origins in the Stanley Letter, has demonstrated a capacity to facilitate change and evolution. Historically, plurality simply meant schools differentiated by denomination under denominational patronage. In recent decades, the patronage system proved itself able to support the establishment of schools by An Fors Patrnachta and Educate Together. A primary school system based on a plurality of patronage types also allows for state intervention where warranted with the exercise of patronage by the Minister or through a VEC as a public body acting on behalf of the State. This is the case with the new community national schools.

Looking to the future, I think it is important to draw a distinction between the arrangements that should apply where prospective patrons wish to establish a new school and those that need to be put in place to manage a change in patronage or reconfiguration among existing schools. In the former case, I have had a group chaired by Frank Murray of the Commission on School Accommodation looking at drawing up a revised set of procedures for the establishment of new schools. I expect to have a report from the Commission on that exercise shortly.

Today, I want to dwell a while on the arrangements that may need to be put in place to manage situations where the number of school places is mismatched with current parental preferences as this fundamentally concerns a change for some of your existing Catholic schools. The issue of the Catholic Church divesting itself of certain schools was originally explicitly raised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and it has also found expression in the work of the Bishops Conference and through its engagement with my Department.

In overall terms, I know it has been acknowledged that the Catholic primary sector, which currently represents over 90pc of overall provision, may ultimately fall to between 50pc and 60pc of overall provision and that this percentage of overall provision will still be enough to allow the Church fulfil its expressed commitment to meet the needs of parents who wish their children to have a Catholic education.

I do not believe we need any major discussion forum in relation to this likely change. General demographic change combined with changed public attitudes to religion has already happened. It simply has yet to find full expression in terms of an appropriate diversification of school patronage. Archbishop Martins public identification of this reality was a timely and important contribution – not just to the future of Catholic schools but to the future of the primary sector generally. If we recognise that change is under way, then I suggest what we need is a pragmatic approach involving stakeholder consultation to implement and manage such change.

Furthermore, I believe we are looking at two distinct processes. The first is a process that identifies existing or prospective surplus provision that is currently under Catholic patronage. The second is a process by which an alternative or alternatives are identified that will absorb the surplus.

The first process – that of identification and release of surplus schools – is one that is fundamentally for decision within the Catholic community working closely with my Department. The second process of determining who takes over the patronage of a Catholic school identified as surplus will most likely involve an adaptation of the work of the Technical Working Group of the Commission on School Accommodation.

Arising from the meeting between the Bishops, CORI and my Department last November, my Department undertook to examine a number of locations to see what scope or options might exist for change of patronage in these cases. The particular focus was initially on areas of relatively stable demographics where the establishment of new schools was unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future.

What we are attempting to do is use the spatial and demographic data available in my Department to identify urban areas where there are a number of Catholic schools and where the provision is exclusively Catholic or where there is very limited diversity of provision at present. These areas can then be used to trial the modalities by which the number of Catholic places and schools will be reduced and released for others.

The choice of urban areas for trialling is deliberate. While over 90pc of existing primary school provision may be Catholic, the reality is that many of those schools are stand alone rural schools and therefore do not come under consideration. My Department will shortly be providing an initial list of about 10 urban areas that can be used to test the concept of reducing the number of Catholic schools.

The decision on the identity of the particular Catholic school or schools that should close because of a surplus situation must ultimately rest with the patron and the Catholic community in the parish or parishes concerned. For example, where there are four or five schools in an area and all of them are Catholic schools, then even allowing for 80pc demand for Catholic provision then it is likely in that area that at least one of the 5 schools in that parish or part of a diocese will not be needed to meet Catholic needs. If in the same locality demand from Catholics fell to 60pc, then two of the 5 schools could be surplus.

A cornerstone of the process in deciding how Catholic provision is reduced to meet the likely demand for places from those seeking places in a Catholic school will be consultation with stakeholders. This fundamentally means consultation within the parish or diocese, with the parent body of the schools and with the staff of the schools.

This at one level is nothing new. It happens where amalgamations take place. I do appreciate that the process of letting go a school that may have a long history and tradition in a locality may be painful for some. However, in line with the theme of your conference in looking forward to the next generation change will ultimately also bring about a consolidation and strengthening of the remaining Catholic provision matched to the demand for it.

I want at this point to commend Catholic schools generally for their strong tradition of social inclusion. Your schools have a proud tradition of catering for the less well off, for looking after those with special needs and in catering for particular groups such as members of the traveller community and more recently newcomers to this country. Some commentators seem to ignore that strong track record of your schools in relation to inclusion that is grounded in solid principles of social justice.

It will be important as we work through the divesting of Catholic schools that we work to guard against any risk that those Catholic schools that remain will come to be considered elitist as is the case in some urban areas in other jurisdictions. This conference is an opportunity for me to place on record my appreciation of the voluntary work done by board members on behalf of their communities up and down the country. I believe it is a clear strength of our current system of patronage that it requires and entails such community support. This is true of all schools and not just Catholic schools. However, your conference is an opportunity to acknowledge the local contribution that is made in Catholic parishes countrywide in relation to school governance.

Again some public comment in focusing on church control of schools seems to ignore the fact that a board is not composed of a majority of nominees of the patron.� In my view, the composition of primary school boards is visible evidence of the partnership in education at work, combining as it does trustee, parent and teacher representation with representation from the community the school serves. When I attended the Irish Primary Principals Network annual conference a few weeks ago, I heard suggestions that there was a major problem in primary school governance.

I think this is an overstatement that ignores the strengths that come from the extent of voluntary and community involvement. That is not to say that there are no challenges to be met or improvements that can be made. Because we have a very large number of relatively small primary schools in this country that means a large body of volunteers are required.

Even where it is not possible at present for small schools to amalgamate I think we need to look at new initiatives that we might take such as having a number of small schools operate as a federation under one common board of management and how we can better cluster teaching and other resources in that type of arrangement. A particular issue is that in small schools the principal teacher is also a class teacher.

Rather than have a principal in each school we need to look at the possibility of having a non teaching principal who discharges the role of principal across a number of schools. I want to assure you that my Department will be open to working with CPSMA and others to bring about practical changes that can help the task of those engaged in the management of schools and to build on the good work that you are doing at present.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I look forward to working with the CPSMA and the other education partners in addressing the many challenges we face in the education system this year and in the years ahead.

I want to again acknowledge your very important contribution to primary education in all parts of Ireland and I would like to wish you well with your AGM.