School Divestment Programme is Not Working

Following from the recent failure to divest a school in Raheny in Dublin, our CEO, Jillian Brennan, wrote to the Irish Times to highlight the issues affecting the schools divestment programme. Jillian’s letter raises concerns about the government’s ability to achieve its own target of divesting 400 primary schools by 2030, and concerns about the approach to the programme. The article was published on 17th March 2023 and the full text of the letter is as follows:

Sir, – Your article “‘Fear, distrust, tension’: How school divestment unravelled in one suburb” raises some critical issues about the failings of the Government’s schools divestment programme. This programme commits to delivering 400 multidenominational schools by 2030, which is highly unlikely to be achieved. Last year, only one school divested patronage from the Catholic Church, and the Minister for Education has not published any updates on the progress of the programme, and nor has she set out goals for how it will be achieved. Further, 400 is simply an arbitrary number, with no basis other than the optics of providing more choice to parents.

It is interesting to note that all education stakeholders agree that change is needed to meet the growing demand for multi-denominational schools, yet this article shows that the Government has failed to provide any guidelines for how to bring about this change. It is shocking that such an important process can be left to fail through ineptitude, where parents and small communities are being left to figure things out for themselves. The result of this is that parents in these situations are opting to retain the known and the familiar over the unknown. It is also quite bizarre that the State is not utilising its own decision-making powers, and instead is using the outputs of a survey of parents within the local communities to decide whether or not a school should be divested. This writer is not aware of any other aspects of the programme for government where the Government has devolved decision-making in this way.

The Government now needs to put in place a viable and realistic programme for how to achieve a secular education system that is suitable for a modern Republic. Almost 90 per cent of Irish primary schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church, which no longer reflects the diversity of the Irish population. The 2016 census showed that 78.3 per cent of people were Catholic and almost 10 per cent identified as having no religion. The percentage of non-religious has been growing steadily over the last number of years, and it is widely anticipated that there will be a significant increase when the 2022 census results are published later this year. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on Ireland to amend laws which hinder a child’s right to education based on religious or “ethos” grounds, as schools are legally allowed to refuse admission of students not belonging to their religious denomination if they can prove such refusal is necessary to maintain the ethos of the school. Thus far, the Government appears to have ignored the UN’s recommendations. The Government’s plan to address religious control of schools has been an utter failure. The Humanist Association of Ireland has written to the Minister several times on this matter and has been met with silence. The State should move without further delay to set out its plans to implement an education system that meets the needs of our entire society. – Yours, etc,

Humanist Association of Ireland,
Dún Laoghaire,
Co Dublin.

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