How a Catholic primary school changed patronage

Five years ago, the small primary school in Aughaleemore, on the outskirts of Killarney, faced certain closure.

The number of pupils fell to just 17 in 2015/16; when it reopened in September, parents opted not to send any of their children away.

Today, the school is not just surviving, it is thriving. Enrollments have increased to 40. Next September, they should exceed 50 students. Principal of the school, Catherine Barry, says she hopes to have a third teacher soon and hopes to bring the number of pupils back to its previous record of 90 pupils.

“We attract children from the area as well as from Killarney and Beaufort. Parents go out of their way to send their children here; it’s wonderful,” says Barry.

So what has changed?

Following a survey of local parents, the Bishop of Kerry agreed to transfer patronage of the former Cahorreigh National School to the state-run Board of Education and Training; it reopened as the Two Mile National Community School in August 2017.

In doing so, it became the only multi-denominational school in the Killarney area.

“We see ourselves as a school for the whole community,” says Barry. “We do not advocate any religion over another. Whatever your creed, all children are welcome. This belief is very strong.

“We have children from Catholic, Church of Ireland, Muslim and Hindu homes…probably a majority of them have parents who were born Catholic, but don’t necessarily practice it.”

Students from Two Mile National Community School, Aughaleemore, Killarney, and Principal Catherine Barry. Photography: Valerie O’Sullivan

Large sections of the population must choose religious schools; there are no multi-denominational schools in Cavan, Leitrim, Longford and Monaghan

Despite its success, the Two Mile National Community School is highly unusual.

It is one of around 20 schools where patronage has been transferred since a school divestment process was launched by then education minister Ruairí Quinn in 2012.

The plan was born out of the recognition that society is more diverse than ever and that parents should have better access to a multi-faith education for their children.

However, 89% of all primary schools remain under Catholic control.

The government’s current program pledges to improve parental choice by achieving the target of creating 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030.

However, the latest figures show that there are only 164 multi-denominational schools compared to 2,750 Catholic primary schools.

This means the state will need to establish more than 200 multi-denominational schools within eight years to reach its goal.

In the meantime, large sections of the population must choose religious schools; there are no multi-denominational schools in Cavan, Leitrim, Longford and Monaghan.

The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHREC) recently criticized the government for its “slow progress” in providing access to multi-denominational education. He asked the United Nations to hold the state directly to account for its progress in divesting patronage from Catholic schools.

Sinéad Gibney, Chief Commissioner of IHREC, said: “Throughout our work around education, we have consistently emphasized the need for equal access, parental choice and human rights principles. respect for pluralism, inclusiveness and meeting the needs and dignity of children. These principles of human rights must be the reference of the State in matters of education.

In response, the Ministry of Education says 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 remains the government’s target. It says nearly 100 new primary and post-primary schools have been established since 2011 with a multi-denominational ethos.

Another 20 or so new multi-denominational primary schools were created as part of the process of patronage divestment and a more recent ‘reconfiguration’ process. The latter aimed to speed up the process by allowing the Catholic Church to retain ownership of the school buildings and re-let them to the State.

However, even that seems to have stalled. It has been four years since the department asked education and training boards to identify pilot areas where demand for multi-faith education was likely to be unmet and to carry out surveys of parents of children with preschoolers in these areas.

The department has refused to release the results of these investigations to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act. In the meantime, the preschoolers at the center of the survey are well settled in primary school.

The department says it has engaged with representatives of the Catholic bishops – the Irish Bishops’ Conference – with a view to developing an agreed approach for the next phase of the reconfiguration process.

“Release of the investigations has been deferred while this process is ongoing,” the department says.

A spokesman for the Irish Bishops’ Conference said the bishops are “proactively engaging” when it comes to reconfiguring patronage.

“The bishops support an educational landscape that reflects the reality of our country’s increasingly diverse society,” a spokesperson said.

“A true plurality of patronages across the country should ensure parental choice while allowing patrons to be true to their own distinctive philosophy and spirit.”

Headmistress Catherine Barry and some of the pupils at Two Mile National Community School, Aughaleemore, Killarney.  Photography: Valerie O'Sullivan

Headmistress Catherine Barry and some of the pupils at Two Mile National Community School, Aughaleemore, Killarney. Photography: Valerie O’Sullivan

Change is a challenge. Parents and staff need information. They need to discuss the implications of a change in patronage

Although there are few signs of significant progress on this front, does the experience of Two Mile Community National School provide a model for the future transfer of patronage to other schools?

In his case, locally there was strong demand from parents for a change of attendance.

“We just wanted to save our school,” says Tim Horgan, one of the parents involved in the school’s reconfiguration application.

“A lot of people have pubs and stuff in their neighborhood, but we only have a school. It’s our identity,” says Lisa Casey, another mother involved in the process.

They wrote to the boss, the Bishop of Kerry Fr Ray Browne, informing him that they were exploring alternative options and invited the Kerry Education and Training Board to make a presentation.

Séamus Conboy of Education Training Board Ireland (ETBI) says this is a crucial step: schools considering a reconfiguration should contact their existing sponsor and seek permission to engage with the AND B.

“Once approval is given, it is imperative that board members, staff and parents receive accurate information about the potential client,” Conboy says.

Ann O’Dwyer, Director of Kerry ETB Schools, has played a key role in informing the wider school community of the potential changes.

“We were very clear that this was a multi-faith model and we felt that the community needed to understand the difference before making a decision,” she says.

O’Dwyer says the community wanted to know more about school management and the issue of religious training during school time.

Parents were informed that under the new model, preparation for the sacraments would take place outside of school time and that many tasks, such as teacher employment, financial matters and IT support would no longer be the responsibility of the management consultancy ; the ETB would directly manage these areas.

When parents were asked if they would consider enrolling their child in school under new management, over 95% said yes.

Within months patronage was transferred by the Bishop of Kerry, a new headmaster was appointed and the school reopened in August 2017.

Other schools where patronage has been transferred are also thriving. Canal Street Educate Together, Dublin 8, was the first school to be successfully handed over in 2013. It started with 38 pupils; it has since expanded to 380 students.

While there are lessons to be learned, says O’Dwyer, transparency and openness are key when it comes to addressing concerns parents and staff may have.

Controversy, for example, erupted in Malahide and Portmarnock in 2019 when parents were asked about plans to transfer patronage from one of the local schools; what followed was a blizzard of inaccurate claims about what would happen to schools if they were taken over by a non-denominational patron, such as the end of Christmas concerts, Halloween or Easter celebrations.

“Change is a challenge,” says O’Dwyer. “Parents and staff need information. They should discuss the implications of a change in patronage. What happened recently in Dublin is unfortunate and we need to correct that. Parents should receive accurate information.

Attendance at primary schools: in numbers
89%: Catholic
8%: Multi-confessional
3%: Church of Ireland

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