I consider the future policy direction we adopt on the diversity of primary school provision to be one that has the potential to impact not just on the educational environment, but on society and our social and civic structures generally for many years to come. I wanted this opportunity for statements from Members because I recognise that the many different and changing views in contemporary Ireland are represented in the House. Some Deputies opposite have been pressing me on the idea of a forum, but the best forum is this Chamber, where the opinions of Members, reflecting those of their constituents and communities, can be aired.
In forming future policy, we must prioritise the views of parents and communities, views that are best reflected through Deputies. This is not to exclude the knowledgeable insight of those managing and working in our system, but it is the case that the views of children and parents must come first in our considerations.
In introducing the debate, it is important that I outline the progress made on several fronts in recent years. Traditionally, primary schools have been under the patronage of religious authorities, and the vast majority under the patronage of the Catholic Church. During the past 20 years, Educate Together has established 56 schools with a further two opening this September. Several other school models have also been recognised in recent times, including the Steiner schools and the John Scottus school. Two schools under the new community national school model are open with a further three to open this September.
As well as diversity of type of religion or ethos, there is increasing development ofgaelscoileanna, with 138 such schools in place. That said, significant issues are emerging about the definitions and types of diversity that might be recognised and how they can be accommodated while maximising the effective use of existing and new infrastructure and educational expenditure generally, particularly at a time of scarce resources.
Between 2002 to 2008, arrangements recommended by the Commission on School Accommodation operated for the recognition of new primary schools. This provided that, where patrons approached the New Schools Advisory Committee, NSAC, and there was evidence of sufficient numbers to establish a school, a new school was established on a provisional basis and recognition was given on a permanent basis when the numbers were confirmed, subject to appropriate inspection by the inspectorate. These arrangements have led to some increases in diversity.
The NSAC raised a range of issues it believed needed to be considered in its work, including those related to the definition and identification of diversity and other criteria for recognising a new school. The committee was acutely aware of the changed climate in terms of future enrolment trends and demands for recognition of new schools. It also had concerns as to the continued relevance of its terms of reference, particularly in circumstances where some schools needed to be recognised directly by the Minister outside of the NSAC process in certain areas where new schools needed to be established at short notice to meet surges in pupil numbers.
Another outcome of existing arrangements was that the State had supported the establishment of new schools in some areas where the population was not growing and could even have been declining. The establishment of these schools also gave rise to increasing costs, both capital and recurring, while only some of them have assisted in meeting demographic increases. Many of these schools started in temporary accommodation, which has added to the pressure on the limited primary schools capital budget at a time of significant demographic growth.
Society has been changing and there are increasing calls for parental choice in the patronage of primary schools. While there has been a traditional concept of the local primary school that can meet the needs of the majority of those living locally, this has increasingly been coming into question and, particularly in urban areas, there has been an increasing tendency for children to attend schools of various types that are not necessarily their nearest schools. These changes have meant that we have needed to examine many of the aspects of the primary schools system that have been in place traditionally or were put in place in recent years to cater for diversity.
I wish to highlight three aspects of these developments. The first relates to the development of a new type of primary school, the second to new arrangements for recognition of new primary schools and the third to the potential for the Catholic Church to divest patronage in some schools. The Government will shortly publish for the House's consideration a Bill that will include provisions for the statutory underpinning of new community national schools. I will make three main points in this respect.
First, community national schools provide a model that, while fully respecting diversity of belief, allows for faith formation during the school day in accordance with the wishes of parents. The emphasis in the community national school model is on respect for the diversity of cultures in our society. One of its central purposes is to cater for diversity within a single school setting rather than in more than one school. Historically, a considerable strength of our primary schools was that most students attended their local schools together. The Government considered it important in an increasingly diverse society to determine whether we could develop a new model that would accommodate the greatest number of students in a community as possible. The overwhelming emphasis in the multi-belief programme being developed for the schools is on inclusivity and children are taught a common programme together as a group for more than 80% of the time. Differentiation takes place for short periods of faith-specific teaching as might happen in the teaching of any subject. The pilot phase of this new model provides an important learning opportunity and its evaluation will enable informed decisions to be made on the roll-out of this model of patronage in other locations. An important part of the evaluation will be an assessment of the impact of the schools on the local community.
In the recent public commentary on how faith-specific teaching impacts on children, there has been little comparable debate on what has been the impact on communities of different children going to different schools rather than going to school together. The impact on our communities of children going to different schools, rather than having all of the children or at least most of them being educated in the same school must surely be greater. Furthermore, the State had a choice in considering the model for these schools. The choice was to make them non-denominational and, therefore, unable to meet the needs of a parent seeking denominational education for his or her child or to make them multi-denominational and, thus, potentially able to cater for all children and to provide a choice in religious education, including the choice not to have denominational education. There is no reason that, depending on community wishes and evolution over time, a non-denominational community school model could not be developed at some point.
Second, until the establishment of these schools, the State facilitated patrons in taking the initiative for the establishment of primary schools. This contrasts greatly with the role of the State in second level education where it has been actively involved in the establishment of schools for many years. Is it not appropriate that, as a complementary alternative to existing patronage models, there should be a mechanism in place for the State to establish a primary school in a similar manner as it establishes a second level school? The role of the State in establishing schools at second level has been significant and vocational education committees, VECs, can make an important contribution at primary level.
Third, a situation can arise where a primary school needs to be established but no patron is willing to establish it. The current system cannot require that a patron establish a school and, therefore, it is possible that a situation could arise where no patron wishes to establish a new primary school in a particular location despite a demand that would warrant its establishment. The State cannot stand aside from an obligation in this regard. I expect that, in addition to our opportunity today, we will have considerable debate on these issues on the introduction of the Bill to the House.
My predecessor asked the Commission on School Accommodation to review the arrangements in place concerning the establishment of new primary schools. The commission represents a range of education partners and I am awaiting advice from it that I expect to receive in the next month or so. Pending receipt and consideration of this advice, the only new primary schools being established are those in response to demographic demand.
In the commission's work, it also takes account of issues relating to diverse patronage models and the size of schools. For example, if 32 classrooms are needed in a particular area, establishing four mainstream schools might not be the most effective use of resources. On the other hand, not all primary schools should necessarily have 24 or classrooms. These issues are being considered by the commission. It has undertaken extensive consultation as part of its work. In response to this, 27 submissions have been received and the most common themes received in the submissions were issues relating to shared campuses, planning and relationship of schools with local authorities, the issue of diversity and the minimum numbers of pupils required for the establishment of a new school. I envisage that a summary of all the submissions received will be published by the commission when its advisory report to me is published. All of this advice and background material on the views of various partners in education will feed into the decision-making process.
One of the key issues in deciding the criteria for who should be the patron of a school will be how views are taken account of in coming to that decision. The position in recent years had been that individual patron bodies indicated they had quantified the number of parents wishing to enrol children in infant classes. However, that approach is confined to particular parents. There may be further options in surveying parents, and indeed prospective parents, on a wider basis in local communities to see what their views are if a range of options is identified for them. There are particular challenges as some communities are only just developing themselves and schools are being established for people who do not yet live in a particular area. I would see this as an issue that will need to be addressed in any new arrangements being put in place.
In turn, this raises the issue which has been referred to by some Members of this House about the need for a national survey on the wishes of parents concerning the patronage of primary schools. Having an understanding of the views of parents across society would be an important element in deciding on the future patronage of schools.
We already have some views from the Catholic Church that it wishes to reduce its engagement in the patronage of primary schools, ultimately to a level consistent with the demand for Catholic education whatever that may be in the future. I am not sure whether a national survey of parental preference on the patronage of primary schools would give a definitive road-map. The expression in an overall survey can be a very general one, but when parents come to decide on the school to send their children to, a number of other factors beyond patronage can come into play, and the decision could be different from that which was expressed in an overall opinion survey.
Parents can also be concerned about school performance, proximity and having their children attend the school their playmates in the community are attending. Therefore, it is also important to develop arrangements to ascertain the views of parents at a local level in the context of knowledge about the choice of schools in the locality.
In areas where new schools are needed to cater for demographic increases the needs of an increasingly diverse society through diversifying provision will be met. As I indicated earlier, providing new schools in areas of stable or declining school population may not be the best way of using public resources. Indeed, it may have unintended impacts on other school provision, yet we must tackle issues of diversity in these areas as well. We will need to explore the potential for different approaches and may need a multiplicity of approaches to address the different issues posed in individual areas depending on population diversity, existing school configuration and different local community and parental preferences.
One possible approach, which I wish to refer to in some detail, is the issue of the Catholic Church divesting itself of certain schools. This issue was originally raised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in the context of the overall number of primary schools in the archdiocese. In subsequent discussions, the Catholic Church expressed a preference for my Department, rather than the church itself, to identify areas where potentially there might be too many Catholic schools compared to demand for such schools, as an initial step to allow them to consider those areas in more detail. My Department agreed to examine a number of initial locations to see what scope or options might exist for a change of patronage in these cases. The particular focus was on identifying a sample number of areas of relatively stable demographics where the establishment of new schools was unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future and where the provision is exclusively Catholic, or there was a very limited diversity at present.
The overall aim is that there will be a list of sample areas which can then be used to try the modalities by which the number of Catholic places in schools will be reduced and released for others. The focus is initially on looking at urban areas where there are a number of Catholic schools and where the population is likely to be sufficient to support a number of schools of diverse type.
There was some criticism in this House when this was discussed in the context of parliamentary questions two weeks ago. It was expressed that it will not be possible for the Catholic Church to consult within its community and the schools stakeholders, including teachers and other employees, on whether there is a willingness to divest their interest in particular schools. I would not want to assume that this would be the case. I wish to give the opportunity to the Catholic community to have such an engagement and to come back to me. I consider it is very important that this concept is tested to see if it will work before dismissing it as not being able to work. I certainly agree that if, as a result of such discussions, some schools are identified these can be used for testing the modalities.
I am hopeful that the outcome of the discussions with the Catholic Church will lead to the trialling of divesting arrangements and we can then learn from this. It may be that it is successful in some areas and may not work in others. I recognise that this may not give us the full solution to the future development of school patronage either, but I consider that this has the potential to play a major role. We may need to think of other approaches that we should take and I am open to hearing suggestions in this regard.
This is a very important time for discussion on these issues. We are at a key stage of development and testing in this area and I am open to hearing the views of everyone in this House on potential ways forward. There will be some further opportunities in the House in the near future for views on particular aspects of the areas of work that I have outlined, particularly in the context of the discussion on community national schools, to which I have alluded.
I am committed to further consultation with the education partners and with the wider public. I have an open mind about the extent and nature of such further consultation at present. I recognise that as developments are advanced it may be helpful to have a national discussion, as has been suggested. I will listen to the views of everyone here today about how they think such consultation should be undertaken and will consider this in the context of the progress on the issues to which I have referred. I thank the House for allowing me this opportunity to outline my views. This is a listening exercise for me in order to ascertain what Members of the House have to say.