Presentation to the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection by Ms Ann Mc Donagh, Director of Education on The Future Provision of Education in schools for which the Archdiocese of Dublin has responsibility and the Possible reconfiguration of schools that may result in proposals for the opening, closure or amalgamation of schools.
25 Meitheamh, 2014
Dia Dhaoibh go léir. My name is Anne McDonagh. I am the Director of the Education Secretariat of the Archdiocese of Dublin, the office which manages the educational responsibilities of the Archbishop. I have been asked to talk to you about the future provision of education in schools for which the Archdiocese of Dublin has responsibility and the possible reconfiguration of schools that may result in proposals for the opening, closure or amalgamation of schools. Today we are discussing schools at primary level. Some key facts at the outset are that:
- This is an historic time in education in Dublin and the surrounding counties. The Educational specialists in the Diocesan education Secretariat are leading significant change.
- The Archdiocese of Dublin is making important progress on the amalgamation of girls’ and boys’ national schools into co-educational Catholic schools.
- Co-education in schools has been mandated by the State since the 1980’s.
- Five amalgamations have been completed involving 10 schools over the past 2 years. 15 schools are involved in negotiations at present which could lead to 9 new schools being established.
- Where Catholic schools have amalgamated, they have adapted incredibly well, despite the huge change involved. Enormous credit is due to the pupils, parents and staff for their commitment.
- The Archdiocese of Dublin is committed to pluralism in educational provision.
For well over a century the Archdiocese of Dublin has been involved in primary education. A number of schools that were set up 150 years ago are still in existence. In its role as Patron of schools, the Archdiocese has an obligation to plan for, evaluate and review, on an on- going basis, its provision of schools. It is not the responsibility of the Church to be a provider of education for all children but the Church, as part of its mission, is committed to providing Catholic education for those parents who want it for their children.
So, we have embarked on an ongoing, systematic re-organisation of the 466 primary schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin. In reviewing the provision of Catholic education in any particular parish, re-organisation or amalgamation of existing schools under Catholic Patronage might be appropriate for any of the following considerations:
Demographics: The recent census shows a population decline in a number of areas in the Archdiocese which is clearly evident in the falling enrolment in schools in those areas Schools, which traditionally were very large, now have empty classrooms. These large buildings still need to be maintained, insured, repaired, heated and cleaned.
Education: It is not good for the dynamics of a school or for staff morale to see pupil numbers dwindling and classrooms emptying year by year.
Co-education: There are schools which have co-education from Infants up to First Class but where the boys subsequently move for Second Class to an All Boys’ Senior School while the girls remain in an All Girls’ Senior School. An increasing number of these boys’ parents are requesting that the boys remain with their classmates in their original school. Indeed, there is a growing demand from parents for co-education. The Report to the New Schools Establishment Group on the surveys regarding parental preferences on primary school patronage stated that “There was a widespread demand for co-educational schooling across almost all areas (p.9). It is the policy of the Department of Education and Skills that all new primary schools are co-educational. All primary schools that have been opened since the 1980s are co-educational – parents do not get a choice in the matter.
Divesting: There is a need to provide for alternative Patronage. This is not a retreat from the tradition of providing Catholic education. It is a recognition of the beginnings of a new presence. Catholic education still has its vital place in our educational system, as something which brings its unique value system, a value system which is recognised by families of a variety of religious traditions who opt to send their children to a Catholic school. At the same time, as Catholic educators, we welcome the fact that there should be other schools which embrace a different ethos and will contribute, in their way, to the rightful pluralism of educational provision in today’s Ireland.
In newly developing areas, the Department of Education and Skills provides for alternative Patronage by offering new schools to other Patron Bodies. In areas of stable demographics the level of demand for change of patronage still has to be fully ascertained. Many parents are anxious about proposed changes.
While we are confident about the future of Catholic education, pluralism in schooling is something which the Archdiocese welcomes. However, as Archbishop Martin said:“pluralism in this regard will have to be measured not just in the provision of schools, but in an outcome in which every school, whatever its Patronage, becomes a place of welcome for the deprived, the marginalized and those with educational challenges. Pluralism should not give rise to elitism or social division”.
Finance: Schools that are losing numbers are experiencing financial difficulty. During the last two financial years some schools have been spending from their reserves. A number of schools have come to the Patron in distress because they have run out of money. From our research, it appears that in two years’ time a significant percentage of schools may not be able to exist financially, based on current Departmental funding
Process of Reorganisation
There are two forms of amalgamation of schools, one which arises from a perceived need at local level and one where the proposal to re-organise schools comes from the Diocese or Trustees, for any of the reasons mentioned above.
There is a sequence of steps which ordinarily takes place. As a first step, discussions take place with the Trustees of the schools involved in order to explore the idea. The next step in the process involves the Chairpersons of the Boards of Management and the Principals of the schools. Research is done on aspects of the schools, to include pupil numbers over a period of years, future demographic projections for the area, educational viability, accommodation and consequent financial sustainability. If there is a viable proposal it is then brought to the Boards of Management for consultation– Boards of Management which are made up of all of the stakeholders of the school community: nominees of the parents, of the teachers, of the local community and of the Patron. Following agreement among the Boards of Management it is then brought to the staff of the schools and to the parent body for consultation.
There is agreement between unions and management about teacher employment – no teacher loses his or her job. Legislation governs the deployment of the other staff of the school. We have a project team of ten retired principal teachers and department inspectors who are called in to work as facilitators with schools during an amalgamation, people whose expertise is available and called upon by school communities.
Experience To Date
Successful re-organisations are those where all of the stakeholders contribute to and respect the process. It has happened that the process has been frustrated where information was disclosed at an inappropriate stage. In a small number of cases staff do not see the need to address the situation and have on occasion, because of their fear of change, engaged in misinformation causing parents to believe that any change would worsen conditions for pupils and staff. This has caused unnecessary distress to communities where they have received incorrect information. In our experience where there is willingness on the part of the Principal and teachers to engage with the process other stakeholders are reassured and support the proposed re-organisation.
It is understandable, in a number of cases, that staff might be opposed to the re-organisation of schools as this has occasioned a loss of resourses, ancillary staff and grants to some schools. The officials of Department of Education and Skills are working hard with us to address this matter. Discussions are ongoing in order to resolve this issue and it is hoped that there will be some progress to report in the near future.
If there is disagreement among the stakeholders regarding the reorganisation of the schools, the issue reverts to the Boards of Management and then to the Patron for resolution. The decision to re-organise or amalgamate a school rests with the Patron. It is then proposed to the Minister for Education and Skills for approval. The Patron has a responsibility to manage schools effectively. It is a complex process.
Most amalgamations are managed very successfully and result in new dynamic schools. Over the last two years ten schools were re-organised with great success. The Patron seeks to effect all restructuring as collaboratively as possible, with a view to achieving the best outcome and causing as little disturbance as is feasible to any community because the vision which drives this plan for the re-organisation of schools is the greater good of all of the pupils, their parents and teachers.
- The Archdiocese of Dublin is committed to providing Catholic schools for those parents who want a Catholic education for their children
- The Archdiocese of Dublin supports a plurality of patronage.
- Amalgamation of schools in areas of declining pupil numbers will ensure the survival of vibrant Catholics schools into the future.
- Amalgamation of schools will provide the option of co-education for parents and their children in Irish education into the future.
- This re-imagining of education provision in Ireland requires the support of parents, teachers, communities and local and national representatives if it is to be successful.