Today, Educate Together announced that the proposed new Educate Together school in Castlebar was not going to open because a suitable premises was not offered. The building that the church offered is a school that hasn’t been used in over 20 years, is inaccessible and is over 12km from Castlebar. Rather than providing a suitable temporary building, the Department of Education gave Educate Together an ultimatum to move into this building (building is a kind word, shell is possibly more suitable) or not to open at all.
The divestment process, which was supposed to give 44 areas in Ireland access to equality-based schools, seems to have been met with a combination of apathy and contempt. Two schools have been divested since the process began, Ballina Educate Together and Portobello Educate Together. Castlebar was to be the third.
However, it should be noted that the schools already divested have not been straightforward affairs.
For example, Portobello Educate Together had to move to Basin Lane and now a new name: Canal Way Educate Together. The school is also on a short term lease from a Catholic trust fund and they are not allowed to use a number of rooms in the building, which means they cannot enrol many of the children that apply to the school.
Ballina Educate Together was divested by the Church of Ireland, a very small rural school, which was losing numbers. It also isn’t called Ballina Educate Together as it isn’t in Ballina. It’s known as Newtownwhite Educate Together.
Here are two maps to show where the schools are in relation to the communities they are supposed to cater for.
As you can see, Newtownwhite ETNS is 9.5km away from Ballina and is closer to Killala. Canal Way is nowhere near Portobello in Dublin-terms, 3.3km from its intended community.
Castlebar ETNS was to be 12.2km from Castlebar.
If Ryanair were running the Department of Education, I’m not sure if even they’d have the nerve to claim these schools were built in the catchment areas that their name claims them to be in.
On geography alone, it seems to me, that the process has not fulfilled one successful divestment. While it is great that the two excellent Educate Together schools are up and running, can it really be said that the areas of Ballina and Portobello have adequate school choice for parents?
Educate Together recognise the fact that there is enough demand for 300 equality-based schools in Ireland, that is, schools that offer children equal access to every part of the school day without being segregated or separated because of religious values. Right now, Educate Together are the only patron body that can offer this. David Quinn from the Iona Institute agrees with this figure and has recommended that 10% of schools are handed over to patron bodies like Educate Together.
It is a disgrace that the Department of Education have failed to act on the recommendations of The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism despite agreement from all parties. Moreover, I feel today’s ultimatum shows utter contempt to any family wishing for their child to attend a school not under denominational patronage.
It must be repeated over and over again that Ireland is a secular republic. Moreover, it must also be repeated again and again that if all primary schools in the country switched over from their patron’s ethos to a non-religious ethos, that nothing bad would happen. The education given would be the same. The teachers would be the same. The children would be the same. The only thing that would change is that instead of a situation where children have to “opt out” of certain parts of the school day, this situation would disappear. If any families wished for their children to have faith formation, it could easily happen after school and, again, nothing would change for these families. However, we can’t even do this with one school in one area identified by The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.
Today is a very sad day for Irish education. The Department of Education must hang their heads in shame that they have failed the people of Castlebar. However, the Bishop of Tuam must also take responsibility for this failure to do the “christian” thing for the people in its diocese. Burren NS is a symbol of The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism: inaccessible, not viable in the long term, and does not serve the needs of the communities it is meant to serve. It is a crumbling wreck that has lost its purpose.
*Note: the quote, “inaccessible, not viable in the long term, and does not serve the needs of the communities it is meant to serve”, is taken directly from Educate Together’s response: https://www.educatetogether.ie/media/national-news/castlebar-etns-deferred-2016