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Mid-West Humanists’ letter to Minister for Education and Skills on National School Leases and the model Deed of Variation

The Mid-West Humanists met Jan O’Sullivan T.D. Minister for Education and Skills on 24 April 2015.

We asked the Minister not to change the Leases of National Schools via a 1997 model Deed of Variation.

In another post we explain about National School leases.

We show here the letter which we gave to the Minister, in which we explained our concerns.

 

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24 April 2015

To Jan O’Sullivan TD, Minister for Education and Skills

Deeds of Variation should not be applied to National School Leases

Dear Minister O’Sullivan

 

Summary

  1. We seek information on whether (and if so, when) the Department of Education and Skills plans to apply the Deeds of Variation to the leases of schools, Deeds that were first drafted about 1997.
  2. We ask that the Leases of Primary (National) Schools not be altered as in the model Deeds of Variation of 1997 or as in any similar model. The schools are now managed by persons or groups of persons who belong to particular religions, and, contrary to popular belief, their leases (which are their agreements with the Department) do not restrict the operation of the schools to fit with those religions, and are quite neutral about religion. (The Education Act 1998 requires a school to have a characteristic spirit, but this is not solely about religion, and the schools’ leases of which we know do not determine any aspect of the characteristic spirit.)

We seek that the leases not be changed according to the model Deed of Variation of 1997 or similar model, because the present leases would allow a school to be secular in many aspects, and the varied leases would make each school tied to the particular religion. Between 1997 and 2015 society in Ireland has become more secular; it has not become more religious.

  1. We ask that changes that the Department of Education and Skills propose to make on this part of the education system be public before the changes are made, and the same on all aspects of the education system.

 

What we seek about Deeds of Variation

 

  1. During April 2015 we learned for the first time that there has been since 1997 an agreement between the managers of primary schools whose trustees are Roman Catholic clergy or nominees, and the Department of Education and Skills, to vary the Deeds of Trust between those Trustees and the Department. We have read the model Deed of Variation, in the CPSMA Handbook 2012. We have read another print of the Deed of Variation with 20__ as the year. We understand there are other model Deeds of Variation intended for the leases of National Schools with other than Roman Catholic trustees.

We understand this has been public but to a very small degree – we understand that Professor Áine Hyland knew of its contents in about 1997; and the then Minister described the Deed of Variation to the conference of the National Parents’ Council (Primary) in 2010. The Forum on Patronage in Primary Schools mentioned it in its report in 2012. At the CPMSA 2013 AGM the then Minister promised to make progress on implementing these Deeds; Fr Tom Deenihan at the 2014 AGM said the Minister had made some progress; and at the 2015 AGM Seán Ó Foghlú Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills said that there are complex legal problems with the Deed, and that the Department is working to reach a solution that will protect the ethos of schools (Roman Catholic) and withstand challenges.

 

We see two big problems with the plan to alter the Leases to Trustees of National Schools.

  1. Problem 1.

Between 1997 and 2015, society in Ireland has changed towards less seeing the society identified with one religion (Roman Catholic Christianity). Society has changed to including more religions and people with no religion, but more importantly it has changed towards not identifying the society with one religion, or even with religion generally rather than no religion, and towards not giving administration and control of State services to religious organisations.

Society has become more open to being secular in those years, yet during those years the Department of Education and Skills has been seeking to arrange that National Schools be changed from their present neutral attitude to religion (as in the Leases, which do not state that the school is tied to a religion) to being firmly tied to particular religions. The varied Leases (in the 1997 or 2000 model) would give power to the Land Owner and to the Trustees of the school to require the Board of Management to run the school according to the Roman Catholic ethos, – or according to another ethos in the schools with other Trustees. If the Board failed or refused, the Owner or Trustees could remove the Board and appoint a new board.

We understand that the managers of the National Schools whose trustees are Roman Catholic clergy or appointees have sought the variation in the Leases in the schools, from a little before 1997. The citizens own the Government and its departments, which are there to serve us. There is no good reason for the Department of Education and Skills to change the principles of schools, which serve the young citizens, in entirely the opposite direction to the change in society during the years 1997 to 2015.

Conclusion: The Leases of National Schools must not be varied by the model Deed of Variation or by any deed of variation that would convert a neutral school into a school inspired by “belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (definition of a Roman Catholic school in the Deed of Variation).

 

  1. Problem 2.

As well as changing to a reduced influence of religion or particular religion(s) on society and on how the State gives services, society has changed so that a majority of people feel strongly that the State should not conduct its business without informing the people about what it is doing.

From 1997 to 2015 the Department of Education and Skills has had an aim of changing the principles under which the Leases empower schools to teach children, with hardly any public knowledge of the change, when many people would oppose the change, if they knew of the plan.

Keeping such plans secret or fairly secret gives power to the people who know about the plan much greater than the power of people who do not know the plan exists. Conducting such negotiations and making such plans hidden from the public is entirely contrary to democracy.

Further, the Report of the Forum on Patronage  and Pluralism in the Primary Sector (2012) suggests (p.18-19) that the Forum believed that the Deeds had already been implemented and applied to schools; and it appears the Schedule attached to the Deed is being issued to teachers and schools as a statement of school characteristic spirit or ethos.

A mistaken impression that a change has already happened takes power away from people who might work towards stopping the change happening, which is often easier than reversing it afterwards.

Conclusion: The Department of Education and Skills must make the model Deed of Variation public, immediately. The Department and Minister must send the Deed to the Oireachtas Committee on Education, for the committee to debate the Deed. The Department must in future keep the existence of such negotiations and the plans (when they formulate a plan) fully public.

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