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At the end of August, both RTE Radio 1 and the Irish Times ran stories about divestment of schools from the Catholic church and discrimination in education.

In both outlets, one of the messages from those they interviewed was similar: let’s not exaggerate demand for secular or nondenominational schools.

On RTE Radio 1’s Today with Sean O’Rourke, David Quinn of the Iona Institute said that the percentage of schools with Catholic patronage needs to be reduced, and the percentage that are nondenominational increased to meet demand. But, the question he posed was: how much demand is there for nondenominational schooling?

He then quoted some figures: “The Department of Education did a survey of parents in about 43 areas in the country, involving more than 200 schools and found that the average level of demand among parents for a different type of school was about 8 percent, resulting in a request that about 28 of these schools . . . be handed over to bodies like Educate Together.

“I mean, that says two things: there is a certain level of demand for a handover of schools, but the level of demand can be exaggerated too, because when this Department of Education survey was done, it found the average level of demand was 8 percent.”

That same week, Father Brendan Hoban – a founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests – was quoted in the Irish Times, as well as a number of Catholic publications, as saying that the surveys conducted by the Department of Education showed that “support for secular schools ran at between 1 percent in rural and 8 percent in urban areas”.

So, are these figures accurate?

Where Did David Quinn’s 8 Percent Come From?

As a starting point, we looked into David Quinn’s statement that the average level of demand for “a different type of school” was 8 percent.

In recent years, the Department of Education has carried out two surveys to work out parents’ preferences for primary-school patronage. In 2012, five areas were covered in a pilot survey. In 2013, parents in another 38 areas were surveyed as well.

The 2012 survey, which had 1,788 valid responses (for just under 3,500 kids) and covered five areas, found that between 25.4 percent and 35.2 percent said they would avail of wider choice of primary-school patronage if it were available.

The 2013 survey found that, in the 38 areas surveyed, there were 10,715 valid survey responses covering 20,400 kids. Of these, 25 percent said they would avail of a school under new patronage in their area.

We asked Quinn where he got his 8 percent figure.

He said that he’d misspoken on the radio. In fact, he’d meant to say that more than 300 schools – rather than 200 schools – had been surveyed in those 43 areas, and out of those, the department had asked for 28 schools to be divested. Which is roughly 8 percent, he said.

“More accurately I should have said the department found enough demand to switch about 8 percent of schools (that is, 28 of the 300+ covered by the areas surveyed),” he said by email.

What About Fr Brendan Hoban’s Figures?

Unfortunately, Fr Brendan Hoban was not available to comment on how he had calculated that “support for secular schools ran at between 1 percent in rural and 8 percent in urban areas”.

So, again, we turned to the 2013 survey with the 38 schools, to try to bash it out as best we could ourselves.

The survey doesn’t divide the data into rural and urban preferences. But, for each area, it does give a breakdown of preferences by people based within a town or certain distances outside a town.

Although an imperfect measure, the best option seemed to be to count urban as within a town, and the other categories to be rural. (For areas that were within a city, like Harold’s Cross, we counted distances from the area as urban too; some suburbs might have snuck into the rural category.)

Who did we consider supportive of secular schools? We took a conservative approach and counted those who said they would avail of a wider option of patronage and had also listed their first preferences for the type of school as an Educate Together or a VEC school.

Granted, there might be some debate over whether they are “secular” or “nondenominational” but we decided that these are the closest to secular options that were available in the survey.

After a bit of spreadsheeting, we found that the number of children whose parents’ first preference was for either an Educate Together or VEC school was 2,937. This works at as 14.39 per cent of the 20,400 children.

In urban areas, parents representing 1,843 children wanted secular or non-denominational schools. That’s out of parents representing 12,541 children for urban areas as a whole.

So, that calculates out at 14.69 percent support for secular schools in urban areas.

But in rural areas, this fell to 1,094 children whose parents wanted to avail of these types of schools. This time, that’s out of parents representing 7,826 children in rural areas.

In turn, that calculates out to 13.98 percent support for secular schools in rural areas.

Bottom line: as we calculated it, demand for secular schools is higher than 1 percent in rural areas and 8 percent in urban areas.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this article. I believe there is evidence that the demand for schools with non-religious patrons is much larger than generally represented. If you study the results of the surveys, I think it is interesting that such a high percentage (often nearly 50% and sometimes more than 50%) of parents who mostly already had children settled in Catholic primary school (a critical point) said they would like to see this choice but a lower percent of the exact same cohort of respondents said they would actually avail of it. It is the second figure that is so often quoted. To me it seems a warped survey, because you are asking parents who mostly have their children already settled in a Catholic school whether they would avail of the chance to move those children – obviously many in that situation will say no. This is in no way a true reflection of the demand.

    In addition, so long as what are seen as the ‘best’ schools (ie with better exam results) are Catholic schools (community schools seen as second rate), many parents will also put that before anything else, even if they are not particularly religious – which statistics on practising Catholics seem to show would be a majority of Irish citizens. If we had a decent state system like Finland where all schools were designed to be equal and equally excellent (Finland is consistently near the top in the world for learning outcomes) parents would not be choosing Catholic schools.

    Finally, there are a number of reputable surveys that show a majority of Irish citizens do not want religious patrons for their children’s schools. I frequently feel deeply disturbed by the moral bankruptcy of Mr. Quinn – it is very worrying in somebody who claims to be a Christian. For Mr. Quinn to maintain that there is a tiny demand for non-religious schools is deeply dishonest, particularly in view of a number of surveys that show the opposite – not least one by his own institute – “in early 2008, the Iona Institute had a survey commissioned on the attitudes of
    Irish adults towards different types of schools. 47% of respondents would favour “A
    Catholic school”, 37% would choose “A State run school where all religions are
    taught”, while a further 11% would opt for “A school in which no religions are
    taught”. Of the under 35 year olds, the highest proportion, at 45%, opted for “A State
    run school where all religions are taught”, with 38% favouring a Catholic school, and
    14% a school in which no religion is taught.” (Source: )

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