Call for multi-faith school gets unanimous council support

The lack of diversity in the primary education sector in the Athlone Moate Municipal District was highlighted this week by Green Party Cllr Louise Heavin, who received the full backing of her fellow councillors for her bid to have a multi-faith or non-denominational primary school provided in the area.

Cllr Heavin put a motion before the May meeting calling on the Department of Education to “urgently review” the need to provide “a multi-faith or non-denominational primary school” in the Athlone Moate Municipal District “to facilitate our growing and diverse population.”

The Green Party councillor pointed out that recent data from the CSO found that 12.5% of people in Westmeath are of a religion “other than Church of Ireland or Roman Catholic” and this is higher in urban areas. “Our population is very diverse and yet we have no primary school to cater for the children of those families who are not either Roman Catholic or Church of Ireland,” she said, adding that this was “a completely unacceptable situation.”

She also spoke of the “very difficult situation” that many parents are facing when they do not wish to have their children engage in religious instruction at the local faith-based primary schools. “I have been told that these children often have to sit in the back of the class while their classmates get up to half an hour of religious instruction each day,” she said.

In appealing for support from her colleagues, Cllr Heavin said there is “a definite need” for a multi-faith or non-denominational primary school in the greater Athlone area in an effort to promote “inclusivity and diversity” of educational provision.

Municipal District Chair and Athlone Mayor, Cllr Aengus O’Rourke gave his full backing to Cllr Heavin’s Motion and referred to it as “future-proofing” the educational offering in the district.

Cllr Frankie Keena also backed the motion and spoke of the need to provide education “for all children” regardless of their background or religious beliefs. He said the Education and Training Boards were rolling out a community primary school model which was very inclusive, and he suggested that a representative from the ETB be invited to a future meeting to give a presentation on this model.

Earlier in the meeting Cllr John Dolan had been highly critical of a letter which had been received from Minister for Education, Norma Foley, in which she invited members to let her know their needs in relation to the provision of education in the greater Athlone area.

“The Minister must surely know by now what our needs are, everywhere you look there isn’t a place to be got in any of our primary schools, so she should be coming down to tell us what the Departmenr can do for us,” he said.

“Minister Foley was challenging us as to how we see the demand for education going forward,” suggested Cllr Aengus O’Rourke, who added that Cllr Heavin’s motion should be forwarded to the Minister.

“We need to be future-proofing our educational needs” said Cllr Dolan “it seems to me that there is a lot of planning for housing, but there is no joined up approach as to how we are going to educate the children of the people buying these houses, or how we are going to cater for their transport needs.”

Cllr Tom Farrell said now was “the ideal time” for Cllr Heavin to put forward a motion calling for a multi-faith school, but he added that, in his opinion, “all schools in our area do their best to cater for all children.”

Cllr Heavin said ETB community national schools, such as the one currently operating in the South Roscommon area of Lecarrow, are “an excellent model” and she pointed out that the decision of the local community in Lecarrow to divest the patronage of their school from a Roman Catholic model to a community model had been “a means of saving the school.”

She said she would be happy to have a representative from the ETB to make a presentation to a future Municipal District meeting on the community primary school model, and it was agreed that a copy of her motion would be forwarded to the Minister for Education, Norma Foley.