Dáil debates

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Schools Recognition.

8:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Gaelscoil Chill Dara, established by a group of highly motivated and enthusiastic parents in the mid-1990s, has gone from strength to strength in the intervening period, not least since the school moved to take up occupation of the former Sundai school, which was purchased by the Department of Education and Science during the tenure of Deputy Woods as Minister. Sundai, a purpose built private school on the outskirts of Newbridge, had provided an educational service to Japanese citizens from across Europe, but with the decline in the Japanese economy demand for places had dramatically reduced by the early part of this decade.

The acquisition of the site by the Department of Education and Science was both prudent and far-seeing, and it was envisaged from the outset that the site could accommodate two educational facilities. The intention was to provide for the needs of the rapidly growing local Gaelscoil and to perhaps also provide special needs opportunities in the dormitory buildings onsite.

The growth of Gaelscoil Chill Dara has been sustained and the current policy of the board of management is to enrol two classes per year to meet the demand that exists in the catchment area. There are currently six Gaelscoileanna in County Kildare at Leixlip, Kilcock and Maynooth in the north county area, and in Naas, Newbridge and Athy in the more southerly part of the county. It is readily understandable, therefore, that parents who have made a very determined effort to have their children educated through the medium of Irish at primary level, would give consideration to continuing with that approach through the secondary system.

To that end a group of County Kildare parents met with representatives of County Kildare VEC in 2003 to discuss the question of second level provision and whether a Gaelcholáiste might be established under the aegis of the VEC. Regrettably, agreement was not reached with the VEC on that occasion and consequently the parents proceeded to establish a Gaelcholáiste under the patronage of An Foras Pátrúnachta.

In 2003 the Gaelcholáiste opened its doors in rented property in Newbridge, adjacent to the Gaelscoil, with a highly committed principal and a small corps of dedicated staff. Provisional recognition was given to the school in 2004, and the campaign for permanent recognition and permanent accommodation has continued since then. The Gaelcholáiste has 48 students on its roll and will enrol more than 20 students in September 2006, with an anticipated enrolment in 2007 of 24. Thereafter, its primary feeder school, the local Gaelscoil, Gaelscoil Chill Dara, will produce two sixth class groups per year, with the consequential increase in enrolment for the Gaelcholáiste. In addition, the Gaelcholáiste can reasonably expect to enrol students from the growing Gaelscoileanna in Naas, Blessington, Athy and even Portlaoise, all of which are within reasonable distance.

A target figure of 400 students, therefore, for the Gaelcholáiste does not seem overly ambitious. Given the excellence of the staff, and the commitment of the parents, which is without parallel, this is something that can be achieved if practical assistance is forthcoming from the Department of Education and Science, as I am sure it will be. The first requirement, therefore, is that the Department would give the Gaelcholáiste the permanent recognition it needs and deserves.

Those involved in this valuable educational exercise know that, as sure as night follows day, this school will grow and develop. It is vital it receives the proactive support of the Department so that it can be seen that the school moves forward with the Department of Education and Science rather than despite it, as some cynics might suggest.

The school's second requirement is for a permanent home. It is in this context that the Irish language campus has come forward. With the Gaelscoil firmly established on the Sundai site and with the dormitory buildings on the same site lying idle for the past few years, the view was that a campus could be developed involving the primary and second level schools and provide a broadly based Irish language and cultural resource for the greater part of County Kildare. The campus concept has strong support in the county and represents an opportunity that both the Minister and the Department should be loath to lose.

Recently the Department has decided to accommodate the South Kildare Educate Together school in the Sundai dormitories which are to be modified to meet the school's needs. This decision was met with amazement by those involved with the Gaelcholáiste and by understandable delight on the part of those involved with Educate Together. I acknowledge the enormity of the contribution being made by Educate Together to primary provision in this part of County Kildare, and I readily accept that the Department of Education and Science must make accommodation available to this growing school, which has full departmental recognition.

I respectfully suggest to the Minister, who has done so much for schools in County Kildare, that her Department must address a number of serious issues in respect of these schools, and the issues are as follows. Is the Sundai school the appropriate permanent location for the South Kildare Educate Together school? Will the Department of Education and Science acquire additional greenfield accommodation for the Gaelcholáiste adjacent to the Gaelscoil to allow the campus concept to be developed if Educate Together is to remain on site? Pending permanent recognition for the Gaelcholáiste, would it be reasonable to accommodate Educate Together at Sundai on a temporary basis prior to moving it to a purpose-built school on one of the sites identified for educational purposes in the Newbridge development plan? It is incumbent on the Department to engage with the interested parties to ensure the best possible educational facilities for all our children, whichever school they attend, and so that the real possibility of developing an Irish language education campus is not lost to Kildare.

Tim O'Malley (Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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I thank Deputy Ó Fearghaíl for raising this matter and for giving me the opportunity to outline the position regarding the Sundai school campus in Newbridge, County Kildare.

A school previously used to educate Japanese nationals is owned by the Department of Education and Science. The school, with its associated facilities, was acquired with a view to housing a nearby special school and a Gaelscoil. While the Gaelscoil transferred satisfactorily to the campus, the accommodation proved to be unsuitable for the special school. Accordingly, a stand-alone portion of the accommodation was not utilised and remains so as of now.

In 2003, Gaelcholáiste Chill Dara commenced operation in Newbridge without recognition from the Department of Education and Science. It had an enrolment of eight pupils at that time. An application for State recognition as a voluntary secondary school under the patronage of An Foras Patrúnachta subsequently ensued and temporary recognition was granted for three years with effect from 1 September 2004.

Central to the decision to grant temporary recognition was the apparent demand for all-Irish post-primary education in the area. In this regard, the Department of Education and Science was satisfied that the school had the potential to develop into a school of circa 200 pupils over a period. Its enrolment as of 30 September 2005 was 47 pupils.

At the time temporary recognition was granted, the patron body was notified, in writing, of the terms and conditions underpinning recognition. In this regard, the patron has sole responsibility for the critically important matter of accommodation. It was made clear that the accommodation sourced by the patron would be required to meet the needs of the school as it developed and that schools in temporary recognition mode do not qualify for capital funding. In the event of permanent recognition being granted, interim accommodation would remain the patron's responsibility until the Department was in a position to provide permanent accommodation.

In subsequent correspondence the patron was also informed that the vacant buildings on the Sundai site had been earmarked for other educational purposes, specifically for a school which has secured permanent recognition and is, therefore, qualified to attract capital funding. This remains the position and the Department of Education and Science is completely satisfied that there can be no misunderstanding on the patron's behalf in this matter.

On 13 January 2006, the Minister for Education and Science announced details of 62 large-scale building projects which have been approved to start architectural planning. Included in these projects is the refurbishment of the unused part of the Sundai campus to facilitate Newbridge Educate Together national school. This school received permanent recognition in 2004, thereby qualifying it for capital funding.

Plans for the delivery of this project are well under way in the Department. Consistent with the protocols for schools with temporary recognition, Newbridge Educate Together national school sourced its own temporary accommodation until it received permanent recognition and it will continue to do so until its new building has been delivered. With regard to schools of differing ethos sharing a site, I take this opportunity to point out that such arrangements will form an unequivocal feature of the educational landscape into the future to the extent that it will not be unusual to find a more significant range of school types on one site. It is intended, however, that while individual schools will be arranged so that certain facilities can be shared to avoid duplication, schools will otherwise be structured to enable them to operate independently of one another to protect their individual ethos.

I thank the Deputy for providing this opportunity to me to outline unequivocally the plans of the Department of Education and Science for the Sundai school campus. This is important to remove any uncertainty which the patron, board of management, teachers, parents and pupils of the Newbridge Educate Together school might feel over this issue. The Department's plans to develop the school on the Sundai campus are well on track. The issue of permanent accommodation for Gaelcholáiste Chill Dara will be considered by officials in the Department of Education and Science when it has permanent recognition.