Dáil debates

Thursday, 18 May 2006

Adjournment Debate.

School Enrolments.

5:00 pm

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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To date, more than 20 children who applied for places next September have been turned away from St. Ciaran's national school in Hartstown, Dublin West, where overcrowding has reached crisis proportions. An excellent school, it appears to have allocated places on the basis of age. Consequently, all children under the age of four years and nine months have been told there are no places for them next September. Children must be four years of age before 31 December 2005 to get a place in September 2006, which is a new policy that parents were not told about until ten days ago or so.

The children in question include some who have older siblings in the school. Parents bought houses in the area on the expectation that their children would be accommodated. As the Minister of State knows, the other schools there are fairly full to the door. Unless the Minister addresses this situation, these children will have no places in September. St. Ciaran's is the most overcrowded school in Dublin 15. Of its 24 classes, 19 have 30 or more pupils, which is completely unacceptable and a damning indictment of the Minister's failure. She must take responsibility for the considerable distress caused to teachers, parents, the principal and the whole community.

Last night, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, singled me out for "trying to create panic over this matter". She continued: "This is despite having been told of these plans time and again by the Minister, Deputy Hanafin. It may be colourful and headline grabbing...". I do not know whether the Minister of State has ever had the opportunity to set foot in Dublin 15 or if she knows that a ground-hog day of sorts occurred when school after school turned away hundreds of pupils. Like me, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is probably worn out by firefighting exercises to try to get extra places. I resent the cheap shot remarks that tried to blame this problem on the Opposition. The Government has been in office for nine years but has sat on its hands and done practically nothing to address the crisis.

A feature of St. Ciaran's and other schools is the large number of international children catered for, particularly in junior classes. Many immigrants settling in west Dublin have children of primary school age, the majority of whom need intensive language support. As such, the pressure on schools to cater for Irish children and the special needs of international children is enormous. To date, it has been the dedication of principals, teachers and parents that has enabled schools to cope. However, they cannot continue without significant additional resources. While welcome, the Minister's promise of a couple of extra schools in recent years is too little, too late.

I have repeatedly made positive proposals for a long-term solution to these ongoing crises, including a round table conference with all of the interested parties, a proper assessment of needs in line with expected new housing during the next five to ten years and the immediate purchase of sites for housing in Dublin 15. Currently, the Government only seems to serve the interests of the developers and their cronies. I have a list of this week's Dublin 15 planning applications to Fingal County Council, which includes applications for no fewer than eight prefab classrooms in two schools under intense pressure. This says everything about the Fianna Fáil Government. Despite 15,000 extra houses in Dublin 15, the only solution is the old sticking plaster approach of prefabs — so much for the Celtic tiger and the hard-working parents being tortured by the Government in this regard.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter in both general terms and in respect of St. Ciaran's national school in Hartstown, as it gives me an opportunity to outline to the House the extensive actions being taken by the Department of Education and Science to address the school accommodation needs in the Dublin 15 area, including those of the school in question.

The Department is aware that Dublin 15 is one of the most rapidly developing areas in the country and, as a result, there has been a marked increase in the demand for primary school places. Incidentally, the catchment area of St. Ciaran's national school is not a rapidly developing area, but there has been a marked increase in the demand for primary school places.

I am pleased to inform the House that a number of significant interventions have been made by the Department to tackle the general issues to which the Deputy referred. These include measures to increase the capacity of existing schools and the development of new schools to meet the growing demand. All building projects arising from these interventions are awarded a band 1 priority rating under the Department's prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects, which means that they will be delivered in the fastest timeframe possible. There is no point in having round table conferences when the Department has already awarded a rating that means the Department, the Minister and I recognise the fact that this is an emergency area requiring constant attention.

In the Littlepace-Castaheaney area, a new school building has recently been completed at Mary Mother of Hope national school, with an additional project under way with a target delivery date of September 2007. Half of the prefabricated accommodation to which the Deputy referred is intended to ensure that the community has additional classroom space until the building is ready. A new primary school campus is planned for a school site in Ongar, which will have a minimum of 32 classrooms. Part of this project will provide a permanent accommodation solution for Castaheaney Educate Together national school, which also has a target completion date of September 2007. Over and above this provision, significant additional school places will be available this coming September through the expansion of existing provider's facilities.

Discussions took place between Educate Together and the Minister in regard to a possible additional class of junior infants at Castaheaney Educate Together school. The Minister has fast-tracked the recognition of a new primary which will commence operation this year under the patronage of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin.

In the Diswellstown area, St. Patrick's national school has recently moved into a new 24-classroom school. This will facilitate an annual three-stream intake. As an exceptional measure, the board of management has agreed to take a fourth stream of junior infants this year. In addition, the board of management of St. Mochta's national school, which has an intake of three junior infant classes, has agreed to enrol a fourth class for September 2006. An extension project to cater for this development will also be expedited. Other developments in the Dublin 15 area include the planned expansion of St. Brigid's national school in Castleknock and the extensions to St. Brigid's boys' and girls' national schools, Blanchardstown.

In Tyrrellstown, a new Educate Together school opened in September 2005. The Department has approved the provision of six additional classrooms for September 2006 to cater for new enrolments and special education teachers. It is anticipated that this school will enrol three junior infant classes. Under the scheme for devolved grants, the Church of Ireland national school at Castleknock will also acquire two additional classes.

With regard to St. Ciaran's national school at Hartstown, the Department was put on notice last week that it may require additional accommodation for next September to facilitate an extra junior infant intake. However, in light of all the interventions made by the Department in the Dublin 15 area, the board wanted to be definite that potential enrolments would materialise. It is important to realise that it is common practice in areas of rapid population development for parents to enrol their children in more than one school. However, as Deputy Burton has stated, and I agree with her, several of the parents affected by the restriction on admissions to St. Ciaran's national school at Hartstown lived in the immediate area.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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All of them live in Hartstown.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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The board was aware of this phenomenon and decided to carry out a comprehensive survey in its area to determine whether there is an actual shortfall in junior infant places. The Minister is impressed with the school's attitude to the position it has found itself in and welcomes the approach it has adopted. We should all be equally sensible and await the outcome of the school's survey before talking about a crisis situation that may not exist.

The board has been in communication with the Department of Education and Science about the provision of additional accommodation. The Department will respond positively and quickly to whatever the needs of the school, as identified by the board, might be this year. Furthermore, it will review the school's long-term accommodation needs for the purposes of expediting the provision of permanent accommodation if significant extra enrolments are going to be a continuing feature.

I commend the school on the measured and calm approach it is taking in this matter. I appreciate its willingness to play its role in meeting the demands in its area and I assure the board and the parents that the Department will not be found wanting if extra accommodation resources are required.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and assure her that just because significant interventions are now being made in Dublin 15 does not mean the Department considers that its job is finished. Departmental staff are well aware that more accommodation may be needed in Dublin 15 and are engaging with the key school patron authorities that are active in the area in this regard.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m on Tuesday, 23 May 2006.