Dáil debates

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

11:00 pm

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the serious issue of the threatened closure of Seamount College, Kinvara. The saga surrounding Seamount College is well known to everybody. It is known to the Department of Education and Science and the Minister for Education and Science, and last week the Tánaiste visited the school and was apprised of the situation by the very active and professional committee running the campaign to retain the college.

As I said, the facts are available to everybody and presented in a manner which is easily understood. Facts and figures have been put forward to show the need for this school now and in the future. The statistics are indisputable and it is, therefore, incomprehensible that the Minister has not acted on this issue to date.

A simple request was made to the Minister in the initial stages to create a mechanism for the enrolment of first-year students in Seamount College in September 2007. To date the response from the Minister has been stunning silence. That stunning silence is no way for a Minister to behave, especially when young people and the quality of the education they receive is at risk. The Minister is responsible for those students but to date has failed to live up to her responsibility. In the catchment area of Seamount College the CSO figures and primary school enrolments show growth of about 30% in the four years 2002-06. In time this growth will impact on secondary schools.

Parents in the catchment area of Seamount College have been attempting to have it opened to boys and girls. The figures show there will be 600 boys and girls of secondary school age in the catchment area in three years' time. Approximately 500 of these are already in the eight local primary schools. Under the ham-fisted approach adopted by the Department and the Minister, it has been suggested the children can be sent to neighbouring secondary schools. The enrolment statistics and capacity of the schools, namely, Calasanctious College, Oranmore, and Gort community school, have been studied. Taking into account the statistics relating to Seamount College, it is simply not possible for the latter two schools to cope with the numbers that must be accommodated.

The population of the area is growing so rapidly that there will, even if Seamount College were to remain open, be a severe shortage of school places in as little as two or three years' time. Even if the college is allowed to remain open and convert to co-ed, Gort community school needs to be expanded to cater for 1,000 students. Where do the Minister and the Department of Education and Science expect those children to find school places?

Why close Seamount College? Gort and Oranmore have excellent schools but the places available are required by the children who live in both towns. The 600 children from the Seamount College catchment area are entitled to be educated in their locality. The Minister, her officials and the Government should act in order to ensure this happens. The only way it will happen is for a secondary school to continue to operate in Kinvara. The Minister and the Government are the only people who can facilitate this. The time for talking is over and the time for analysing figures has passed. The statistics are stark, the figures add up and the numbers are there; all that is missing is Government action.

Government thinking in respect of this matter is worthy of attention. On his visit to the school last week, the Tánaiste stated the situation was unacceptable. This leads one to believe that the Fianna Fáil wing of the Government is intent on closing the school. We need clarification in respect of this matter. If the Tánaiste is in favour of the school's survival but cannot bring it about, are we to believe the Progressive Democrats has no influence within the Government? The Progressive Democrats promises in respect of this issue are of no use. We need that party to demonstrate that it has influence within the Administration by bringing about a Government decision to save the school. The Fianna Fáil wing of the Government can avoid being forced into action by the Progressive Democrats by making the decision to save the school before the latter exerts pressure.

The Government parties should not play politics with this issue. The children, their education and their futures are too important and the situation too serious to allow anyone to play politics. I plead with the Minister to show that she cares, to live up to her responsibilities and to immediately move to save Seamount College.

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 Deputy McHugh for raising this matter. I am making this reply on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin.

In October 2006, the trustees of Seamount College, namely, the Sisters of Mercy, announced their intention to withdraw as providers of education in the Kinvara area and to close Seamount College. The latter is a voluntary secondary school and decisions such as this are within the remit of the patron body, the Mercy Sisters. The trustees decided that closure was to be on a phased basis with no intake of first years from September 2007, culminating in a full closure in 2012 and thus allowing the junior students to have a transition year, if feasible, and complete their leaving certificate examinations. The trustees have confirmed directly to the Department that the current site at Seamount College will not be available for the provision of post-primary education once the college closes.

Following the announcement of a phased closure by the trustees, a local action group met the Department and outlined its concerns. Officials of the school planning section of the Department met separately with representatives of Gort community school who outlined their concerns in respect of the trustees' announcement.

With regard to a decision by a patron body to close a school, the main role of the Department in a school closure is to ensure the best interests of the pupils are looked after in the period up to the closure and that there will be sufficient pupil places in existing schools in the general area for pupils who would have normally enrolled in the closing school. Having considered the immediate implications of the decision by the Sisters of Mercy, the Department will facilitate the enrolment in Gort community school of students from the Kinvara area by amending the existing catchment area. To facilitate an increase in enrolments at Gort community school, any additional accommodation for the school will be treated as a matter of priority by the Department.

The Department recently met the authorities of Gort community school with a view to agreeing the extent of the additional accommodation required. In addition, the Department will be reviewing the overall accommodation requirements at post-primary level in the south Galway area to identify what additional provision is required in the longer term.