Wednesday, 20 September 2017
Topical Issue Debate
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle as an deis an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a phlé anseo um thráthnóna. Táim buíoch as an Aire as a bheith i láthair.
Tá muintir mo dháilcheantar buartha. Tá an chás millteanach agus tá eagla mór agus imní ar dhaoine i dtaobh an t-ábhar seo.
Tá daoine ag lorg freagraí faoi Scoil Náisiúnta Bríde i gContae Lú.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the serious ongoing situation at Scoil Náisiúnta Bhríde in Faughart, County Louth. I previously raised my concerns directly with the Minister, and I thank him for his attendance here this evening. I have also raised my concerns with the school management and the school patron regarding the welfare of pupils, the morale of the school and the danger that the school might close if the problems were not resolved urgently. They have not been resolved and the situation has been made even worse. We now have a situation where a once thriving school, which had more than 100 pupils, in Faughart now has no pupils left, and has effectively closed its doors. The school has been a hub of activity for the local community for generations. Grandparents and parents of today's children all attended that school. No one wants to see the school closed. There has been ongoing difficulties for a long period of time and for that to be allowed to happen is very sad and disappointing.
The Department of Education and Skills undertook an inspection earlier this year. The whole school evaluation report, published in May, made a number of critical findings. The inspectors reported that "leadership for learning within the school was not prioritised sufficiently". The report stated that "the oversight role of the Board of Management was not being discharged satisfactorily". It found "a significant variation in the quality of teaching of certain subjects, ranging from outstanding to poor". We might ask ourselves what would we do if our children were attending that school. The report stated that action should be taken as a matter of priority to "rebuild trust within the school community and to improve enrolment".
The whole school evaluation report confirmed the parents' concerns and as a group they took the decision to escalate their efforts to peaceful protest. They have privately and publicly justifiably raised their concerns about their children's education. They have engaged with the board of management, the school patron - the Archbishop of Armagh - and the Minister.
As a result of a lack of a resolution, this has culminated in a decision for them to withdraw their children from the school and to seek alternative school places for them. There are now no pupils left. We are seeing the decimation of a rural thriving school community. It is no exaggeration to say that those in the community are devastated. I have met and spoken to families directly affected and they have all told me that their hope against hope is that the Department and school management would resolve the issues at hand. It is unacceptable that a rural school can close the way that Naoimh Bríd school has. We can ill afford the closure of any rural school. The people of Faughart deserve better.
This is a close knit school community within a wider community who feel let down. They fear that the survival of the school, with no pupils attending it, is in danger.
They believe that, with the intervention of the Minister directly, the school patron and the new management, the school can flourish again. I am sure the Minister will agree that simply standing back and allowing a rural school to close its doors is totally unacceptable. He should meet and speak to the families. I ask him to do so as soon as possible.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is disturbing and he has accurately outlined the backdrop to it.
A whole-school evaluation of the school in Faughart was conducted in March this year and the report was published in May on the Department's website. As the Deputy indicated, the report found a number of significant problems with the capacity of the school to deliver on its mission and made a number of strong recommendations, including that the board of management, in consultation with the staff, the wider community and the patron, formulate, implement and monitor a strategic plan for the operation and development of the school in order that its mission statement could be implemented satisfactorily. The report stated the oversight role of the board of management needed to be strengthened significantly and that within the school leadership for learning should be greatly developed and, to that end, leadership and coaching supports should be accessed by the principal.
Following the completion of the inspection, senior officials of my Department held a meeting with the school management and the patron of the school on the issues identified during the inspection and the need to implement the recommendations made in the report. Responsibility for implementing recommendations rests, in the first instance, with the management and patron of a school. As section 15 of the Education Act makes clear, it is the duty of the board of a school to manage the school on behalf of its patron and for the benefit of the students and their parents. The patron then began the process of dissolving the board of the school and appointing a single manager to manage the school on the patron’s behalf. However, the board resigned and a single manager was appointed by the patron in June 2017 to manage the school. The manager is taking on the responsibility, acting on behalf of the school’s patron, to take the steps necessary to address the issues identified. I have outlined in the written reply the normal support provided to assist in that work, including follow-up by the Department and access to support services.
As the Deputy outlined, despite having an enrolment of 55 pupils this time last year which would warrant a staffing complement of a principal and two mainstream classroom teachers, no students are now attending the school as their parents have opted not to send them to the school. My Department is concerned about this. It is not its policy to see schools such as this close, but, ultimately, these decisions do not rest with it. The decisions and the authority to make them rest with the patron and the school community, but the Department is working to try to find a solution. As recently as today, officials had a meeting with the school authorities and the patron. We will continue to engage with the school management and the patron to address the matter. It is our desire to achieve a solution, whereby parents will have the confidence to send their children back to the school. I am informed that the school manager is taking this task seriously and I hope that, with the support of the wider community, we can find a solution that will protect the continuing role of the school which has a proud tradition dating back many years. It is a difficult issue, but we are working vigorously with local interests to find a solution and open to continuing that work.
I thank the Minister for his response. I do not envy him his job. This is a small school in a small community and he has a huge Department to manage, but a solution to what is now a crisis should have been found months ago. The Department had been aware of the problems in Faughart for some time and I had brought them directly to the Minister's attention, but the Department decided not to intervene and to leave it to the patron to manage the school. The Minister has said the Department does not have authority in that regard, that it rests with the patron and the school community. However, it is now a school without pupils and the mind boggles. The school manager has a role to play in place of the board of management and although I have serious reservations about whether schools should have patrons - I certainly believe this issue should be reviewed to meet modern needs and ethos of our society and attitudes in a changing Ireland - the patron has a role to play, as does the community. The Department, however, should be the driver in the relationship and I welcome the Minister's remark that it is engaging locally. I sincerely hope we can save a school that has been in place and served the community well for generations. There is a fabulous school community which comprises parents who want the very best for their children. I appeal, as I did previously, to the Minister to meet the parents. I note that he did not respond to me, but he should listen to them first hand and then use his common sense and goodwill. If he was a parent placed in his dilemma, the last thing he would want to do is to remove his child from education. That so many parents have done so to the point where the school has no pupils shows how seriously they feel about the issues involved. As it would not take up much of the Minister's time, I ask him to take a hands-on approach. The issues can be resolved, but only if the process is driven by him and the Department.
I am taking a keen interest in this matter, but we deploy professional staff, including inspectors and others who have decades of experience, to support patrons, school managements and communities. One should not seek to politicise the solution because, from a departmental point of view, we are committed to providing the funding required. We stand ready to provide the teaching resources required, the capitation grant and all of the standard supports. Following the inspection report which set out a path to a solution, locally the patron-cum-management-cum-board has been unable to convince the parents to enrol their children. We stand ready to provide support packages to improve the quality of delivery in the school and the Department will not be found wanting in the provision of professional support and so on. We have long experience of doing so. Ultimately, however, there has to be a desire locally to make this work. We have to rebuild the parents' confidence at local level through the work of the school management supported by the professional staff we are making available to it. It is not a political scenario where someone goes in and bangs heads together. The parents will have to be content with it for a long period. They have to work with those taking responsibility and be convinced that it can work for them.
We absolutely stand by small schools. There is a commitment in the programme for Government not to close schools unless that is the desire locally. Parents have voted with their feet as to their view on this issue. We need to retrieve the position. I am putting in the professionals in my Department to work with the community to come up with an answer. We will continue to offer that support in order to find a solution which the Deputy is clearly keen to see.