Thursday, 12 December 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
School Accommodation Provision
I thank the Minister for attending. I understand the Minister for Education and Skills cannot attend and I am okay with that such is the urgency of this issue. I am delighted to have a Cabinet-ranking Minister present and she might bring back the concerns of the local community on this.
Knocklyon, Firhouse and Ballycullen are growing areas. The Department of Education and Skills decided to provide a 1,000 pupil post-primary school in the area and patronage was granted to Educate Together. The school is to be called Firhouse Educate Together secondary school. It applied for planning permission a year ago on a site that was turned down pretty dramatically. The Department is in search of a site for the school and, to the best of my knowledge, has located one off the Old Court Road in Ballycullen. Coincidentally, last Friday week I visited the school and met the Minister's colleague and my constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Zappone. Where the school is housed at present is between two new schools. These are Firhouse Educate Together national school and Gaelscoil Na Giuise. We were given a guided walk between the two school buildings. What we saw, and the Minister, Deputy Zappone, can testify to this, was a thriving, creative and incredibly impressive learning and teaching environment. Everybody we met, from Claire Matthews, the principal, to the students, secretarial staff and all the ancillary staff, made an incredibly happy school environment.
Yesterday, the principal emailed me to say that since we met last Friday week the Department had been in touch with the school with a proposal for the school to move to temporary accommodation in Citywest for a period of between 18 to 24 months, depending on the length of time needed to acquire its permanent site and construct a section of a permanent building to house the students. The Minister was speaking about the old days. Citywest is 10 km or 11 km away. That is ten or 11 Dublin kilometres at peak time. The Department may as well try to move the school to Dawson Street or Kildare Street. That is the length of the distance and the dramatic impact it would have.
This would be disastrous for the school community. It would no longer be situated in the community. It would need to bus the students from the general Firhouse and Ballycullen area out to Citywest at peak time and bus them back in the afternoon. It is a very far from satisfactory arrangement. The Department is willing to fund the buses but there would be so many challenges regarding the health and safety of the students, never mind concerns about sustainability and the environment, which are no longer secondary issues.
Considering the level of need the school has among the student body it would result in an added layer of significant stress for the students and the team on a daily basis. It would be such a dramatic dislocation of a school that is just breathing in its first air and taking its first steps in the community in permanent buildings that it neither owns, occupies nor has a right to. Dislocating it from the community in very dramatic circumstances removes the type of oxygen that a post-primary school needs to survive, thrive and establish itself.
The Department shared this news with the school community and I will speak about that in my second contribution. At the particular meeting with the parents following the meeting with the Department, the principal had to tell the departmental officials that perhaps it was not the right time for Firhouse Educate Together secondary school if viable accommodation cannot be found in Firhouse, and that perhaps closing the school is the only option.
I stand by the school, the staff, the students and the local community. It is one of the most exciting educational initiatives to take place in the community. A 1,000 pupil post-primary school is a significant educational footprint. To dislocate it and suggest it ought to be relocated 10 km away will kill it. It is that simple and there is no argument. I would like the Minister to convey this to the Minister for Education and Skills.
There is no point in me reading out the history of the school that the Deputy already knows because he outlined it very eloquently. It is a real pity the planning application for this much-needed and wanted school was upscuttled because it is diverse and slightly different from what we have had in the area previously. The temporary accommodation that was sorted out for recent years set the school in train to be able to move into its new site. The Deputy is well aware as to why that temporary accommodation is no longer viable from this year. This is a pity. I hear the Deputy's distress and I will certainly pass it on.
I must also tell the Deputy that in the past week a number of other sites have been identified by the patron body, Educate Together, and they are being actively pursued because of all the reasons the Deputy just cited. Nobody wants to see the school not come to fulfil its ambition. It is a great new start for the area and for the patron body. I suggest we just sit tight to explore the alternative arrangements offered to see whether any of them are viable. Alternatively, the only suggestion is the home identified in Citywest, albeit that it is not ideal, to try to ensure the school opens its doors to new pupils in 2020. I will definitely pass on all the Deputy's concerns and heartfelt angst on where we are right now.
I thank the Minister for her sympathetic response. I will feed it back and acknowledge the fact she will go back to the Minister. Citywest is also in my constituency. The Minister of Education and Skills should be aware that never mind that the site to which the school is proposed to be moved is 10 km away, it also creates difficulties for Citywest. Firhouse Educate Together national school and an education and training board national school occupy a temporary building while they await permanent buildings, which are almost complete. It is owned by NAMA and is earmarked as temporary accommodation for Citywest post-primary school, the patron of which has yet to be decided and that process is ongoing. This creates double the difficulties, never mind the distance.
I am heartened to hear that alternatives are being actively considered. I wonder about the dramatic meeting that departmental officials felt they had to have with the Educate Together post-primary school in Firhouse. It is clear from what the Minister said that these options are being considered by Educate Together.
I hope the Department engages quickly with those concerned. Firhouse-Ballycullen-Knocklyon is a rapidly growing area and it needs an alternative post-primary school. The area is currently served by four fine post-primary schools, including Sancta Maria college, Coláiste Éanna, St. Colmcille's community school and Firehouse community college, all of which are fine, excellent schools but Educate Together represents a different offering to the local community, building on the Educate Together and gaelscoileanna options already available to parents. It provides the choice in education for which we all yearn.
I am grateful that the Minister, Deputy Doherty, will bring my concerns to the attention of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, as a matter of urgency. I look forward to his reply and some good, positive news before Christmas for the community in Firhouse, Ballycullen and Knocklyon.
I will, of course, bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the Minister, Deputy McHugh. Lest I did not give him the correct information earlier, the suggested alternative was made by the patron body, not anybody else. It is being actively pursued by the Department. This is not the first time something like this has happened. It happened in my own constituency in 2007. Where there is a will to facilitate, there is always a way. I very much hope and trust that will happen in this case. I will ensure the Minister, Deputy McHugh, communicates with the Deputy on the matter.