Tuesday, 7 July 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The Topical Issue matter is to not move the Firhouse Educate Together secondary school to Citywest. We are taking a collegial constituency-wide approach to this and I know the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, would want to be associated with it. Unavoidably, our colleague, Deputy Duffy, cannot make the debate.
I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. As she knows, this is a time of crisis. We have very limited time in the Topical Issue debate. I know many viewers of this debate are interested in what my colleagues have to say. Parents will have received a response from the Minister's private secretary regarding queries today. I want to highlight a number of points there. The response states that the only way Firhouse Educate Together secondary school can stay in the accommodation in Gaelscoil na Giúise is if An Foras Pátrúnachta and the board of management of that Gaelscoil allows this. That clearly is an opening. The letter continues to state that the Department remains in ongoing communication with the patron body.
I tabled a parliamentary question today and will not get a response for a few days. What will be the cost to the Department to relocate the secondary school to Citywest? Surely that money would be better spent in providing whatever additional accommodation is needed for the school on site in the Gaelscoil in Firhouse. As the Minister knows, many of the students have additional needs, but my colleagues will cover these, and we can come back in response when we hear her reply.
The proposed move from Firhouse for Firhouse Educate Together secondary school to Citywest is not workable and threatens the very future of the school. It will not work for the students who have additional needs and their families. It will not work for the students who currently walk to school and their parents drive somewhere else to work and so on. It might not work for some of the staff who currently work there at a time of real pressure for teaching staff, special needs assistants, SNAs, etc.
I wish to read a short message from one of the many people have sent me. It states:
I chose Firhouse Educate Together as a secondary school for my son as the ethos of the school is very much in synch with the values I wish to install in my children... [U]nfortunately if this school moves to Citywest from its current location in Firhouse, I will be forced to make the decision to enrol my son, who has learning disabilities, to a school which is closer to our home.
That is the case for very many families there. That is why they are saying, "Save our school." Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the campaign and do everything she can to help?
I congratulate the Minister. The way this goes is that we will ask her questions and she will read from a script. All the Deputies in the constituency are concerned about the move. There was no real consultation with the school itself. I have tabled parliamentary questions on that, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about it.
Roughly 40% of the students have special needs and the school is unique in that sense. The idea of moving the school from Firhouse to another location 10 km down the road may not sound like an awful lot. However, with traffic in the morning, it can take from an hour to an hour and a half depending on where people live. All the parents do not come from Firhouse. There are bottlenecks on certain roads and so on. There are major difficulties in that regard.
It is the first challenge for the Minister, and I would like to invite her to come to the constituency to look at this school and where these vulnerable children are going to be asked to move to.
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter and acknowledge the unity they have presented here. Firhouse Educate Together secondary school opened in September 2018 in vacant classrooms in the permanent school building of Firhouse Educate Together primary school on an education campus shared with the permanent 16-classroom school for Gaelscoil na Giúise. In September 2019, the Department put in place arrangements with Gaelscoil na Giúise and its patron body, An Foras Pátrúnachta, to use some vacant classrooms in the Gaelscoil for Firhouse ETSS. The Gaelscoil and its patron body, An Foras Pátrúnachta, has informed the Department that, due to additional accommodation requirements in the Gaelscoil, it is not possible for the secondary school to continue to operate in that building for the coming school year.
The Department is in regular communication with the school's patron body, Educate Together, on this and other accommodation matters, and the patron body keeps its school communities updated on an ongoing basis on such matters. In December 2019, having considered various proposals by Educate Together in the local area which were deemed either unsuitable or unavailable, the Department advised the patron body of the proposed accommodation at the Citywest education campus. The proposed building at Citywest is State owned and within the Department's control. It has provided high-quality, fully serviced, permanently constructed accommodation for two other primary schools up until last September. There are currently more than 30 permanent classrooms, full staff facilities, ancillary rooms and an external play area available for occupation before the start of the 2020 school year. The accommodation will also serve two new schools opening in the Citywest area this September.
While this accommodation is in the school catchment area adjacent to the Firhouse-Oldbawn catchment area, it offers the possibility of ready-made permanent and cost-effective accommodation on an interim basis for Firhouse Educate Together secondary school. The Department offered the school's management and patron body an opportunity to view the accommodation in December last and remains committed to working with and supporting the school to minimise insofar as possible any impact this temporary move may have.
The Department has informed the school that appropriate transport will be facilitated from Firhouse to the interim accommodation at Citywest while the school is in Citywest. In December, the Department authorised Educate Together to explore the possibility of providing temporary accommodation on a site in Stocking Lane in Firhouse. A proposal submitted to the Department in April was priced at an estimated €3.6 million and requires a planning application with all the time and risk that entails. However, it was never a realistic proposition that such accommodation would be available in time for the start of the coming school year.
In April 2020, the Department completed the acquisition of the permanent site for Firhouse Educate Together secondary school at Ballycullen Green, Oldcourt Road, Dublin 24 and is currently progressing the project for the permanent accommodation as part of its fast-track design-and-build programme. The first key step in this process has been reached with the acquisition of the site. The next key step is securing planning permission. Once planning permission is secured this will open up the possibility of providing temporary accommodation on this site at the earliest opportunity. However, it will not be possible to have this accommodation in place for September 2020.
The facility in Citywest currently offers the greatest level of certainty with regard to the provision of ready-to-occupy, high-quality accommodation for Firhouse Educate Together secondary school on an interim basis for the 2020-21 school year, pending its return to Firhouse when suitable accommodation becomes available there.
With regard to the possibility of Firhouse Educate Together secondary school staying in the accommodation in Gaelscoil na Giúise, the Department remains in ongoing communication with the patron bodies concerned regarding all options. I thank the Deputies for raising the matter.
This move to Citywest will kill the school. The Minister is a proud Kerrywoman. We had a brief chat beforehand, for which I am grateful. The move from Firhouse to Citywest is equivalent to moving a school and asking its children to move from Tralee to Listowel with Dublin city-style traffic.
For me, at the moment, and without wanting to put the Gaelscoil in any position, that is the solution. If the Department was looking at a solution on Stocking Lane with a budget of €3.5 million, a fraction of that money could be used on the existing site to provide additional temporary facilities for the school. Like my colleagues, I invite the Minister to meet representatives of the school. Each of the Deputies who have raised this matter is willing to meet the patron body of the Gaelscoileanna if that would assist and if the Minister could facilitate that. We ask also the Minister to meet representatives of the school in Citywest. Could we meet the Minister about the matter at some stage in the future because, in six weeks' time, these students will be expected to go back to school? The Minister should be sincerely assured that the move to Citywest will kill this school.
I will take 30 seconds. This plan will not be acceptable. The Minister is facing a formidable campaign of opposition that has collected more than 2,000 signatures. The campaign has community support and there was a large online public meeting on the issue last week. I do not think the Department can just wash its hands of this and say that the choice is up to the patron bodies. The Department must intervene and find a solution. I appeal to the Minister to agree to meet with the board of management and the campaign.
The big question is how to get 40% of the students up to another site. That is the big difficulty and challenge. The school's representatives are saying to us that it is not viable for the school in the long term to put parents into that situation. Those parents are going to move their children out of the school and that will put pressure on other schools in the area.
Logically, if one looks at the distances involved on a map, it does not look that far but the reality is that it will mean a lot for parents. There are pressures on people. We are supposed to be climate friendly and so on. This plan means extra distance and pressure. Additional resources are going to have to be put in place by the families affected.
I am concerned about the vulnerable children. We need to look at other alternatives. The Stocking Lane alternative would be the best choice but that seems to have been ruled out by the Department. I appeal to the Minister to come and look at conditions on the ground because she will come to the same conclusions that we have.
I have listened to the Deputies and heard what they have said. I appreciate there is unanimity among the Deputies from the area on this issue. The Deputies have raised points from the perspectives of parents and children and I have heard what they have said. All I can say at this point is that my officials in the Department will continue to have ongoing communication with the patron bodies concerned and all options will be examined.