Thursday, 4 February 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. Drogheda Educate Together Secondary School, Drogheda ETSS, is on Mill Road outside Drogheda. It currently has 110 students enrolled, an admissions cap of 72 for next year and 55 students on the waiting list. There is huge growth in the population in the area. Hundreds of houses are being built and there is major demand for education right where the school sits. The school has a three-year lease at present so there is no reason the Department of Education should not continue to sustain and support it in its present location, beside where all the families come from.
The key point is that the parents will not stand for the school being moved from this location. The school was on grounds adjacent to Coláiste na hInse at one stage and now it is on Mill Road. The Department, in its wisdom, proposes to relocate it a few miles away, on the grounds of yet another school, St. Oliver's, where I taught and which has more than 1,200 students. The Department proposes to take from St. Oliver's the recreation and amenity space its pupils and community enjoy and to put another school, a fabulous school, Drogheda ETSS, on the site. It will not wash or hold and the people will not accept it. Therefore, I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to enter negotiations with Educate Together, buy the site beside the school and do the business. That is what those affected want. It is our job as Deputies. Deputy Nash and I will work together to ensure we can deliver the school. What is happening is unacceptable and the parents will not accept it. I ask the Minister of State, whom I acknowledge is not ultimately responsible, to bring to the Minister the loud, clear and irrevocable message of the parents. They will not have the school moved for the third time. It is unacceptable that a school should be moved to four different locations before getting the site it so much wants. Houses have been built in the area and ten acres have been zoned for schools there so let us do the business.
I will put it simply to the Minister of State: this ridiculous, wrong-headed decision needs to be overturned, and it needs to be overturned now. To say that students, local families and the staff of the school were shocked at the decision and how it was imposed, without any consultation with the school community, is an absolute understatement. I have had a very close relationship with the fine school since the concept of an Educate Together school first emerged to serve the south Drogheda and east Meath areas and it was always understood that the school, in its temporary manifestation and as a permanent facility, would be situated in east Meath. This is where it is and where it ought to stay. Families chose the school for that very reason. The Department has, by its actions, broken the covenant of trust with the local community. Many families face a journey of over 40 minutes each morning to take their children to school. It is unacceptable to me and to them.
The messages I received from distressed young people over the past few days about the diktat coming from on high are absolutely heartbreaking. Since last March, we have known that the world has become much smaller for younger people. We are aware of how distressed and anxious they are, and this matter is only adding to the distress in my community. We have a duty to mind the young people.
Nobody from the Department has told me why the school cannot expand on the Mill Road site. I wish to be shown the appraisal and technical assessment that were done. I do not believe they exist. Why was St. Oliver's, Drogheda, chosen and not a site in the control of Louth and Meath Education and Training Board in Laytown? How much has the Department spent on the Mill Road facility to date? It seems the Department is content to allow hundreds of thousands of euro of taxpayers' money to go to waste as a site that has already been developed is allowed to go to waste. The Minister of State needs to front up and explain how this wrong-headed decision was hatched, and why. We need full disclosure and transparency now because the decision stinks. It is not a solution for Drogheda ETSS or the community. It might be a solution for the Department of Education but it will not wash with the people I represent.
Yes, I have heard both Deputies loud and clear, and I have noted their frustration and passion. I thank them for raising this matter on behalf of their constituents. It provides the Department with an opportunity to clarify the position on the proposed interim move of Drogheda ETSS from its existing location on Mill Street to the State-owned Louth and Meath Education and Training Board site, which I know is at Rathmullan Road, Drogheda.
Drogheda ETSS is a co-educational post-primary school that opened in September 2019 as a regional solution to meet the demand for additional post-primary school places in the Drogheda and Laytown school planning areas. Regional solutions are generally put in place where projected growth in a single school planning area may not, of itself, warrant the provision of a new school. Where the combined demographic increase across a number of adjacent school planning areas indicates insufficient demand for a viable school, then a regional solution may be put in place to serve the areas.
As Deputy O'Dowd pointed out, Drogheda ETSS currently has an enrolment of 110 pupils, based on figures from 2020, and a staffing allocation for this year of 12.5 whole-time equivalent teachers. As we know, it is on a temporary site at Mill Road. The school was originally located on a temporary site in Laytown when it first opened, in September 2019.
As the Deputies are aware, a building project for Drogheda ETSS is included on my Department's school building programme to be delivered under the national development plan as soon as a new site is identified. In this regard, my Department continues to undertake a site-identification process in respect of suitable sites for the permanent school. To date, it has proven challenging to identify suitable available sites in the area in question. Currently, the Department is undertaking an assessment of two potential sites. Obtaining a site for the permanent location of Drogheda ETSS is a priority for my Department. I will be bringing the comments of the Deputies to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley.
In October 2020, the school authority submitted a request through its patron body for additional accommodation to enable it to enrol at least 72 pupils for September 2021 at the Mill Road site. The school authority had outlined its concerns about health and safety, curriculum provision, special education needs, child protection and Covid-19 safety in respect of the school's current location on Mill Road. As the Deputies are aware, there is a demand for additional post-primary school places in Drogheda for September 2021, and my Department wishes to facilitate Drogheda ETSS in ultimately growing to a 1,000-pupil school upon the delivery of its new school building on a permanent site while also addressing the need for additional post-primary school places in Drogheda for September 2021 and subsequent years.
Suffice it to say that the demand for accommodation for September 2021 and future years cannot be met at the Mill Road site.
I reassure the Deputies that the Department is meeting with the patron body tomorrow morning regarding its September 2021 requirements across its network of schools, including Drogheda ETSS.
The Minister of State does not have the full facts and I appreciate that is not her fault. There is plenty of room on that site. There is a three-year lease, of which this is the first year. I was out there yesterday. There is a large space on front of it and 20 prefabs could be put on it, not just two or three. The people will not move from this site. It would be unacceptable and outrageous that they would be asked to move four times to get the school they need. Some 2,000 parents have signed a petition and the children are angry. They live here and they want to go to school here.
Regarding the proposed site, St. Oliver's, more than €300,000 has been spent by the education board and the Department in preparing for a regional headquarters for the education board on that site. There is no way the school can go there. The only place it can go is on the site it is now for three years. There is a 10 acre site in that vicinity for a school zoned by Meath County Council, I have been told. The owner of the land says there is no issue and there is a letter to that effect with the school authorities. They have no problem accommodating any prefabs that may be proposed in the interim. They cannot be moved again. It is unacceptable and I will stand with and for those parents.
I agree that the Minister of State, unfortunately, does not seem to have all the facts. Deputy O'Dowd is correct. A letter was forwarded by the owner of the site to the school this afternoon confirming that there are no issues with road access, planning or the scale of the site. Relatively recently, the Department confirmed there were no issues regarding the expansion of the school to meet the needs it has in the short to medium-term.
On the St. Oliver's site, one thing we are forgetting is that in 2013 the Department of Education under Ruairi Quinn agreed with me that the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, ETB, headquarters should be located on the grounds of St. Oliver's Community College. In the meantime, the Department of Education and ETB have been dragging their heels, obfuscating on this issue and, as Deputy O'Dowd said, have spent several hundred thousands of euro in planning fees and so on to try to get this initiative up and running but it has been delayed time and again. That should be the priority for the St. Oliver's site, rather than moving this school to a site where there is no demand, an already constrained site that is under severe pressure. I have a simple message for the Minister of State: get to work developing an imaginative proposal with Educate Together and the owner of the site to ensure the school can stay where it is supposed to be in the east Meath area and identify the permanent site now to fast-track the building of a new permanent facility to serve our area.
I thank the Deputies for their contribution. My understanding is that there are limitations around the Mill Road site, insofar as it can take a tranche of students for 2021 but not for 2022. It is possible to add two additional classrooms on the site without interfering with the play area. At a push, an additional two classrooms, making four in total, could be added but these would have to be put on the school's play area. An additional four classrooms could be provided, therefore, on the site for 2021 and this would be the maximum. While this could accommodate an enrolment of 72 pupils, the school could not then enrol any further pupils and would have no accommodation left for a September 2022 intake. That is the difficulty when one talks about long-term potential for this school, rather than being able to take a small cohort of pupils in for one year and then having to change again.
On site identification for a permanent location, the Department is actively trying to engage with the two sites it is looking at to see if there is a way this school can be provided for. The delivery of the ETB headquarters has been devolved to the ETB and departmental officials are meeting with the ETB tomorrow to review progress with the project and consider the next steps in progressing it, with a view to proceeding to tender and construction as quickly as possible.
The accommodation on the ETB side will have 13 classrooms as opposed to, say, six, two special education needs classrooms, 14 specialist rooms, a library, a staff room and there will be access to playing fields. I have heard what the Deputies have said and their impassioned pleas, which I will pass on to the Minister and the Department.