Thursday, 8 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects
I want to raise the issue of Danu Community Special School and its proposed relocation to Riversdale Community College. Several years ago, parents of children with additional needs in Dublin West worked hard and relentlessly to ensure their children's needs were met. They campaigned for and won the right to establish a special school in the area. The next task they faced was to find a temporary site, which they did at Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School. They then looked forward to pupils' future needs being met by the provision of a new, purpose-built school.
During negotiations on a permanent location, the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, ETB, made a commitment that a new school would be built in Dublin to accommodate Danu Community Special School. The ETB management identified Riversdale Community College as a potential location and the management of that school agreed that a section of its land would be used for a new school for Danu. A plan was put in place, involving both schools, for the construction of the new school. On a temporary basis, approximately 40% of Riverside Community College was to be used to accommodate Danu students, following an extensive refurbishment.
Recently, however, a bombshell was dropped on both schools when they were informed by the ETB that the temporary classrooms would become permanent and there would be no new school built on the lands. A huge amount of confusion, stress and distress has been caused by this decision. The parents and children at both Riversdale and Danu schools are very upset and concerned for their future. The dismissive way in which the concerns of all of those involved were treated, especially in Riversdale, is also very concerning. The school has a new and dynamic management team, the members of which I have met. It is working hard to build up the numbers and had significantly increased its first year intake for 2021. Since the bombshell was dropped on the school and all this confusion arose, it has seen some of the numbers fall off.
The current Riversdale school building is 35 years old and in dire need of refurbishment if it is to serve the students and teachers in the Corduff and Mulhuddart communities for another 35 years. There is a need to look at alternatives that put students, parents and teaching staff at the centre of the decision-making process. Students' needs must be front and centre rather than, as seems to be the case, the financial needs of the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB. That is very important and it is not too late to do it. The work that was due to start in July will not, in fact, begin until September. The management of Danu Community Special School was informed just yesterday that its students will not be moving into the previously temporary, now permanent, classrooms in Riversdale school until December, rather than September. There is a window of opportunity for the management of both schools, the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire ETB and the Department to sit down together and figure out a way forward for the students, parents and boards of management of the two schools. There was an agreement in place and it was broken by only one side, namely, the ETB. The schools deserve answers and they deserve what they were promised.
I thank the Deputy for setting out what is, in his view, the chronological series of events in this case. Some of the timeline he gave is correct but I will give him a different view on a number of points. It is important to stress the Government takes the care and consideration of children with additional needs very seriously. The Deputy noted that finance is not the only issue to be considered. Funding is important, nevertheless, because it will help to build the schools we need for children with additional needs. This year, we have a budget of €2 billion and it is important it be used across the board and throughout the country.
I will deal with the Deputy's pertinent questions relating to Danu Community Special School. This is a good news story. I echo his sentiment in terms of the incredible work done by the parents in Dublin West, and the work of the Tánaiste, in setting up the school in 2019. It was originally established to cater for 40 students. The current enrolment is 23 and it will need additional capacity. As the Deputy knows, Danu school is currently situated in Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School. I am very pleased to say the latter has agreed to facilitate Danu to remain in situon its premises until such time as phase 1 of the new project is completed. We hope to commence phase 1 as soon as possible. The design team has been appointed, the architectural planning process has started and approval has been given in the past fortnight for a contractor. The space that Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School is providing at present is not sufficient for Danu school to expand. If it wants to reach its capacity of 40 students and, indeed, exceed it in the future, which we hope it will, then it needs to move to Riversdale Community College in the first phase and share its 1,150 sq. m premises.
At that stage, there will be a review. It is not correct to say that any permanent decisions have been made in regard to any accommodation. We need to look first and foremost at the best interests of the children with additional needs. That is a given. The Department will review the long-term needs of both Danu and Riversdale schools. I have visited Riversdale and seen the location and the land that surrounds it. I believe we will be in a position, from a long-term perspective, to facilitate both schools in a way that caters for their particular needs, especially the pupils of Danu Community Special School. Children with special needs must be looked after in a very particular way and we need to ensure they will have all the supports, space and staffing they require. In phase 1, there will be six general classrooms, a staffroom, a principal's office, a general office, a meeting room, a multisensory room and a general purpose area. This provision will be of value to the students in the short term.
Reflecting on some of the answers given by the Minister of State, it is the opinion of the Danu Community Special School, Riversdale Community College and the parents that the agreement made stipulated that there would be temporary classrooms in Riversdale Community College, those classrooms would be refurbished and then a new school would be built on the site. The parents themselves strongly believe that it is not suitable for children with additional needs to be co-located in the long term in the same building as a post-primary school with more than 1,000 students attending. I spoke to those parents again just today, including to some who have been part of this process all along, and they believe that even the site which has been proposed adjacent to Riversdale Community College is not going to be a suitable site for the students concerned. Those parents have made a request in respect of the site of the current Edmund Rice school located on the site of the old Institute of Horology. The school is moving from that site in September 2022, hopefully, if the relevant building works commence soon and are completed on time.
The parents I was talking to today hope that site at the old Institute of Horology could be looked at as a much more suitable location for the Danu Community Special School because it is secluded, secure, has a peaceful and serene atmosphere around it in the Tolka Valley and is also very accessible from Blanchardstown village, which has many services. It would mean students could also learn social skills by being brought out into the village because that site is so close. The parents concerned do not believe that Riversdale Community College is an appropriate location for a permanent future site for Danu Community Special School. I gather from the Minister of State's comments that this is not a done deal in respect of a permanent site being located at Riversdale Community College and that there is potential for another site to be acquired elsewhere. It is necessary to sit down and agree on such an approach.
We agree regarding the temporary nature of the proposed move of Danu Community Special School to Riversdale Community College. However, this is still phase 1 of the process and not phase 2, which will involve the review of which I spoke concerning long-term needs. I have no doubt that the consideration of other possible sites, as mentioned by the Deputy, will be taken into account in that regard. As I said, however, Riversdale Community College has a great deal of space and land in its environs and I see no reason the two schools could not coexist there quite comfortably. As the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, it is important to me that those children with additional needs in Danu Community Special School, and those children who will be attending the school in future, be looked after and I want to ensure that they are.
For that reason, we cannot have a situation where they are remaining in Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School for any length of time, even in the short term. That is why I am glad that the contractor will start these works before 20 July at the latest. At least the children can then go into Riversdale Community College and avail of the additional space there. I state that in case there are other children with additional needs who may need a place there. The Deputy will be aware that it is always an issue to ensure that we can cater for children with special needs in respect of obtaining a place in a special school. If we can bring extra children into Danu Community Special School while that school is temporarily accommodated at Riversdale Community College, then I think we should do that. At that stage, then, a review will be undertaken of the long-term needs of Riversdale Community College and Danu Community Special School in respect of the best interests of the respective children.