Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I have raised this issue with the Minister before. There is a crisis for many families. I do not use that word lightly. It is not just an issue in north Dublin. Many of my colleagues across different constituencies in Dublin, Wexford and in Drogheda tell me the same thing. Colleagues of mine, John Nisbet, in Dublin North-West, Senator Marie Sherlock in Dublin North-Central, Deputy Duncan Smith in Dublin Fingal, and people in my constituency, Dublin Bay North, are talking about it. My colleague, Senator Mark Wall, from Kildare, raised it in the Seanad yesterday. There is a crisis with access to second level school places. Primary level is an issue too. We have discussed the provisions in the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 for 25% of places to be kept aside for children or grandchildren of past pupils. That has now gone to Committee Stage in the Oireachtas education committee and we can discuss that.
It has been suggested to me that the level of social mobility around the time of the housing crash 12 or 13 years ago is part of the issue here because many families moved into areas they were not originally from. Their children are now reaching second level school age and so this problem is arising. For whatever reason, my office has never had the level of contact we have had in recent months about issues of accessing second level schools across the northside. These children have to be taught and to go to second level. We are now at a stage where panic is creeping in. The Minister can appreciate that being in primary school for the past years has been difficult with the pandemic. Young people want the security of knowing what secondary schools they will attend. Parents want to know too. It is becoming an acute problem in my constituency. Unfortunately, I do not have answers for these parents who contact my office. I suggest they go through the enrolment policy of the school and try to engage with the school in whatever way they can, but they tell me they are on different waiting lists for different schools.
I am also told there can sometimes be a general data protection regulation, GDPR, issue with sharing data about who is on which list. A number of parents may have their children on a number of different lists. It is not always obvious how many places are necessary for a cohort of young people. There is a parallel issue with the choice of patronage. If people have been educated through Irish until sixth class and would therefore choose an Irish-language medium second level school, that has its own challenges. If people have been taught with the Educate Together ethos until sixth class, they will prefer that type of schooling. Either way, my constituents face the crisis of not having any notion of where their children will go for first year of secondary school next year.
What analysis has the Department done of this issue in north Dublin or farther afield, in areas I have referred to? What measures is it putting in place to address it?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It gives me the opportunity to set out for the House the position with regard to post-primary places in north Dublin for September 2022 and onwards. To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, using data from a range of sources, to identify where increasing school place requirements and associated accommodation needs will arise. However, it is important to note that where local enrolment pressures emerge, it may not be as a result of lack of accommodation but may be driven by a number of factors, individually or collectively. One is duplication of applications, where pupils have applied for a place at a number of schools in the area. Another is school choice, when pupils cannot get a place in their preferred school while there are places in other schools in the town or area. Some towns or areas have single-sex schools, and while places are available in the school, they are not available to all pupils. There is also the external draw, with pupils coming from outside the local area. One or a combination of these factors may be involved.
The Department is working with relevant school authorities to establish the extent of enrolment pressures. In that context, similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, the Department is engaging with patron bodies, including those of schools in north Dublin, to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming years which may necessitate further action to that already in train. Where it is determined additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools, extending the capacity of a school or schools, or provision of a new school or schools.
Under Project Ireland 2040, the Department continues to make progress to increase the infrastructural capacity in the school sector to meet demographic and other demands. The capital programme details the school projects that are being progressed under Project Ireland 2040. It is expected the enrolment pressures in north Dublin and in other areas will reduce in the short term as such planned additional capacity comes on stream and as demographic demand moves past its peak. With regard to projects, there has been significant investment under the major capital programme in the north Dublin area in recent years. Bremore Educate Together, Balbriggan has a new school building for 1,000 pupils, which was completed in 2018. Coláiste Ghlór na Mara, also in Balbriggan, was completed in 2019 and also has accommodation for 1,000 pupils. In addition, there are 13 other major projects at post-primary level in the north Dublin area, including at Belmayne, Malahide, Portmarnock, Swords, Dublin 15 and Rush, which are at various stages of the design and build process and will greatly contribute to the supply of school places in the area.
The capital programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms, including accommodation for pupils with special educational needs, if required, for schools where an additional enrolment need has been identified. Included among additional accommodation projects are Dominican College, Drumcondra, Coláiste Dhúlaigh, Coolock and Santa Sabina Dominican College, Sutton. Clonturk Community College has had a significant amount of modular accommodation approved to cater for its needs. St. Aidan's, Whitehall has been approved for a significant project, which has been devolved to the school authorities for delivery. The Department is also engaging with school authorities at Castleknock Community College and Luttrellstown Community College to consider their accommodation needs. I can assure the Deputy that the Department is working intensively to ensure there is sufficient post-primary school accommodation available throughout the country, including in north Dublin, to meet school place requirements in every area.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I appreciate she and the Department recognise there is an issue. We often raise issues in this House and get the sense from the Department or the Minister that this is not really a concern. I can tell from the Minister's response and previous responses that she acknowledges there is an issue.
There is a push locally for a new Educate Together second level school in that catchment area, which could cater for a number of primary schools of that ethos. That would benefit the area and also release some of the pressure. I note that some of the schools mentioned by the Minister have additional accommodation projects. At what point will the Minister be able to respond to me as to the nature of the intensive work the Department is undertaking and what point will she be able to share with local Deputies the outcome of that work to ensure that we can then tell all of the constituents who contact us that there will be adequate places for their children in September? As the Minister will appreciate, this is not something that anybody can take lightly. If there is insecurity or uncertainty in a family in regard to where a young person will be attending school in September, particularly if that child is the oldest child at school, one can appreciate the anxiety that creates. If it has not been resolved by this stage, it is going to dominate issues over Christmas and into the new year, etc. While I appreciate the Minister is acknowledging the issue, can I get an assurance from her that the Department will liaise with local Deputies and representatives in the Dublin Bay North area as to the results of this intensive work being done by the Department so that we can then relay that information to our constituents who are making contact with us?
As I previously outlined, in quantifying the specific requirements for September 2022, the Department is assessing its nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels across the 314 school planning areas through a geographical information system. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including information from the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Education school enrolment databases and much more to identify where pressures for school places across the country will arise. In line with a strengthened approach in recent years, the process involves specific initiatives such as enhanced engagement with local authorities, which is hugely important, and information on residential development because clearly, as the Deputy will appreciate, where houses go education goes as well. There is additional engagement with patron bodies in regard to their local knowledge on school place requirements and with education and training boards, diocesan offices, national patron bodies such as Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta, etc. They can also be an important source of knowledge. This will add to the information also provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools. Utilising the information gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity completed by individual schools last year as part of the PPOD returns process is also significant.
I assure the Deputy that the Department will continue to engage with patron bodies in identifying specific September 2022 capacity pressure points, prioritise those pressure points going forward and put in place the necessary and very specific actions. As the Deputy will appreciate, the demands in one school are not necessarily mirrored in terms of demands in other schools. I assure the Deputy that I am very happy to engage with him in regard to the specific issues he raised in regard to his own area.