Dáil debates

Thursday, 13 July 2023

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

5:00 pm

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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Earlier this week, I held a public meeting in relation to the need for a local school, a new secondary school, in Dublin 8. The meeting was well attended by local parents, many of whom have been campaigning for a new school for a while. There is a growing campaign building momentum and it is with great pleasure I rise to lend my voice to support that campaign and to help build that momentum.

This is an issue I have been raising for quite some time through parliamentary questions, letters to the Minister and Questions on Promised Legislation, and each time we are met with intransigence from the Department and opaque numbers and justifications.

The fact is there is a problem with how the Department of Education calculates where the new schools go and there is clear evidence to show that a new secondary school is needed for Dublin 8. Dr. JoAnne Mancini, in Maynooth University, has shown educational provision levels are far from equal across the country and has highlighted Dublin 8 in a recent academic article showing the significant challenge here.

While we can talk about the numbers, at the public meeting one of the people who came to speak was a teacher outside the area who spoke about his pupils from Dublin 8 and how they were at a huge disadvantage. They spend significantly more time travelling and this is impacting on their study. Of course, it is impacting on the carbon footprint. It is impacting on their independent mobility because they are relying on lifts from parents to get to far-flung schools instead of simply being able to walk or cycle to a school right beside them.

The parents raised the impact this was having on community. Primary school groups split up, with a splintering of secondary school groups. Students would go to school and make new friends.

God knows school can be hard enough at the best of times. You come back to your own neighbourhood and are isolated because you are not with your friends from school and the people on your road are off in a different school somewhere else. This impact is also reflected in a survey the parents did, which highlighted these concerns and the impact on their families and young people.

I know there will be various numbers in the Minister of State's response about the 314 school planning districts, but the numbers are opaque. There are no published capacity numbers publicly available relating to school capacity in an area. It is hard to get into the numbers, which creates a lack of transparency.

This afternoon, I received a response to a parliamentary question I asked about the intake ratio. The intake ratio is the percentage of children in a school planning district who get to go to school in that district. If it is at 100%, that means 100% of children are going to school in that district. For Dublin 8, the intake ratio is 55%. Some 45% of children in the district have to travel outside of their community to get a secondary school place. In the Blackrock and Booterstown school planning area, that number is 325%. Not only is the Booterstown and Blackrock area taking 100% of the children in the area, but it has enough capacity for an additional intake of 225%. There is not that capacity in Dublin 8. Blackrock recently got a new school despite having this huge over capacity. I have many more numbers, which I will speak about when I respond to the Minister of State. Essentially, however, there is a huge gap in the provision of second level schools in Dublin 8, and the children and the community are suffering.

5:10 pm

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Costello for raising this important matter. I am pleased to have the opportunity to describe how the Department of Education plans for new schools and increasing diversity of provision. I am taking this Topical Issue on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley.

The Deputy raises specific issues on behalf of his constituents in Dublin 8. In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It uses a geographic information system drawing data from a range of sources, including child benefit and school enrolment data, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise and where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level.

The requirement for additional school places is kept under ongoing review in the context of available information on population from census data, enrolments and capacity of existing schools. In addition, major new residential developments in a school planning area have the potential to alter demand in that area. As part of the demographic exercise, the Department engages with each of the local authorities to obtain up-to-date data and information on significant new residential developments in each area. This is necessary to ensure that school infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes as there is a constantly evolving picture with planned new residential development.

The 2022 demographic exercise indicates that 85% of the 314 school planning areas at primary level show static or decreasing enrolments for the period to 2026 compared with 2021. At post-primary level, 74% of school planning areas are anticipated to have increased enrolments for the period to 2029, with most expected to reach a peak within the next two or three years.

If additional accommodation is required, the aim is to try to facilitate that, as much as possible, by way of expanding existing schools rather than establishing new schools. The expansion of existing schools is consistent with the wider Government objective of placing increasing emphasis on compact growth under Project Ireland 2040. New post-primary schools must have a student enrolment capacity of 600 to 1,000 students and must be co-educational. A lower threshold of 400 students may apply to Gaelcholáistí, having regard to the alternative of establishing an Irish medium unit in an English medium school.

New schools are only established in areas of demographic growth, as the resources available for school infrastructure have to be prioritised to ensure every child has a school place. When the Department announces a new school is required, it is open to all patrons and prospective patrons to submit an application to the Department for patronage of the new school. An online patronage process system has been operational since 2018.

As my time is limited, I will now provide the most pertinent information. The most recent projections for the Dublin 8 planning area indicate an increase in enrolments at primary level up to 2026 and decreasing thereafter. At post-primary level, the recent projections for the Dublin 8 school planning area indicate a slight increase in enrolments at post-primary level up to 2031 followed by a projected reduction in enrolments thereafter. A new co-educational, multidenominational post-primary school under the patronage of Educate Together was established in Sandymount Park to serve the Dublin 8 school planning area, along with the Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6 and Clonskeagh school planning areas as a regional solution. In 2018, the school opened in interim accommodation and the major project, which will provide for a 1,000-pupil school when complete, is currently at tender stage. This new school will reduce pressure on enrolments in schools in the Dublin 8 school planning area, as well as adding to the diversity of ethos provision in the area.

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. One of the issues with the school in Sandymount is that it is up to 90 minutes away for pupils from parts of Dublin 8. That is 90 minutes travelling to school and 90 minutes travelling back. That is time in which they should be studying and it therefore impacts on their ability to study. It is 90 minutes travelling to and from school each way when they should be with their family or friends. The school in Sandymount is not serving the needs of Dublin 8.

The Minister of State stated that new post-primary schools must have an enrolment capacity of between 600 and 1,000. When the patronage assessment report was being published, the Department's own number for Dublin 8 indicated there were 651 students. Based on the Minister of State's reply and the Department's own numbers, there are grounds for a school in Dublin 8. Moreover, the figure for the Goatstown and Stillorgan area in the patronage report was 445 when it got a new school. Enfield had a number of 322 when it got a new school. KIngscourt, County Cavan, had a number of 208 when it got a new school. Based on the Minister of State's numbers, plenty of areas with lower need than Dublin 8 are getting new schools. Dublin 8 has sufficient need, according to the Department's own numbers. Yet, the Department says it does not need a new school when clearly its own numbers say it does. This gets back to the point about the opacity of the numbers and the lack of transparency. All I have to do is share the results of that survey of parents with the Minister of State to show that behind those numbers are individual students and communities who are suffering because they need that new school. There are grounds for a new school in Dublin 8 based on the Department's own numbers. We need that new secondary school.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I again thank Deputy Costello for raising this important matter on behalf of his constituency in Dublin 8 and, more particularly, the children currently in primary school and moving into secondary school. The Department's position is that new schools are established on the basis of identified demographic demand in an area and only after consideration of the capacity of existing schools to absorb the expected school place demand. The process for the establishment of a new school gives interested patrons the opportunity to apply for proposed new schools and gives parents the opportunity to express preferences for their preferred choice of ethos.

I will refer again to the logic and methodology behind the new school in Sandymount. It is a co-educational Educate Together school. It is multidenominational and was established to serve not only Dublin 8 but also pupils in Dublin 2, 4 and 6 as a regional solution. It is currently open, and up and running.

I will take the point the Deputy raised on behalf of his constituents back to the Minister for Education and the Department. It is important in all circumstances that we provide the necessary educational infrastructure.

On the process here, the Department looks at the demographics and has set up a regional solution model which would serve the needs of Dublin 8, as well as those of Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6 and Clonskeagh. On the point the Deputy highlighted, I will take the matter back to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley.