Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Commencement Matters

School Enrolments

2:30 pm

Photo of Rose Conway WalshRose Conway Walsh (Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for coming into the Seanad to address this important issue and hopefully provide some much needed clarity to parents and those involved in Educate Together schools. While my question relates to Castlebar Educate Together national school, I am aware of difficulties and commonalities in Tuam, Tramore, New Ross and Trim.

Many parents believe the Minister is trying to fix a problem that simply does not exist. All five schools have demonstrated pre-enrolment numbers for 2018-19 to accommodate a full stream and have expressed frustration and anger at the prescribed barriers to further development being applied by the Department of Education and Skills so late in the school year.

These schools never opened to remain as half-stream schools and some opened with more than 13 students. Castlebar Educate Together national school and New Ross Educate Together national school were two of those. At no stage in the establishment of any of the five schools currently in this situation did the Department of Education and Skills suggest to Educate Together that they would remain as "half-stream and non-developing schools" as was outlined in recent correspondence. This correspondence appears to directly contradict the agreed terms upon which these schools opened. At no time did the Department of Education and Skills say that numbers were to be capped at 13 - this was always a minimum requirement. The decision now means parents are faced with splitting up their families. One parent I spoke to this morning has two children. One started in an Educate Together national school last year and had a most enjoyable experience through the year. His second child is due to start school in September and he has been told there will not be a place if the numbers continue to be restricted. This simply does not make sense.

The uncertainty attached to carrying out a review will obviously influence the decision of parents as to where to send their children for the next school year. In a letter from the Department of Education and Skills it was stated that national demographic exercises are to be carried out at primary and post-primary levels to identify areas of demographic growth, but this has already been done and submitted to the Department by Educate Together. Why would the Minister seek to have the same work done again? When is this duplicate report due to be completed and when will its recommendations be implemented?

This is also a question about choice both for parents who want their children to attend a religious ethos school and those who prefer a non-denominational educational setting.Most of all, it is about obtaining clarity for the parents. Without it it will be impossible for them to make the proper choices about their children's education.

The programme for Government states:

We need a dynamic and innovative education system that reflects the diversity of Twenty First Century Ireland. We will strengthen parental choice and diversity in our school system, reflecting the need in modern Ireland for new forms of multi-denominational and non-denominational education, while also safeguarding the right of parents to send their children to denominational schools that offer a distinct religious ethos, should they so wish.

I know that the relationship between Castlebar Educate Together national school and the other national schools in the area is healthy, productive and inclusive. The schools were set up in urban areas where there would be no effect on existing schools. That the State must intervene and force parents to choose a religious education in order to "preserve a balance among all schools in an area and to ensure that one school is not expanding at the expense of another" is not the rationale one would expect in a democratic republic.


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