Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Commencement Matters

School Enrolments

2:30 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It dates back well before my time to 2012 and the report of the advisory group to the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector which recommended that demand for patronage diversity be met in areas with a stable population by divesting patronage of existing schools where there was evidence of parental demand for change. In that context, in 2012-13 my Department undertook surveys in 43 areas. The surveys were carried out as part of the patronage divestment process put in place by the former Minister Ruairí Quinn. In 28 areas, including Castlebar, a sufficient demand for more choice was established. The divestment process was always conditional on property becoming available from existing schools.

The establishment of Castlebar Educate Together national school as a four classroom school has its origins in the report which indicated a size of at least half a single stream school, comprising four classrooms, being required to accommodate parental demand in the area. As part of the patronage divestment process, a school could be opened where a school building became, or was due to become, available as a result of an amalgamation or the closure of an existing school. In some areas, in responding to demand for diversity where existing patrons were unable to make school properties available, the Department also included an examination of properties held in public ownership. That was the background in Castlebar where a school was suggested but deemed to be unsuitable. In that case, a property owned by Mayo County Council - Marsh House - was obtained from it and the Department arranged for refurbishment works to be undertaken to facilitate Castlebar Educate Together national school to operate from there and provide four classrooms and ancillary accommodation for it.

It is a general policy of the Department that schools, irrespective of their location, have to operate within their available accommodation and manage annual pupil intake accordingly. The initial establishment of Castlebar Educate Together national school as a four classroom school and the need to be cognisant of managing the available accommodation have been reflected in my Department's engagement with the patron body of the school. When the school raised the issue of expanding its enrolment, my Department invited Educate Together to submit a case to it in that regard. Expanding the enrolment of the school would mean that the accommodation currently provided would no longer be suitable. A case has been submitted by Educate Together to further expand Castlebar Educate Together national school and four other schools under the patronage of Educate Together which opened as part of the patronage divestment process. As outlined by the Senator, they are New Ross Educate Together national school, Trim Educate Together national school, Tuam Educate Together national school and Tramore Educate Together national school. The case is under consideration within the Department.

The Senator has indicated that my Department is carrying out a nationwide demographic exercise and asked if it is duplicating the work done by Educate Together. The work is being done by the Department based on the very best databases available in the country. It is looking at 314 separate planning areas and using up-to-date data for child benefit payments, school enrolments, preschool enrolments and other matters. It is a very sophisticated forecasting.The Department sits down with the local authorities to assess the projected levels of property or housing development in their areas so it can factor them in. Therefore, this is not a question of Educate Together providing data and the Department seeking in some way to duplicate it; this is a planning exercise carried out in all 314 planning areas. I was speaking to Senator Murnane O'Connor in this regard. The exercise is designed to ensure we anticipate areas of need, plan for the new schools in the areas of expansion and have a patronage exercise whereby parents would decide what would happen in the event of what I describe.

I fully agree with Senator Conway-Walsh that we need to respond to the changing nature and make-up of this country. We are doing so in respect of a range of issues. We are reforming the admissions legislation. My intention is that religion will not be used as a criterion for selection in the vast majority of schools. I am making a new provision whereby children who do not want to participate in religious instruction in a denominational school will have clear programmes. These will be stated in the admissions policy. I am seeking to introduce a parent and student charter, which will involve legislation.

Let me return to the issue of patronage. The initiative of 2012 to divest based on amalgamations and closures has proven to be a very inflexible model. It has generated only ten cases in the relevant period. I am considering a new approach to try to encourage patronage transfer. The original proposal of the patronage group was to see patronage transfer from existing schools to new schools. The new approach I am proposing would see live transfers so a school would transfer from an existing patron to a new patron without requiring closure or amalgamation. We hope this will be an easier system to adopt. It will be done through surveys by the local community-influenced education and training board.

On the substantive point, my Department is reviewing the requests from Educate Together. I have given the background. I note the point the Senator made. Generally, the Department's policy has been not to provide for the growth of a very popular school that is growing very rapidly if there are empty places in neighbouring schools that are not so popular. That restriction has been based simply on the money available. We do not have the ability to build schools when there are empty places elsewhere. That has been the general policy; it is not a special policy to disadvantage Educate Together in some way. As I stated, we will review the submissions made to us.


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