Thursday, 20 June 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for coming to the House. The reason I asked the Minister to come in today relates to Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich Teoranta, which is an Irish-speaking preschool in Ballycroy, County Mayo. The preschool was established in 2001 by a voluntary group of local parents. No preschool services were available at that time. Since then, it has become the heart of the community and has enjoyed great success serving families well throughout the years. Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich Teoranta works in partnership with local government to ensure the long-term use of the old national school. As it happens, it is my old national school so the Minister will forgive me for being extra passionate about this particular project. It was a derelict school and was then transformed into a vibrant and refurbished preschool and after-school service. It has ensured a lifeline for the parish and its people.
The Minister may be aware that Ballycroy covers a large geographical area of 210 sq. km. Hence, the preschool and after-school service offer a space for all of the children in the parish to connect and play together. We have two excellent national schools in the parish. One was recently built and the other was recently refurbished. Funding for the preschool falls under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This inhibits the sustainability of services because the current funding model system is not equitable. The Department funds through a set capitation model. The current system benefits services located where the population is high and, as a consequence, the numbers using preschool facilities are high as well. Increases in the capitation grant are of course welcome, but this does not address the issues for rural services. It may serve to make the services with higher numbers better off but it does not serve areas like Ballycroy.
The rural action plan makes explicit reference to the importance of regenerating these areas and having vibrant services in these areas. However, early years services cannot access funding through the CLÁR or RAPID programmes. That is the key to it. Something needs to be done. The position needs to be reviewed so that the Department and CLÁR can jointly fund rural services such as the naíonra in Ballycroy. Such services should be able to make an application on the ground of their rural location.If that is not done, the future of Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich will be under threat. The problem is that its closure would mean there would be no preschool service in the parish. There has been significant investment in the national park and other facilities in Ballycroy, which is on the Wild Atlantic Way and so on.
I am afraid that this issue will be considered on the basis of a snapshot in time and the conclusion will be reached that there are not enough children to sustain the school or make it viable under the current funding model. What about next year, the year after and the year after that? What about people, such as members of my family, who wish to move back to the parish and raise their children there? There will be no preschool service for them. These children have the right to a preschool service. That right is upheld in other parts of the country and that needs to be the case in rural areas. That is why the funding model must be changed.
I have a submission that I will give to the Minister for her consideration and that of her Department in the context of finding ways to keep these facilities open. We have had to fight for our post offices, Garda stations and other facilities, but people in rural Ireland are tired of fighting. We want a little flexibility to address depopulation in rural areas and to do everything we can to bring people back into them so that we can have vibrant communities. Can the Minister imagine a parish without young or other children? The heart and soul of the parish would be missing. It would be like having a garden without flowers. We need facilities to ensure children continue to live in these areas.