Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 May 2003

Adjournment Matter. - School Closures.


10:30 am

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House again. The matter I wish to discuss today centres on St. Brigid's secondary school, Goresbridge, County Kilkenny. Notice was received by the board of management of the school recently that it is the intention of the Department of Education and Science to phase out education at St. Brigid's over the course of the next two years.

I was present at a local public meeting on the issue on Tuesday evening. Parents, pupils, past pupils and parents of past pupils gathered in the town of Goresbridge to voice their concern at the prospect of the closure of the school. It must be acknowledged that the school is considered small by most standards. While there are only about 140 pupils on the roll, the numbers have remained pretty constant over the years and it seems they will continue at the current level for the foreseeable future. A constant problem for the school is the continuous bussing of children from its immediate area to other schools in Kilkenny city, Graiguenamanagh in County Kilkenny, Bagenalstown in Carlow, Borris in Carlow. A number of school buses operate to take people from St. Brigid's catchment area which does not benefit its enrolment numbers.

There has been very little funding over the past number of years to upgrade the facilities within the school which is housed in a former convent the structure of which is quite old. We have not seen continuous maintenance of the school's buildings to keep them reasonably safe for school occupancy. Parents feel there has been a constant downgrading of the school and a lack of attention from the Department which is culminating now in the decision to cease education in St. Brigid's College, Goresbridge. It is a co-educational school and the only one in the town which is why people are genuinely and reasonably concerned to ensure that the facility should be kept open. A school is an important facility for any small rural town like Goresbridge and it is with that in mind that I raise this matter on the Adjournment.

I do not wish to pre-empt the Minister of State's reply, but the constant problem for Goresbridge has been the erosion by other schools of the base of pupils in the catchment area. That has led to the current low number on the school's roll. While it may not be deliberate, the Department of Education and Science is partially responsible for the downgrading of the school and the dwindling numbers attending it. I am very interested to hear what the Minister of State has to say in reply.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator may be interested in what I have to say, but I fear I do not bring him very good news. I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding St. Brigid's secondary school, Goresbridge, County Kilkenny.

St. Brigid's secondary school was built in 1825 and is owned by the Brigidine Order who ran it as a girls' boarding school until 1978. At that time, the nuns withdrew and the school was taken over by a local board of trustees and a local board of management who leased the buildings from the nuns and ran the school as a co-educational voluntary school. In April 1998, the board of management decided to phase out the operation of the school. The board's decision was strongly resisted locally and a community action group was set up to save the school. In June 1998, the board of management notified the Department of Education and Science that it had reversed its decision to close the school. Subsequently, in 2001, a group representing the various school interests made a proposal to the Department of Education and Science in which approval was sought for the implementation of various measures which it was considered would result in the development of St Brigid's as a viable school into the future.

Following a thorough examination of the issues involved, including submissions to retain the school under the trusteeship of the VEC, the Minister for Education and Science has concluded that the major capital investment needed to sustain a school of this size cannot be justified. Since 1995 enrolments at the school have remained steady at a figure of approximately 130. The school has a current enrolment of 129 pupils and a long-term projected enrolment of approximately 125 pupils. This is an optimistic assessment in that it assumes full student retention through junior and senior cycles and 75% of all fourth year pupils taking the transition year option. It is also based on a pattern of enrolment where in excess of 60% of the total first year intake comes from outside the catchment area.

As part of its strategy to increase enrolments, the interest group representing the school has sought adjustments to existing catchment boundaries and current transport arrangements. Any attempt to alter existing arrangements would be likely to provoke strong opposition from other providers in the area. It could also be argued that this strategy for increasing enrolments could be viewed as verification of the school's non-viability for the future. Even with the interventions mentioned, there will not be a sufficient base to justify major refurbishment or a new building. Consequently, the view of the Minister and the Department of Education and Science is that educational provision should be phased out over a two year period, with final closure in June 2005. The Minister has advised the owners and trustees in this regard. To facilitate an orderly closure, the school authorities are not accepting a first year intake in September 2003.

In any decision on the closure of a school, the concern of the Minister and the Department is to ensure that there are sufficient pupil places to meet demand in a given area. The alternative choices for pupils who attend St. Brigid's are Borris vocational school and the Presentation de la Salle and vocational school in Bagenalstown. Pupils from the same primary schools that feed St. Brigid's also attend a range of other schools including Grennan College, Thomastown, Scoil Aireagail, Ballyhale and various post-primary schools in Kilkenny city as the Senator outlined in his contribution. It is to be expected that these would also be alternatives for pupils who would otherwise attend St. Brigid's.

The Department of Education and Science is satisfied that arrangements can be made to facilitate the placement of pupils from St. Brigid's in neighbouring schools as circumstances require. Arrangements are being made to accommodate the remaining pupils during the phasing out of the school through the provision of temporary accommodation. A senior departmental inspector will visit the school shortly to determine its accommodation needs for the next two years.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.45 p.m. until 2.30p.m. on Tuesday, 13 May 2003.