Seanad debates

Wednesday, 11 June 2003

Adjournment Matters. - School Closures.


10:30 am

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I raised this issue on the Adjournment a month ago. It concerns St. Brigid's secondary school, Goresbridge, County Kilkenny. Approximately three months ago, the school's board of management received confirmation that the Department of Education and Science intends to close the school, on a phased basis, during the next two years.

I raised this matter on the Adjournment in May to ascertain what is the position of the Department and the plan to close the school was confirmed in the reply I received. Since then, local residents, students, past pupils and parents have organised an action group which has submitted a quite detailed survey of the school's catchment area. This indicated that the possibility exists for significant increases in the numbers of students attending St. Brigid's in the future and that the school could remain viable.

The problem that has existed for a number of years – it was made apparent at a recent public meeting in Goresbridge – is that very little, if any, capital investment was put into improving the physical structure of the school in the past 30 to 40 years. From a health and safety point of view, the building is not in great condition. That results from a continuous effort by the Department of Education and Science to have the school closed at some point.

I acknowledge that the number of students attending the school at present – approximately 130 or 140 – is small. A number of different bus routes, which take students from the school's immediate catchment area to Kilkenny, Bagenalstown and Carlow, are in operation and these detract from the school's prospects.

In view of the fact that the action group has put a lot of work into its report and that there is strong public feeling in the Goresbridge area that the school should survive, I would like to be informed of the Department's current view on the matter. I have tried to find obtain information in this regard from the Department in recent weeks but I have not been successful. I have made many phone calls, but an answer has not been forthcoming. People in Goresbridge and those who work at and attend St. Brigid's are concerned that, once the leaving certificate examinations conclude, the issue will be forgotten. It appears that no information will be forthcoming until September and that the school will be closed in the next two years. I will be interested to hear the Minister of State's response.

Síle de Valera (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The future of St. Brigid's Secondary School, Goresbridge, County Kilkenny, was the subject of recent debate in the House. However, I am glad of the opportunity to outline the up-to-date position.

The future of this school has been uncertain since a decision of the board of management to close the school was announced over five years ago. The board decided to phase out the operation of the school over two years. This decision was reached after consideration of several issues that were impacting negatively on the school. It was acknowledged that the viability of the school would become increasingly untenable due to declining enrolments.

A consequence of declining enrolment is that the number of teachers in a school would also be reduced and the school's capacity to deliver a full range of subject options would inevitably be curtailed. A groundswell of public support for the school, and opposition to its closure, resulted in a reversal of the board's decision and my Department was notified of this in June 1998.

Since then, a number of proposals aimed at increasing enrolment and securing the future of the school have been made. These proposals included the possible assumption of responsibility for the school by County Kilkenny VEC and the adjustment of the existing catchment boundaries and current transport arrangements to facilitate increasing enrolments at St Brigid's.

Central to any proposal for the continuation of the school is the need for extensive capital investment in the infrastructure of the building. The reality is that enrolment trends have not changed in recent years and the indications are that, on current trends, an optimistic projection of future enrolment would be in the region of 125. This projection is based on a pattern of enrolment where in excess of 60% of the total first-year intake comes from outside the catchment area. The school currently attracts less than a quarter of the potential from schools in its catchment area.

The trend of pupils from Goresbridge attending a number of other schools outside the area appears to be long established and the Minister is not convinced that any intervention at St. Brigid's would reverse these established patterns. Over time he considered the various proposals and studied the projected future enrolment potential at the school. He is reviewing the latest submission made to the Department by the local action group and will respond within the next few weeks.