Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 November 2005

12:00 pm

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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Rationalising the provision of secondary education is a demographic imperative. Despite the rapid increase in our population, demand for secondary education is considerably lower than it was in the late 1990s. This is attributable to the sharply declining birth rate from 1983 to 1994. The number of births in 1983 was approximately 75,000, while the number was less than 48,000 by 1994 after ten years of continuous decline.

The children in this cohort are now 11 years of age and about to enter secondary education. There are 17,000 fewer children entering secondary education compared with ten years ago. We have an immediate slump in demand, which is unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future to the level that prevailed in the past. There is an irrefutable case for rationalisation. Many schools are no longer viable because they are not of sufficient size to offer the kind of subject choice or the desired variety of course levels — foundation, ordinary or higher. These schools are also unable to offer the junior certificate school programme, the leaving certificate applied programme and the leaving certificate vocational programme. If every student is to have access to the subjects and courses that best suit his or her aptitudes, interests and aspirations, he or she must be in a school that is adequately resourced. The prevailing pupil-teacher ratio dictates that only large schools can offer a comprehensive range of subject levels and courses.

Rationalisation is therefore inevitable and desirable, however, it should be carried out strategically. Leaving the demise of schools to the sole criterion of enrolment numbers is unwise. There is a plethora of schools with declining enrolments in my own area of Dublin, although it is politically unwise for me to say so. None of the 14 second level schools serving north-east Dublin is full to capacity. There are over 9,000 secondary school places in the area but only approximately 6,000 pupils.

The closure of one third of these schools is realistic, if not inevitable, although I will never live down having said so. However, communities must be consulted about such closures. Schools which operate under a broad remit and provide adult education and a comprehensive range of courses, programmes, subjects and social interventions, must be preserved in preference to narrowly-focused schools which are selective, exclusive, disinterested in the social dimension of education and only open for six hours a day over the 167-day school year.

The Minister of State is aware that schools are expensive utilities which are provided and funded by the Exchequer. It is not unreasonable to allow communities to have access to and receive services from them for a greater part of each day and throughout the year. This is sufficiently reasonable to merit being a sine qua non in determining school closures.

I was dismayed to learn that one of the schools targeted for closure in my area is Greendale community school. This school caters for over 1,000 adult students and its facilities are open to the public seven days a week on a year-round basis. It is widely recognised for its innovative and student-friendly teaching methods and has an extraordinary catalogue of accomplishments and an international reputation for its pedagogical initiatives. It is short-sighted folly to close such a school.

The Department of Education and Science has dissociated itself from the decision to close the school but the trustees only delivered the coup de grace after they were invited to do so by the Department. It appears they had little choice but to fall on their own swords.

I accept that the decision to close the secondary school function in Greendale community school will probably not be reversed. However, I trust that the premises, which are State-owned, will remain dedicated to community development through adult education and community recreational programmes. Kilbarrack is a disadvantaged area with virtually no amenities other than those provided by local football clubs and Greendale community school. I call on the Minister of State to ensure that the school is left in the service of the community of Kilbarrack.

1:00 pm

Síle de Valera (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Fitzgerald for raising this matter, as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position with regard to the planned closure of Greendale community school in Kilbarrack.

Greendale community school was built in 1975 to accommodate no less than 800 pupils. The school expanded quickly to exceed its enrolment capacity. An extension to provide accommodation for up to 900 pupil places was, therefore, subsequently provided in the early 1980s. However, in line with more recent demographic changes in the area, the school is now continuously experiencing a steady decline in enrolments. Since 1996-97, for example, enrolment has declined by 50%, down from 449 students then to 215 students in the 2003-04 school year. Current enrolment trends at primary schools in the area indicate that this decline will continue.

The school made an application for major capital investment in 1999. A feasibility study commissioned by my Department on foot of this application estimated that an investment of €2.4 million would be required to address the remedial works necessary. In common with all applications for large-scale capital investment, an analysis of the long-term accommodation needs of the area where the school is located was carried out. From this analysis, it emerged that a general decline in enrolments had resulted in spare capacity of an estimated 2,300 places at post-primary level. In the circumstances, my Department did not consider that the level of capital investment required for Greendale community school was warranted. There was sufficient accommodation in the area to cater for all those seeking places. However, grant aid was made available to ensure immediate health and safety issues at the school were addressed. During this period, Greendale community school was developing its provision of self-funded adult education courses.

Subsequently, my Department held meetings with the trustees to discuss the future of the school because the evidence from primary school enrolments in the area strongly suggested that there would not be adequate pupil numbers in the locality to enable the school to regenerate. My Department was also concerned at the ability of the school to offer a broad and balanced curriculum given the relatively small number of day pupils enrolled. The trustees advised my Department in March 2004 that a decision had been taken to close the school in June 2007 and that there would be no intake of pupils in September 2005. Taking all of the circumstances into consideration, my Department concurred with the trustees' decision.

The further education section within my Department funds the provision of adult education and community education courses. Courses are usually delivered locally by vocational education committees. The general aim of adult education and community education courses given with departmental funding is to provide second-chance education for those who have left school without obtaining a leaving certificate and vocational-type courses such as the vocational training opportunities scheme, Youthreach and senior Traveller training centres, adult literacy and basic education. Self-funded night-time adult programmes are also offered.

The bulk of the provision in Greendale community school appears to be self-funded night-time adult education, rather than second-chance courses. The returns from the school for 2004-05 indicate 18,858 tuition hours, which would correlate to 800 to 1,000 adult education students. Courses on offer include FETAC-accredited business and IT-type provision, in addition to health and safety and work experience.

The school has received funding from my Department over the past number of years for places under the back to education initiative. In 2004, it received an allocation of €17,500 for 19 part-time back to education initiative participants. This year, it received an allocation of €20,000. The number of participants for the period from January to June 2005 was nine. Full participant numbers are not due to be returned until the end of the year. In 2005, some €8 million was allocated for community education through the vocational education committees. In addition, the back to education initiative was allocated some €10.87 million in 2004, accounting for 6,000 participants.

The City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee has an extensive number of venues on the north side of Dublin, including Killester College of Further Education and Coláiste Dhúlaigh in Raheny. The back to education initiative is also made available in a range of venues, including schools, community centres and family resource centres. When Greendale community school closes in 2007, ownership of the school property, which is currently vested in the trustees, will revert to my Department. In the period leading up to the closure of the school, my Department will consider all available options with regard to the future use of the school property.

With specific regard to adult education, my Department is aware of the existing community and adult education provision currently offered at Greendale community school and it will be working in partnership with the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee to ensure this provision is continued in the context of the overall provision in the area.

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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When will the Department's plans for the future use of the school premises and site become available and could the Minister of State give me an assurance that she will provide the local community and myself with this plan when it becomes available?

Síle de Valera (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The Department will examine the school's situation soon and I will keep the Senator informed.