Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

5:00 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann, affirming the principle that no child should be denied access to education on the grounds of religion or race, notes with deep concern the crisis which occurred this September in the provision of primary school places; further notes that this crisis, which has had profoundly unacceptable consequences, arises from:

the haphazard manner in which new school sites are identified through the planning process, both nationally and through local authorities;

the apparent failure to apply adequate criteria, based on demographic and other relevant factors, in the assessment of whether additional schools or classrooms are required in a given area;

the role of the Department of Education and Science in the procurement of school sites; and

the effects of particular enrolment policies applied by primary schools themselves; and

calls on the Government to establish a National Convention on Education to address the future of Irish education, and to plan for the needs of a changing Ireland.

I welcome the Minister. It is important to state there are few, if any, issues which may come before the House of greater import than the future of education. I strongly believe the post of Minister for Education and Science is the most important in any Government.

This is an important debate for reasons of which we have been aware in recent weeks, but it is one we should be having in any case. The purpose of the Labour Party motion is to debate in the House and the wider community the direction the school system should take.

Public discourse often tends to be dictated by the latest crisis, whether it is the state of the health service, Shannon connectivity or the crisis in the provision of school places experienced in Balbriggan a few weeks ago. I am sure the people at the centre of these very public spats would prefer not to be the subject of public controversy and to get on with their lives when the particular difficulty they face has been resolved. In this context, while my colleague, Senator Brendan Ryan, might touch on the subject, we might not want to dwell for too long on the particular situation that arose in Balbriggan. I am sure we would all want to join in wishing the pupils in particular, their parents and the staff of the new school in Balbriggan every good fortune in their future endeavours, notwithstanding the very public nature of the establishment of their school. They are at the centre of this issue and should be supported in every way, as I am sure they will be.

The real opportunity offered by this debate and the convention we suggest should be established — I regret the Government is not supporting it — is that of ensuring there would be no recurrence of what happened in that instance. This ought to be the single objective of the House and, most importantly, the Government. In that context, it is unfortunate the Government parties have sought to amend the motion. I am not naive enough to think Private Members' motions from the Opposition are not subject to amendment by the Government — I understand the practice and procedure in this regard. However, without being overly pedantic, I would have expected that the principle set out at the beginning of the motion, namely, that no child should be denied access to education on the grounds of religion or race, was one which was beyond controversy and discussion in the House or anywhere else. I would have thought it was a touchstone. In the spirit of debate and discussion, it might occur to the Government parties that they might not contest this principle and might instead agree to it, notwithstanding the other aspects of the amendment.

The motion we have tabled seeks a debate. We cannot have the last word today on all of these complex issues but that we simply seek to advance the debate should be a laudable objective. It is surprising the Government appears not to wish to do this in the manner we propose.

The motion refers to haphazard planning. It may be this phrase that does not appeal to the Government. What we are treated to in the Government amendment is essentially a list of bullet points detailing the various improvements in construction work and expenditure that have apparently been made. However, it is clear planning is haphazard or we would not have experienced the recent problems.

What many cannot understand is how the Department of Education and Science and Government agencies do not seem to have the basic demographic information on population movement, including immigration trends, that would, at least, ensure meaningful advance notice of a demand for places. One hopes they have that information, but there is no point having it to hand if it is not put to use and if the policy decisions we expect the Department to make are not informed by this information. We only have to look about to see that commercial organisations, campaigners of all kinds and political parties have very detailed and sophisticated information on population movement, where people are located, their likes and dislikes, the pubs they drink in and their preferences across a range of products.

It is not huge to ask of a Department that it have at its fingertips such demographic information on population trends and movements in our cities, suburbs and towns to inform its policy. This would ensure meaningful advance notice of such problems. However, it should do more than this. It is not enough to simply claim we are able to avoid a problem by knowing about it a few weeks or months in advance. Planning should go much further — it must ensure schools are constructed at the same time houses are built. Why is this such an extraordinary notion in the Ireland of 2007? Why is a development such as the one in Adamstown the exception rather than the rule? After more than ten years of economic growth, the like of which we have never seen in our history — I have no problem conceding this is the case — why can we not have schools at the same time as we have houses?

Can anybody answer this question? What does it say about our priorities and those of the Government? Ensuring the provision of a school should be as vital in a housing estate as the completion of any other infrastructure, roads or otherwise. Surely the school is at the heart of a community and is an essential element of our infrastructure, physical and otherwise. Why has this simple objective not been achieved?

As the Minister will no doubt inform the House, schools do not just materialise, they must be made to materialise. Active, forceful and tenacious intervention by the State is required to achieve this outcome. We should not expect developers to provide schools, other than by imposing an enforceable legal requirement similar to the provision originally included in the planning Acts in respect of social and affordable housing. Unfortunately, this provision was subsequently amended. This requirement must make the construction of a school a social dividend which developers and others who build houses in our suburbs must deliver at the same time as the houses they build. They must give the provision of a school the same level of priority as bricks and mortar for housing.

The Government amendment refers to certain measures in the programme for Government in this context. We will await developments in that regard. However, as was pointed out in the other House last week, it is noteworthy that the area development unit referred to in the programme for Government has still not been established. I hope this fact is not an indication of the level of urgency with which the Minister and her Department approach the matter.

In recent weeks, there has been considerable debate on enrolment policies in national schools and their implications for the overall debate on education. The attitude of Catholic school managers in particular has been raised. We all accept that society has changed dramatically in recent decades, in particular in the past ten to 12 years. During this period, the State has been slow to address growing demand for non-denominational schools, although I acknowledge that some progress has been made in this respect. These are precisely the types of issues that could be productively considered and debated in a convention or public forum established to address educational issues. The Archbishop of Dublin has even called for such a debate and indicated that the Catholic Church has no interest in being the sole provider of primary school education in the Dublin area. Clearly, the Catholic Church cannot have it both ways. While the need to preserve and support religious ethos in schools is a legitimate concern, given that public funding is at stake, this must not be simply a matter of red-circling support for particular religions. The issue must be considered in the round. We must examine priorities, the changing nature of demand for primary school education and all the issues which arise in that context. While I would welcome the involvement of the Catholic Church in such a debate, it will need to change its stance on a number of relevant issues.

The motion does no more than call for a national debate on education in a public forum. There cannot be a serious or meaningful objection to having a public discussion of the relevant issues. That is the basis on which the Labour Party tabled the motion.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I second the motion and welcome the Minister to the House. I propose to address an issue which arose recently in Balbriggan and provide examples of the types of problems the Minister needs to address.

Balbriggan has featured prominently in the news in recent weeks as a result of a lack of school places at primary level. A school, Bracken Educate Together, was opened at the last minute to accommodate children who could not secure places in existing schools in the area. Balbriggan is an example of crisis management in primary education. Other areas in the greater Dublin area, including my parish of Skerries, are having similar experiences with severe pressure on schools to provide places. School planning, particularly at primary level, has been a disaster.

Balbriggan is a good example of a fast growing town in the greater Dublin area. It is worthwhile commenting on some of the problems the town is experiencing as a result of rapid growth. Of the eight primary schools in the catchment area, which includes Balrothery and Balscadden, five are under Catholic patronage, one is under Church of Ireland patronage, two, including the much publicised Bracken Educate Together school, are under Educate Together patronage and one is a Gaelscoil. There is, therefore, considerable diversity in primary education in the town. The most recent three schools to open in the area are not under faith-based patronage, a trend which is increasingly reflected in other areas.

In recent years, Balbriggan has emerged as a rapid growth area. According to the most recent census, the population of the town increased from 10,294 in 2002 to 15,559 in 2006, a massive rise of 51.1%. While this population growth presents major challenges for the Minister, it did not happen overnight. There were many indicators along the way, including land rezonings, planning applications, housing starts and completions, all of which are widely used economic indicators.

Forecasting for primary school place demand may not be a particularly difficult exercise but it requires attention and must be carried out by somebody. It is the responsibility of the Minister and her Department to anticipate demand, have schools in place when they are needed and provide the necessary teachers and places. As we have observed in the case of Balbriggan, meeting these requirements has proved challenging for the Minister and her Department.

In responding to the current problems the Minister has blamed others, including local authorities. I heard her adopt this position on "Today with Pat Kenny". While I do not suggest the local authorities are blameless in these matters — an integrated approach which includes the local authorities is needed — it is the responsibility of the Minister to ensure effective planning in this regard. She must take ownership of the process rather than abdicating responsibility.

The recent suggestion that demand for primary school places in Balbriggan crept up on the Department this year is simply not acceptable and does not stand up to scrutiny. Principals and patrons of existing primary schools in Balbriggan have regularly highlighted the problem of increasing demand for school places since 1999. Excerpts from correspondence to the Department, which I have seen, include statements noting that the Balbriggan catchment area was expanding daily with literally hundreds of new houses under construction; uproar would ensue in the community if something was not done; one of the schools urgently required additional accommodation; and the town was set to explode. The recent events in Balbriggan were a crisis waiting to happen and had been predicted. Despite repeated warnings by people involved in primary education in the town, someone took an eye off the ball.

The Labour Party has published detailed proposals on planning for school places in which we argue that the National Treasury Management Agency be given the task of tracking residential development and population patterns. The NTMA should develop a model which would be able to predict when and where demographic change will lead to a demand for school places. It must also address the many existing education black spots, including north and west Dublin. Irrespective of which body or agency performs this task, demand planning must take place. This issue could feature on the agenda of the forum the motion proposes.

I will discuss briefly the issues of patronage, enrolment policy and suggestions of discrimination. Enrolment policies for faith based primary schools, whether the patron is the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland or another faith, give priority to children of their own faith where demand outstrips available places. These are based on guidelines from the faith based patrons, namely, the bishops or archbishops. They are not, as has been suggested, at the discretion of individual school boards of management.

People should have a choice. If parents want to send their children to a school with a Catholic, Church of Ireland, Jewish or other ethos, so be it. However, the State should be the patron of a school where appropriate. It is only when there are insufficient places available that enrolment policies become a problem, which the Minister recognises given her comments in the other House. No school can refuse a child a place, irrespective of religion or ethos, if places are available.

I do not accept the suggestion in some parts of the media that there is discrimination in primary education in Balbriggan and the area's school principals have been hurt by these suggestions. In one of the primary schools to which I referred, 25% of pupils are non-Irish, with a high proportion of those being black, which does not suggest a discriminatory enrolment policy. A principal reminded me that if he is faced with a choice between a Catholic Nigerian child and a non-Catholic Irish child, he must give the place to the former in accordance with enrolment policy. He has no discretion. These problems for principals can be eliminated with proper planning.

Regarding another issue, 50% of the school's pupils are taught in 12 prefabricated buildings despite there being adequate land in the parish's ownership around the school to extend the school properly. It is not a local authority issue, but relates to a commitment on the part of the Department. Prefabs cost approximately €1,000 per month to rent and present a constant worry to principals due to the possible outbreak of fire. It is a false economy and is not good enough for our children, as prefabs do not pass for proper school buildings.

Our motion calls for a national convention on education to be established, which is important given the changing face and increasing diversity in society and the fact that churches are increasingly declaring their intent to pull out of education. In the meantime, we must get the basic school planning right because much depends on it. If we get the planning right, we will have fewer problems.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:

notes the record level of activity under the school building and modernisation programme in recent years and the innovations in the design and delivery of school buildings that have been put in place to ensure that extra accommodation is delivered as quickly as possible;

further notes the improvements that already have been made in forward planning for new schools and those provided for under the new programme for Government;

welcomes the fact that construction work this year alone will deliver more than 700 classrooms to provide permanent accommodation for more than 17,500 pupils, mainly in developing areas;

supports the provision of €4.5 billion for school buildings under the NDP and the plans therein to provide 100,000 extra school places;

welcomes the major expansion in supports for children with English language needs in recent years; and

acknowledges the Government's commitment to promoting successful integration in our schools.

I am proud to have been appointed Government spokesperson on education and science. As a teacher by background, this topic is close to my heart and I look forward to a long tenure in the upper House — currently, I have five years and nothing more in mind — as I come to grips with what is a large brief.

I agree with Senator Alex White that education is a key Ministry. My starting point will always be simple in that education is a cornerstone that unlocks potential in each of us, our children and their children. It opens doors into new worlds and does not need to be the same door or have the same paths for all who experience it to be a successful encounter. That is exciting.

Education will help us survive and thrive, but it does not begin when a child reaches a school gate aged approximately five years or, in my case, three. As I did not get out of school until I was 27 years of age, I had a long sentence. I aspire to the evolution in Ireland of the acceptance that parents and children bonding from birth or pre-birth and the interaction of parents and children from the earliest stage is the starting point of the greatest potential for education. The quality time parents can give their children until the latter are six years old is the greatest investment they can make. This must be supported in both ideology and reality by the Government, be it through Life Start or similar programmes. I can give many countries as examples, in particular those in the southern hemisphere, where the battle is already won.

Too often, we will stand here and muse on the need for more supports and resources for students when they go from pre-school to primary school, from primary school to secondary school and from secondary school to university. I am a great advocate of prevention being better than cure. Access to schools is a topical issue in the part of the country from which I come, but it may not be popular or topical for the same reasons held by those who tabled the motion.

I want to address the issue of a failure to pre-plan in respect of hundreds of houses but no schools being built, as raised by Senator Alex White. In Border areas, there was a court case relating to the right to go to school. This is not an issue of the lack of facilities in, for example, Donegal, but of the fact that new residents moving there from Derry city wish to continue their education in Derry. The term "grannying" has become synonymous with the use of granny's address in Derry rather than the Donegal address when filling in the form for the next school term. This raises a number of interesting questions such as pre-planning, putting in place the correct resources and not creating white elephants.

The population of practically every Border village in County Donegal has exploded in a short period. Had the Department of Education and Science followed the planning application process and, on foot of the hundreds of houses being built at any time — sometimes as many as 500 — put in place new school accommodation, it would have yielded some white elephants because the children did not materialise. Instead, they kept "going North", as it were — politically North and geographically South. Some small schools in County Donegal struggle with numbers, the retention of teachers and excess classrooms where numbers have declined, yet the population has grown significantly. In other parts of the country, the population explosion has yielded pressure.

There is a need to encourage more accuracy in the mechanisms to ensure children born today can be identified and that a concept is developed as to where they will be schooled, irrespective of their race, religion or origin. The identification of children born in the Twenty-six Counties has become easier in that the children's allowance scheme has been computerised to such a level that the book, as mentioned at the scheme's launch, is on the mat as soon as the baby is carried across the threshold. Can this be a starting point? The current starting point is census information, but should we pursue the collection of census information where people have not filled in the forms? Some people in my area would not fill in a census form.

Information is crucial, but it must be accurate. In my area, relying on baptismal records is not accurate. I do not believe this is a Border or rural issue because there is a greater fluidity in the movement of people than before. Currently, where a child is baptised is not necessarily where the child will go to school. In making these observations, I strive not to defend the Department, but to point out the definite logistical issues that are far from straightforward. If many others follow the new Minister for education in the North, who lives in a Border region and whose children are schooled in the North, it makes for a fluid Border. While I advocate a 32 county Ireland, we must question the logistical nightmare for all involved across the island in terms of resource decisions until there is in place a good information exchange mechanism.

Once numbers can be predicted, we move to the issue of responsibility for school provision. While the Department is responsible for educational matters, there is a question of whether there is a role in the planning permission to put an onus on the developer to assist in the provision of the schools, be it in the form of sites or public private partnerships.

Given that my time is so limited, I wish to underscore that I have witnessed considerable investment in schools at primary and post-primary levels. I am on the board of a primary school beginning a building project for an eight-teacher facility. While I welcome that facility, my old primary school is either in the process of being knocked down or will be knocked down shortly, about which I am disheartened. I am the chair of a second level school that, as a multimillion euro investment, is a prime example of how to do a project well, fast and within budget in an innovative way, of which the Minister is aware. This is not to say that Moville Community College does not need completion, that Scoil Mhuire and Crana College in Buncrana do not need building programmes, that gaelscoileanna are not searching for permanent facilities or that Carndonagh Community School does not want to scale down and consolidate to cope with the decline in numbers. Rather, these and similar locations have better chances to progress under the current Administration. I wish the Minister well at the beginning of her new term in office because she understands and is committed to education.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, whom I have met on a number of previous occasions in various educational contexts. As the Fine Gael spokesperson on education and science in the Seanad, I welcome the Labour Party motion that no child should be denied access to education on the grounds of religion or race. This follows from the position articulated by my colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, in the Dáil last week, where he described the convening of a national forum on education as vital for the future of our education system. I see such a forum, which would have clear terms of reference with regard to discussing the future of our education system, as the way forward in terms of bringing all the issues into the open and addressing them in public. We established a similar forum in 1994 following the publication of the Green Paper and prior to the Education Act 1998. I ask the Minister to seriously consider a forum. It would not be very different from the proposals being put forward by the Labour Party.

The crisis which occurred in September in the provision of primary school places in Balbriggan should never recur. In many ways, however, we have been done a favour because the matter has finally come to a head. Yesterday I spoke with the principal in Balbriggan and the chairman of the Educate Together school. I commend them for rising to the challenge in such a situation of crisis. No one listened when similar issues arose elsewhere in the country. In Galway, schools are at full capacity, yet house building continues in new areas such as Doughiska and Knocknacarra without any forward planning for an education infrastructure at local level. The matter is totally brainless. Knocknacarra, which I called new although it has been in existence for 20 years, has finally received its first English school this year. Should we call that good forward planning?

The problem can be solved if there is the will on the behalf of the Department of Education and Science to engage in joined-up thinking with local government and other Departments with information on population trends. The areas that need to be targeted in the first instance are those with large-scale housing developments. This information is freely available through local area plans and town plans with population projections. If she wants to be responsible, the Minister should immediately act in conjunction with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to amend the Planning and Development Acts to ensure that school places are included by law and, where necessary, that schools are built at the same time as houses. In practice, this means the Department will have to take a proactive forward planning role with local government to identify school sites and begin the planning process once the local area plan is adopted. That is not happening and the way we do our business is not satisfactory. Laytown screamed for a school earlier this year. In Oranmore, where I live, Gaelscoil de hIde has been 13 years in existence without a permanent site and the school's nearly 200 students have to stagger their breaks in order to be able to play safely in the yard.

I have been a member of four school boards of management, each of which has encountered issues pertaining to space or buildings. Over 50% of the accommodation in Athenry vocational school is in prefabs. A state-of-the-art facility at Calasanctius College was already over capacity when it was opened by the Minister and the school had to inform a number of children there was only room for local students. These problems will continue unless a system of integrated forward planning across Government agencies is initiated by the Department.

A national and local government database needs to be established of births and new entrants to current school areas in order to establish whether schools have adequate places for children at primary and secondary level. When a child is born, a window of four or five years is available for planning. I accept it is more difficult when families move into areas during the year in which they need school places but ours is a State led, publicly funded education system and it is the duty of the Minister to ensure sufficient places for all our children, regardless of race, religion or social background. Balbriggan has proven this is not happening. It has done the country a favour in terms of bringing the Department's lack of forward planning to a head.

Where there is a new influx of multi-ethnic populations, information needs to be sought from other Departments so as to give a fuller picture of new populations. Using the PPS system, data can be collected on families receiving rental allowance through the community welfare office and the HSE. Community pre-school services can give information on the numbers seeking funding from the Department of Health and Children and the HSE for inspections. Non-EU national families are in contact with local immigration offices under the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which can also provide information on refugees and asylum seekers on direct provision. This information needs to be centrally collated.

I ask the Minister to commit to putting a national and local database system in place so that we can track our children. This would also help children who do not transfer from primary to secondary level. At least 1,000 children are currently untraceable due to the absence of a database. We have far more accountability in our national cattle herd.

On the issue of school patronage, I acknowledge the huge contribution that the Catholic church has made to education. Few of us have not been educated by nuns, priests or brothers and there will always be a need for denominational education. Parents have the right to chose and, in this context, I welcome Archbishop Martin's statement on a debate. However, we also must accept that we live in a changing Ireland that has experienced unprecedented immigration and multiculturalism over the past ten years. This has challenged all that we do at every level, including our traditional models of school patronage and provision.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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The Senator's time has concluded.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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For the overall good of society, we need to embrace diversity in our publicly funded State-run schools. The time has come for a national debate to address important questions such as whether the current model of denominational education is suitable to our needs.

Senators:

I ask the Senator to conclude.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I am summing up. I was sure I had timed myself accurately. I apologise but I am somewhat nervous, so I appreciate the Acting Chairman's intervention.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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If that works, I will try it.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Do we envisage an integrated education system in which all races and religions are welcome or are they only welcome when signed up to denominational education? That is dangerous because the issue will then become one of access and enrolment policies will exclude rather than include children.

Senators:

The Senator has exceeded her time.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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If the two steps of forward planning and a national database are taken, we will have fewer problems with selectivity and the exclusion of children. That is the way to build a fairer society in Ireland.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and wish her well during the term of the current Government. I am speaking against Senator Alex White's motion. I examined the word "haphazard" and visited South Dublin County Council, on which I served. Senator White was also with that council for many years. I agree that 15 or 20 years ago, when I was a councillor, things were haphazard in this regard but this matter has changed radically in the past ten years. The area is no longer haphazard. Previously houses were built with no regard for infrastructure in the area but this has changed as the fine model of Adamstown demonstrates.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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Another housing development in the area involved an action plan, and we discussed at length how it would be utilised as part of the development plan. Before any planning application was granted, it was required that a school site be identified and failing this, it was necessary to liaise with the planning section of the Department of Education and Science. For this reason the use of the word "haphazard" is incorrect.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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Did the Senator go to Fingal?

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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Regarding the procurement of sites, I agree that more joined-up thinking is needed. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, may have recognised that there should be better co-operation between local authorities, the planning section of the Department of Education and Science and the health agency. The new office for integration represents a great step forward in acknowledging the problems in fast growing areas.

I do not agree with the suggestion that we need a new national convention to debate this issue because this country is turning into a talking shop due to the preponderance of committees. The necessary structures are already in place in every local authority.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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A new national convention would be open to the public.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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Those structures allow the developer to work with the Department of Education and Science to identify sites.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Hands are tied by the planning Acts.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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We must first identify sites and this can be achieved through the existing structures, although some tidying up may be necessary. The framework is in place, so why create another talking shop? However one approaches the matter, it would still be necessary to liaise with the local authority.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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They can be empowered through legislation.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's contribution was not interrupted by me and she took long enough to make it.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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That is a fair point.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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The structures are in place but I suggest to the Minister, regarding joined-up thinking, that some loose ends need to be tidied up. There are fast growing areas and Balbriggan is a model on which the Minister can speak at length because it is an example of how we should move forward.

There may have been discrimination in fast growing areas where there was a shortage of school places and, perhaps, an ethos prevailed that saw Catholic students gaining preferential access. I can understand concerns in this regard but such matters come under the remit of the Equal Status Act 2000. It is important that extra school places be created and the Government is committed to achieving this goal. Significant investment has been made in this regard to ensure nobody is denied access to education.

I do not favour the suggested convention because I believe we should keep the existing structures and tidy them. Better joined-up thinking will help us work together to ensure school access for all children of schoolgoing age. It is possible to make this work using the existing structures.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I would like to share three minutes of my time with Senator Ivana Bacik.

Senators:

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I congratulate the Labour Party for tabling this motion that is at least partly in response to the critical situation in Balbriggan. I notice it is causing the usual Wednesday evening ping-pong match, whereby the Opposition criticises the Government for its failures and the Government amends the motion noting and welcoming various achievements. This debate should be taken more seriously without points scoring.

The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, is one of the best Ministers in the Government but that does not mean her Department is immune from criticism and she would not expect that to be the case. A critical situation was raised on "Questions and Answers" in recent weeks and a fine doctor stated clearly that she was aware, in the area of her general practice, of children turned away from a primary school because they did not have a baptismal certificate. This is a significant problem that must be addressed.

The fact that there is a crisis led the Minister to call in Educate Together, an excellent group, and the chief executive said there is a catastrophic failure in the provision of school places for rapidly developing housing areas. This is not a partisan, party political view but rather one from the coalface from an expert on whom the Minister relied to rectify the situation. How did this situation arise?

We live in a rapidly developing society and a very good article on this topic was written by Dr. Garret FitzGerald. He points out that 60% of residents of the area in which I live are not Irish but mostly eastern European and Asian. There is a problem regarding the command of the English language possessed by some immigrants and this is an area the Government must address immediately. In the aforementioned school situations, the preponderance of non-Irish people will inevitably pull back other students, through no fault of their own but through a lack of linguistic skills. This is a problem that may lead to tension. Again, how did this situation arise?

It is clear the information on which forward planning should be based was available within the Department. Dr. FitzGerald points out that "from each census the necessary data on the numbers aged nought to four in each of the 320 different areas of Dublin and in well over 3,500 other parts of the country have been available". If one adds this to details relating to housing numbers, approvals and so on available from county councils and data relating to people's nationalities and ethnic origins, it is clear the information is available. However, it was inert and was not acted upon and this constitutes failure.

Another significant problem is the baptismal certificate. I am a churchgoing member of the Church of Ireland. I am not antagonistic towards religion but the exemption from the Equality Act sought by all churches, not just the Roman Catholic Church, presents a significant problem. There is this problem because of the lack of confidence each church has in the ethos it holds. A real religious faith can be fostered in the home and school is a place for giving facts. This is why Educate Together is such an excellent system. It is not militantly atheistic. It provides for the religious needs of the children and the requirements of parents.

It is very dangerous that churches should be exempt from equality legislation. Christianity is supposed to be about equality, the State is supposed to treat all the children of the nation equally, yet we exempt churches from such notions. I raised this matter previously. The Government should re-examine such exemptions because they allow churches, using State money, to fire teachers because of their lifestyles and a perceived conflict with school ethos.

The State is comfortable with the lack of separation of church and state and one need only examine the case of Louise O'Keeffe, who sued the State because she was sexually molested, for evidence of this. She was landed with the costs of the case because the State neatly passed responsibility to the church. This is unfair and clearly indicates the need for the separation of church and state.

I note the Roman Catholic hierarchy has indicated it no longer wants complete control of this area of education and is preparing an exit strategy of some kind. It is important that we know the motivation for this and how it will be accomplished in order that we can have proper, integrated education.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I would like to pick up where Senator Norris left off. I welcome debate on this motion as it is an issue about which I feel strongly and one I have raised on the Order Paper and previously on the Order of Business. The Minister is well aware of the problem of the lack of planning that led to the crisis over school places in Balbriggan. However, we need to focus on the deeper, structural issue that needs to be addressed, which requires the sort of national convention for which the Labour Party is calling.

I call on the Minister to focus on the issue of church control of schools which are State funded and whose teachers' salaries are paid by the State. For a long time the State abdicated responsibility for the education of children and the churches took it on. However, in modern Ireland it is no longer appropriate that children gain access to schools on the basis of religion. It is unjustifiable that a child may be denied a place in school because he or she is of the wrong religion.

Some Senators have mentioned the issue of choice. In rural Ireland, where I grew up, there generally is no choice and children must attend the local school, which is generally Catholic. If parents are not of the Catholic faith or are of no faith, they do not have a choice in a real sense.

Senator Norris spoke about Educate Together, which is a multi-denominational school organisation. This is the model we should look to in a modern pluralist Ireland. If a more integrated schooling system had been developed in Northern Ireland, it might have resolved some of the sectarian issues there.

Other speakers mentioned the Equal Status Act. This Act gives schools exclusion rights and allows them to discriminate on the basis of religion. There is a concern that this exemption in the legislation may lead to indirect racial discrimination, a matter which has been raised by the Equality Authority and which the Government must examine in the context of EU law and the EU race directive. The opening of schools which appear to be almost exclusively made up of children of a non-Irish ethnic background, or of only Irish ethnic background, is a significant concern. It is in our interest and that of our children that our schooling system be fully integrated and that all children be given equal access to school places, irrespective of their race or religion.

Religious instruction should be a private matter for parents outside of school while schools should teach religious education, which is a different matter, to all children by teaching them about religions. We should see an end to discrimination and to the system of patronage on the basis of religion.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Ned O'Sullivan.

Senators:

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to debate the Labour Party motion on the important issue of education, planning for it and the provision of primary school places.

Our rapid population growth is a starting point for this debate. My constituency of Wicklow falls within the greater Dublin area and it had an increase of 10% in population between 2002 and 2006, which is phenomenal. We must be fair and admit that this growth brings extraordinary pressure in terms of the provision of educational services. I admit that as a result of the rapid population growth in particular areas, we face difficulties with our education system. This significant population growth highlights the shortcomings of our education system, particularly the planning area.

Having served as a county councillor with Wicklow County Council for eight years, I am familiar with the way local authorities plan future educational provision. The difficulty as I see it is that the Department of Education and Science has a central role in educational planning while local authorities are responsible for land use planning, but often the two functions are not well co-ordinated. As a result, in the absence of a local area plan, areas grow considerably and densities increase, but the issue does not come under the radar of the Department until a local area plan has to be drawn up.

In areas where a local plan is drawn up and land is zoned specifically for educational purposes, developers effectively have a green light to proceed with residential developments. However, this does not always mean the provision of schools happens simultaneously. Often we find such large estates occupied by families, but unfortunately no new schools are available for the new population to attend.

We must address this challenge of educational planning. The Green Party believes this can be done through the establishment of a specific strategic planning section within the Department of Education and Science. Good quality information should be available to the strategic planning section and shared with relevant local authorities. This is essential for proper planning and would include population projections and accurate assessments of the capacity of existing schools. This is an area we fall down on currently, particularly with regard to the influx of new immigrant populations into specific areas. If this information was available to the Department and shared with local authorities and an emphasis placed on forward planning, we would overcome some of the difficulties in a few years.

The Labour Party motion raises the issue of procurement of land by the Department for the building of schools. Unfortunately, under the current system local authorities zone land for development, thereby greatly increasing the value of the land. The Department then has to pay top dollar for that land. We have seen evidence of a new approach with the Adamstown development where the approach was more integrated and developers were informed that when developing large residential estates it was their responsibility to provide a school as part of the development. Developers are often happy to do this as it does not add major extra costs to build a school while the estate is being constructed. The advantage of this approach is the simultaneous provision of the school and housing. The Adamstown project is a welcome, forward-looking development. I hope the partnership approach evident in that development, between the Department of Education and Science and South Dublin County Council, can be replicated elsewhere.

The location of schools is an important issue. We talk a lot about the issue of obesity and the need for children to exercise more. Often, however, when we select new sites for schools, we locate them on the outskirts of towns which means children will be car-dependent from the start. I call on the Minister to locate future schools in central areas of towns and villages in order that children can walk or cycle to school. It is important to do this. Local authorities have a safe routes to school programme, but often it is impossible to implement these programmes because of the location of the schools, particularly new schools.

On patronage and enrolment policies, the Green Party would welcome the creation of a State-run patronage system that would coexist with our current system. There is a danger we may be too critical of the provision of schools by the Catholic Church, which has provided a great service for the country. However, there is room for a greatly expanded and exciting new development of our primary education system. There is an opening for schools like Educate Together and the Bray School Project, which are forward looking, multi-denominational and co-educational. They are run in a democratic way which is different from the more traditional Catholic schools. The challenge is to find a model that will allow this new system to develop under a State patronage system. The debate must focus on how that will evolve.

6:00 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus tréaslaím léi as an sár obair atá á dhéanamh aici sa phost tábhachtach atá aici sa Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta.

Pre-planning and planning have never been an exact science in terms of the provision of schools. I was a teacher in Dublin in the 1970s when huge growth was experienced in areas such as Ballyfermot, with in excess of 60 and 80 teachers being provided in schools. Ten years later, those schools were almost empty while small two or three teacher schools in the country continued to operate without adequate toilet facilities.

I have just finished working 22 years in local government and I can say that pre-planning for facilities such as educational, medical, community and religious facilities was never a priority for our planners. They will insist on a certain amount of green space and they are rigorous in enforcing social and affordable housing regulations, but with the greed in terms of planning, important issues such as education tend to be ignored. In that capacity, I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government and the Minister's commitment in her ten-year development plan to try to rectify that and take a longer view.

Regarding ethnic minorities, it is almost impossible to legislate for minority groups in every sector. Education is not different in that regard. However, there has been some success in education in terms of the Traveller community. While not ideal, there is a great history of practical work being done by the Department, schoolteachers and boards of management to help those unfortunate people who often find it difficult to become involved in mainstream society.

Ethnic minorities are more of an urban problem; they do not affect rural communities to the same extent. However, where there is a critical mass in the cities, we see the provision of specially dedicated schools which, although not ideal, are at least available. In rural areas, a school with three or four members of an ethnic group is too small for specially dedicated teaching, although I acknowledge the Minister provides additional grants in that case. There may be an inequity in that regard because it is difficult for a teacher in a 20-pupil class in rural Ireland with three or four students from an ethnic group who do not have language facilities. Are those students getting the same crack of the whip as those who, despite all the objections in the city areas, are at least being given an option? I welcome the provision by the Minister of in excess of 1,500 additional language support teachers but that initiative is to address what is more of an urban problem.

I thank the Minister for the interest she has continually shown in the welfare of Drumclough national school, outside Listowel, which is experiencing ongoing difficulties in getting clearance for the €3 million——

Senators:

The Senator can raise that matter by way of the Adjournment debate. I call the next speaker.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I know the Minister will see it through.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. Access to education is a major problem for young families in Dublin, Meath, Louth, Wicklow, Kildare and throughout the country. It is a problem that is growing day by day. It is a ticking time-bomb and it is due to the fact that we have an obsolete system for planning new classrooms in schools. We suffer from a planning system that is disjointed and a management system that is out of date and overseen by a Minister who, with all respect, does not appear to have a grip on the problem.

The problem is that there is no central person with overall responsibility for bringing together the various strands of the planning process. For example, planners are responsible for zoning sites for schools. Councillors are responsible for voting for that rezoning. The landowners are only interested in getting top dollar for their sites. The churches or the educational establishments are responsible for being the school patron. When something goes wrong, the Department of Education and Science seeks to pass the blame on to one or all of those organisations when the reality is that the only organisation that could possibly control the whole area is the Department.

Last year in Laytown I saw the damage this system failure causes when, because of the demand for classroom spaces and the lack of planning, some children went to school in the mornings while others attended in the afternoons and some children had to take lessons in the gym. I saw it in Ratoath as well where more rationing was needed because there were no classroom spaces. The rationing was done on the basis of age. Some schools required the child to be five by September, others said August while other schools required the child to be five by May. One can imagine the implications that is having for family life. Young families have to find additional funds for child care costs, take extra holidays or rope in the child's grandparents to do a spot of extra babysitting. That is all because we have an obsolete planning system.

This year there has been rationing of school places on the basis of religion, with some parents being asked to produce baptismal certificates. Last week, I spoke to a man who tried to get his daughter into the local school but he was refused because his daughter had been baptised as an Orthodox Christian, not a Catholic. Rather than the child walking five minutes to the local school, that family must drive 45 minutes every day to ensure the child gets an education.

Access is also a problem in the area of special needs. Owing to a lack of facilities, parents find it difficult to get suitable educational facilities for their child. Special needs education is being rationed as well.

Let us be clear about where the fault lies. This rationing is put in place because of a lack of school places. It is not the fault of the school, nor is it the fault of the churches. The fault lies with the Department of Education and Science for overseeing an obsolete planning process.

The country was founded on the basis that educational access was a right. Bunreacht na hÉireann states, in Article 42, that the State shall provide for free primary education. What about the spirit of the Proclamation which states that we should seek to treat and cherish all the children of the nation equally? All children have the right to learn with dignity and in comfort but that is not happening.

It is for these reasons that we must have a national convention on education. We must sort out the mess in the planning process, make more spaces available and modernise the Department of Education and Science.

People talk about the role education has played in the creation of the Celtic tiger. It now appears we are taking education for granted. While we discuss these matters in this House, other countries are honing their education systems to equip their children with the ability to be at the forefront of the knowledge economy. I urge the Government to face facts, recognise our system needs changing and call a national convention to sort out this crisis.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I congratulate the Labour Party for bringing forward this timely motion. Education, of its nature, is an issue that must continue to be debated. The debate on it will ever end.

The backdrop to the discussion is the fact that we have had something of a population explosion in recent years. That is manifested most notably in the development of the commuter towns and the entire commuter belt in the catchment area of our large cities. That is particularly apparent in the constituency from which I come in south Cavan and the towns of Virginia, Ballyjamesduff, Bailieborough and so on. All of those towns have experienced substantial and immediate increases in population. In some instances they have experienced a doubling of population in a few years as a result of the movement of people from Dublin, immigration, etc.

The major failure of both the Department and the Government — one must level the political charge — is that this problem was not anticipated. It should have been anticipated at the planning stage and links developed between local planners and the people who draw up the local area plans with the Department of Education and Science. I have expressed that view at local authority level for a long time. It is my understanding that more formal links are now established between the Department of Education and Science and the local government structures. It would be wrong if that were not the case. The Department should see the planning permissions and the area plans to anticipate school needs within a close range of the proper requirement.

Nightmare scenarios arose in my constituency. In the national school in Virginia a number of prefabs have been taking up the children's play area for years, there are overcrowded classrooms, children being taught in cloakrooms and great discomfort throughout the entire school. There is no capacity to allow for the full implementation of the modern curriculum. In St. Anne's national school in Bailieborough there is huge overcrowding and large class sizes. In Ballyjamesduff a new school was built before the final blocks were laid, before a pupil had even walked in the door, numbers dictated a need for three additional classrooms. There are plans under way to build those classrooms but there is no anticipation about the project and that must change. If that were to happen as a result of tonight's debate, it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The Government and local authorities have failed to extract enough from the big builders during the economic boom. There should have been commitments for school buildings and many of the large builders got away with building massive estates with no schools. More should have been done and we must correct it in the future, although we have missed the boat in this respect. Even now, however, where a developer is building a large estate, just as there is a requirement for social housing, there should be a requirement for educational facilities.

The forum outlined by our education spokesperson, Senator Healy Eames, is a good idea. Education is not static. Many of us have been at the coalface of education and involved intimately with the sector. We all know it is not cut and dried and a forum would not be the same as a committee, it would be a beneficial exercise that could be carried out at a low cost. It is an inherently worthwhile idea.

We can never understate the debt of gratitude owed to the Catholic and minority churches for the provision of education over the years. They have done a great job and there is no point denying that. There is also no escaping the reality that the vast majority of Irish people want denominational education provided in Catholic and Protestant schools. This has implications for my constituency, Cavan-Monaghan, where the minority community forms a substantial segment of the population and wants to preserve its identity and culture. The same is true in Senator Keaveney's constituency. The existence of a denominational school for the local Protestant community in any area plays a vital role in the perpetuation of their way of life. It is equally important for Catholics.

Alongside Catholic and Protestant schools, we should note the multi-denominational and non-denominational schools and Gaelscoileanna. It is understood that new structures must emerge in certain instances, particularly to take account of the population in some areas. I agree, however, with Bishop Leo O'Reilly, the spokesperson for the bishops on education, when he said that the Church would have to be compensated in the instances where it cedes control.

We must accept that the majority of people want the status quo to continue while recognising the new, ethnically mixed, multicultural society, marrying the two in certain areas. That marriage must be approached intelligently and new structures put in place. All partners will co-operate in this area.

I recommend that the Minister rethinks the idea of the forum. She is capable of playing her part in the process and it is too good an opportunity to miss.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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There is much to commend in this motion. The last education convention in 1997 addressed the governance of all schools and helped to clarify the constitutional position of education. If there was to be another such debate it would be welcome.

I am concerned about the tone of this debate, not just in this House but in the media in recent weeks. It is unfortunate that a certain red herring has been allowed to colour the debate. I am referring to the role of the Catholic Church, particularly its enrolment policy, in contributing to the problem. While it is not specifically referred to in the motion, the issue of the effects of particular enrolment policies applied by primary schools is listed with three other factors we could definitely point out as problems — the haphazard manner in which new school sites are identified, the apparent failure to apply criteria based on demographic and other relevant factors. Those three points make eminent sense and any criticism of the planning by officialdom in this area is well deserved.

To link the sensitive issue of schools' and churches' particular enrolment policies, however, is unfortunate. It stems from a failure to grasp the delicate interplay of issues that have contributed to the problem as we have experienced it or it may be an instance of what the Taoiseach referred to as "aggressive secularism", whereby certain problems are used to further an entirely separate political agenda. I warn against that because it is unfair to the people affected by these issues.

There is only one reason we have experienced these recent problems, particularly in Balbriggan: the lack of joined-up thinking. There are massive housing estates with no provision for education. It is true that the State is now getting its act together, but it must be asked who located these families in Balbriggan in the first place? To what extent was this problem flagged by those involved in education in the area to the State? It was flagged years ago; before the Educate Together school even opened in Balbriggan, the three Catholic primary schools in the area approached Fingal County Council and outlined their capacity and explained the numbers they could accommodate, asking the county council to remain in contact so that they could plan for the future but they never heard back from it.

To prepare for the 2007-08 school year, the three Catholic schools in Balbriggan and the education secretariat of the Dublin diocese notified the Department of Education and Science of the serious situation that was developing in the area. The Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, pointed to the large number of empty houses in Balbriggan, undoubtedly a factor in the location of certain families in the area but, far too often, in this and in other areas, there has been a lack of joined-up planning. I am not targeting this criticism at the Minister who is responsible for only one Department. However, time and again, there has been a failure to foresee the problems that will affect communities.

The provision of education is such a basic right one would imagine it would never leave the top of the agenda, yet it seems to have done so in this case. That is the reason we have had this problem. We have a bizarre linking in of church baptismal policies as though they were genuinely a part of the problem. I can only speak from my own past experience, but I am sure it is also true of other denominations, in saying that the Catholic Church is playing an active role in integration. It also facilitates the choice of others to have the type of education they want for their children. In the diocese of Cork and Ross the late Bishop Murphy provided a site for an Educate Together school there. The Loreto sisters in Churchtown gave a site to the south Dublin Educate Together school. The Bracken Educate Together school in Balbriggan is housed in property owned by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Not many people are aware of these facts, which show that while the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations may well be interested in providing a certain type of education — which is their right — they also support the right of others to choose the type of education they think is appropriate for their children. Being the majority church, the Catholic Church has rightly facilitated smaller groups with fewer resources.

There is a real danger of a certain statist mentality, which states that one size fits all when it comes to the provision of education. It is important to remember that neither the State, the Labour Party nor anybody else has the right to tell parents what type of education they should choose for their children. We know what people want from surveys that have been carried out. As my colleague Senator O'Reilly said, people frequently choose denominational education, which is their right. With respect to Senator Alex White, I heard him say earlier that the Catholic Church cannot have it both ways. I do not think anybody should be allowed to have it both ways, but we must not forget that those who adhere to one religious faith or another constitute a large percentage of society. At a relatively conservative estimate, 48% of people attend church weekly, which is a fair indicator that they want certain values to be a part of their lives. Many more people who do not attend church choose to have their children baptised. Should they choose a Catholic education for their children — which is more than just about teaching religion, but is also about promoting a way of looking at the world — that is their right. I humbly suggest that, as taxpayers, they are just as entitled to that type of education as parents who want to send their children to an Educate Together school.

I wish to refer in passing to some of the comments by Senators Bacik and Norris. Senator Bacik suggested that religion should have no place in schools, but what respect does that attitude show to individuals who may beg to differ about how they would order their family lives and make educational choices for their children? Senator Norris said that schools should be about facts, not faith. I am reminded of the character in Dickens' Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind, who insisted that all he wanted was facts. We would provide a dull kind of education if we were only interested in inculcating facts. Education is about many things. It is about helping children to grow, mature and acquire competences for the work place. Much more than that, however, it is about developing healthy attitudes to life and solidarity with others. It is fair to say that many partners in education, including those involved in the provision of denominational education, have been part of that great ethos of inclusive education. That should continue to be the case.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
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I congratulate the Acting Chairman, Senator McCarthy, on his elevation to high office since I last saw him in the Chamber. I am glad of the opportunity to contribute to this debate and while I will not repeat many of the excellent points that have been made by my colleagues, I do wish to raise one issue with the Minister. The gaelscoil in Clonmel began as a temporary arrangement in 1994, yet children attending it are still in temporary accommodation that was provided by the council in a building that was condemned at the time. Over the years, the school has had many piecemeal repairs and there was an arrangement to relocate it in conjunction with the TRBDI at Ballingarrane, which has not happened. There is extreme frustration in Clonmel concerning the gaelscoil. The issue will not go away because this unsatisfactory situation is unfair to the children and others who access the service. Will the Minister provide an update on the position regarding that school?

Photo of Eugene ReganEugene Regan (Fine Gael)
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The problem we are discussing is essentially one of planning and integration. It represents a failure of education policy. There is a constitutional right to education, which entails a right to ethos education. To commence the argument based on the issue of ethos education misses the point. The right to ethos education is given expression in a detailed legislative framework under which schools are patronised by the main churches. It was originally designed in an Ireland far different from the island of today, but there was diversity and minority communities — both Protestant and Jewish — were accommodated in that education process. However, in a short space of time, with the inward migration of EU workers and refugees far exceeding the total number of those previous minority communities, structural problems have become apparent which have given rise to an important philosophical debate on the nature of Irish education.

Fine Gael supports ethos education and, indeed, all forms of education, whether it be religious, interdenominational, multi-denominational or non-denominational. We are in favour of a choice of ethos either by parents or the State. Fine Gael supports the maximum practical choice by parents over the education of their children and that is why we continue to support the practice of patronage of schools by churches, which has served our country so well. However, the integration which has taken place has created a different society and it will have an important impact on planning for education in the future. It is not just a question of planning for an adequate number of primary schools, it is also a question of planning for integration.

In Britain, mosque-sponsored schools in predominantly Moslem areas have had the effect of alienating a generation of Moslem youth. In France, the physical ghettoisation of immigrants has had a similar effect in many areas, regardless of the secular system of education that state promotes. We must provide an adequate number of primary schools and deal with the issue of integration. How is this to be tackled at local and national level? Speaking as a former councillor, it is clear that at local level we had no business in the area of school provision. It was made clear to local authorities that it was a function of the Department of Education and Science. It is self-evident that given the pre-planning required, based on population and the choice of schools required by our new communities, there must be a link between the Department of Education and Science and local authorities. This must be reflected in their county development plans. We must also place greater emphasis on other models of education such as Educate Together, the VEC and community schools.

The Minister will probably welcome a talking shop, whether it is in the form of a convention or a forum. A consultative forum is necessary, but the House should not have to outsource such matters of national concern. It is our job to discuss and decide on them. The Minister should bring forward proposals for pre-planning school needs, the link between this and the county development plans and the provision for reserving land for primary schools. I have seen many cases in which the land has been reserved but the school has not materialised. There also should be proposals for integration in education because it misses the point to blame specific schools for problems such as arose recently in Balbriggan. Those proposals could form the basis for a forum or convention on education.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom a bhua sa toghchán a thréaslú leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis na Seanadoirí a labhair anseo inniu. I note that of the 14 Senators who spoke on this topic, 12 are newly elected which augurs well for future debates on education. I thank them all for their interest and welcome them to the Houses of the Oireachtas. I thank them also for affording me the opportunity to outline the priority that the Department of Education and Science continues to give to school planning and integration.

In proposing the motion Senator Alex White asked why I did not accept the initial principle about access in respect of religion and race. I rejected it because it was not inclusive enough. A major problem arises when schools exclude children on the basis of social background or special educational needs. We all believe schools should be inclusive, and for the most part they are.

Had Senators been here for the past five or ten years they would have heard that the focus was all on substandard schools and on investing in existing schools. They also would be familiar with the level of activity in the school modernisation and building programme which has reached an all-time high. Since 2000 the Department has spent €3 billion on 9,000 projects, ranging from new windows or roofs to the large wonderful new schools which cost up to €14 million, or €18 million for the complete fit-out of the new school I opened last Friday in Malahide.

It is a challenge to balance the need to deal with under-investment in schools for many decades while also providing new ones. We have made significant progress, however, by unprecedented investment and innovations in the building programme. New schemes have been central to the fast delivery of programmes in the schools and to ensuring we meet the under-provision from the past and deal with substandard schools. This year 1,100 schools were approved under the summer works scheme. Many have waited years for small projects but the success of that work is evident throughout the country.

We have also expanded provision in developing areas. Investment has increased and the way in which we design and deliver schools ensures we build the extra accommodation as quickly as possible. Responsibility for small projects has been devolved to school level to reduce red tape and to allow projects to move quickly. Standard designs have been developed for the eight, 12 and 16 classroom schools to facilitate speedy delivery of projects and to save on design fees. This hastens the planning process because the difficulties have been already ironed out. The design is top class and so energy efficient it has been recommended for an energy award.

Where possible, we build permanent accommodation instead of prefabs but where extra accommodation is needed at short notice it is necessary to erect prefabs. The amount spent on these is kept to a minimum, and is a small part of our annual budget. We have also significantly improved the manner in which the Department plans for the provision of extra school places in developing areas. People are designated within the planning and building unit of the Department to deal with local authorities, specifically in developing areas. We have also published our own area development plans, separate from those of the local councils, on which we invite public consultation. These set out the provision that will be needed in the next ten years.

This year we have catered for an additional 14,000 to 15,000 children in primary schools. It was a remarkable achievement to get that down to the last 50, bearing in mind population movement into and within the country which occurs frequently. Approximately 50,000 children did the leaving certificate this year and more than 64,000 children came into the education system. One of the biggest challenges we face is that up to 100,000 extra children will come into our schools in the next few years. As a result the Department has developed close links with local authorities to improve planning for schools. In the past far too many houses were built without the necessary facilities being set aside for them. The local authorities are best placed to know what planning permissions and rezonings they give and how many houses they build. In recent years there has been strong two-way communication with the local authorities which are obliged to consult the Department about the need for school places. Following that sites are reserved before planning or development takes place.

The Department signed an interesting agreement with Fingal County Council which has undertaken to acquire the sites for the Department. The Department benefits both from having the sites made available by the people who know the plans for the area and because the council makes available at a reduced cost land it owns and will negotiate the purchase of land from developers. In return the Department invests part of the savings in enhanced sports and community facilities which the council will also fund. This is up and running in a school in Diswellstown. The site was provided at a good price and the school was built with large sports and meeting room facilities in order that the community can use it. This is a positive development which could roll out throughout the country.

It can be difficult to acquire appropriate sites which, like planning, creates major problems for the Department. Reference was made to an area where, because of the demand for classroom spaces and the lack of planning, some children went to school in the mornings while others attended in the afternoons and that this lasted for a fortnight. If the local community, not the parents involved in the school, had not objected to the provision of the school it would have been on site. That difficulty arises particularly when trying to provide a site in an already built-up area.

Once we have the sites we can build the schools in record time because of our design and build process using some of our generic designs, for example, the Archbishop Ryan school in Dublin West or the new school built in Laytown this year. The major stumbling block has been the acquisition of the sites. In some areas the site was not reserved, in others where it was reserved it was difficult to get it at a reasonable price within the timeframe. By imposing planning conditions that require schools to be built before the houses, the local authorities can ensure the developers are willing to provide school sites without excessive cost to the Department. I suggest the ability to highlight the availability of the school as a community facility next door would also improve the likelihood of developers being able to sell their houses.

While Members have noted the success of the Adamstown strategic development zone, this model can also work in smaller areas and could be used both to provide a new school or site and as a planning condition to provide one or two additional classrooms in small rural areas that are also experiencing significant development. The new programme for Government contains a commitment to ensure no rezoning of land for residential development may take place without a prior commitment of an appropriate proportion of land for the schools. I have already held preliminary discussions with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on how to make rapid progress in this regard.

In addition to improving its links with local authorities, my Department has also developed its own planning capacity for schools. In 2004 it adopted an area-based approach to school planning that uses a public consultation process involving all interested parties. As I noted, a blueprint for the schools' development over a ten-year timeframe is set out and members of the public are involved actively in consultation regarding the required schools, places and numbers in their own localities for the next ten years.

Five-year plans have been already produced, some of which are for the developing areas of north County Dublin, south County Louth, east County Meath, the N4-M4 corridor running from Leixlip to Kilbeggan. In addition, the Department has conducted detailed analysis of the existing and projected enrolments in a large number of developing areas to ensure good planning for additional accommodation, where required. However, one is still unable to rely completely on the census figures as some groups of people did not fill in the census returns for various reasons. Some were immigrants who may have been worried about their own status. In addition, irrespective of the census returns, the movement of people into areas, including very young children and entire families, creates a demand both for junior infant classes and for places in fourth, fifth and sixth classes, which may be already full in existing schools. When this scenario has taken place, schools have been highly accommodating. A number of important initiatives have been taken in respect of forward planning within the Department and its links to local authorities.

Nevertheless, the demand is great. An additional 100,000 school places will be required during the lifetime of the national development plan in which a provision of €4.5 billion has been set aside to meet this need. In its first year, construction work will deliver more than 700 classrooms to provide permanent accommodation for 17,500 pupils, mainly in developing areas. This should provide Members with a sense of the scope involved.

The issue of Balbriggan was raised. I accept it is not ideal to set up a school at such short notice. However, the Department was highly conscious that Balbriggan was a developing area and had been working closely with the town's existing schools, which were provided with additional teachers and accommodation. Moreover, it has been already noted that new schools were opened in Balbriggan in 2005 and 2006 and that Educate Together had indicated its intention to open a new school there next year. Consequently, while the Department worked with Fingal County Council to acquire land for new school buildings in Balbriggan, it also kept the enrolments under review, particularly this year. It became apparent that given the rates of growth and movement of people, further schools and accommodation would be required despite the provision of additional accommodation for the established schools. This was made available in Sunshine House.

The Department invited Educate Together to bring forward the school it had hoped to open next year and I thank the organisation for working with the Department to provide the school within such a short timeframe. In addition, I thank the school principal who had an extremely difficult first week, given the media focus on her school and pupils. She is deeply committed to ensuring her pupils receive a top quality education. While it could be stated that one would not wish to provide a school for children of a single ethnic background, it was necessary to provide a new school there. Moreover, Bracken Educate Together national school reflects the nature of the families that have moved into the area recently. Those who are familiar with the town are aware its new growth has come from people of various ethnic backgrounds. This issue is not the result of unwillingness on the part of the town's existing schools to accept children of any particular ethnicity or religion. Some existing schools have large numbers of newcomer children. It has been already noted that many people in Balbriggan were very upset by the implication in some sectors that there was a form of racism at play in this regard. Obviously the Department will continue to work with people there, as well as in other developing areas.

I refer to supports for newcomers. Members have discussed the issue of integration, which is of equal importance. The establishment of the office for integration and the appointment of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with responsibility for integration policy, Deputy Conor Lenihan, will ensure the Government has a co-ordinated and cohesive approach to dealing with the integration of newcomers into Ireland. In the first instance, the Department's priority for children in schools is they should be able to speak and understand the language. Hence, priority was given to the teaching of English. Without referring to mainstream teachers, special needs teachers or resource teachers, there are now 1,450 teachers whose sole job is to teach English to newcomers to our country. This constitutes an enormous increase and a further 305 teachers will be employed by 2009. Some schools have as many as six teachers teaching English to such children to support them in their new communities.

The Department has also ensured that information is available to parents in a number of languages. One can obtain information on the education system on the Department's website in Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Spanish and German, as well as Irish and English. Similarly, information from both the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the National Educational Welfare Board has been provided in a number of languages. I have also ensured that the Department is pursuing an active policy of integration in schools to prevent racism through practical guidelines on integration that have been given or made available to all primary and secondary schools.

I will touch briefly on the issue of school patronage. As was noted earlier, the present shape of the school system reflects the historic reality that religious authorities established the majority of schools. In the main, the Catholic Church provided an education for children in all districts, regardless of whether one was on an island or the mainland, in a large city or a small rural area. Moreover, traditionally such schools have welcomed and continue to welcome children from all backgrounds and religions. From their own experience, Members will be aware that Catholic schools have enrolled a large number of children of different faiths. I have visited such schools personally and regardless of whether the location is in Castleisland or west County Dublin, one can see the diversity that is present and that has been welcomed. I will continue to support this practice by ensuring there are enough school places available.

The majority of new schools that have opened in recent years have been multi-denominational, which reflects the new Ireland and the new demand that has arisen. In this year alone, the Department of Education and Science has received 38 notices of intention to open new schools next year, only seven of which concern schools of a Catholic ethos. This demonstrates the present demand. All such schools are being assessed through a process that involves public consultation. Consequently, the public is involved in this process, be it for planning in one's own locality or in respect of the individual school being established.

Having recognised the need, the Department is developing a new model of primary school patronage, namely, the community national school. It will cater for a diversity of religious faiths that are represented, in particular, in growing urban areas. This new model will be in place next year under the County Dublin Vocational Education Committee in west County Dublin. However, it is important to recognise this model will not constitute a substitute or replacement for the existing patrons and will run alongside them. I look forward to developing this model and to having inclusive schools that will focus on the academic, the cultural and the spiritual, because the overall development of a child is hugely important in their education.

Members will be aware the Catholic bishops' commission on education has signalled in a policy statement issued last week that in some areas, in which there has been a decline in the demand for Catholic education, some of its existing schools may no longer be viable as Catholic schools. It has also stated that in certain circumstances, Catholic schools may be transferred to other patrons. I welcome that the bishops' statement makes clear that parents and teachers will be consulted before decisions are taken in respect of any school.

I will explore with the bishops the scope, range and pace of disengagement they envisage in order that any changes are well planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of parents, teachers, children and local communities and contributes to an inclusive education system. As Senators have heard me outline, there are a number of methods by which people can get involved in consultation and debate at all stages of planning in our school system. The matter of community national schools is being discussed with all of the education partners. Among all Departments, there is a formal process of consultation with all education partners, involving management, teachers' unions, parents and students. It is very inclusive. Between 2002 and 2004 my predecessor, Deputy Noel Dempsey, held a two-year public consultation process called YES, Your Education System.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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He did not respond.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not see the need for another forum just to bring people together to talk, when we have plenty of ways of ensuring everybody's voice is heard. The important thing is to continue to move forward.

The Government is investing €4.5 billion in school buildings under the national development plan to ensure we have sufficient places for children of schoolgoing age. We are very conscious of the needs of the growing population and the particular needs of our large immigrant communities, and we want to ensure all of these are met. We are conscious of the requirements of diversity and the new Ireland. We are determined to meet these demands and provide an additional 100,000 places in the next few years.

Senators:

Hear, hear.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for being here for the debate. We do not always have a senior Minister for our debates. This is an important issue, and I thank the Labour Party for raising it. It will become an even bigger issue in the next couple of years, and it is proper that we discuss it in the Seanad tonight. I do not always agree with what the Minister says, but I concur fully with her position with regard to the religious ethos of schools. I have a particular interest in this as I am a member of the board of management of my local primary school, which is a Catholic-established school, although there are students who are not Catholics and do not belong to any religious faith.

The system as it operates very successfully for the overwhelming majority of students around the country. The network of national schools has served the country well. However, there are a number of areas which are under pressure. This was highlighted recently in north and west Dublin, but there are also towns elsewhere, in areas where there have been significant levels of development, whose schools are having problems with regard to spaces. The enrolment policies held by national schools usually do not come into play, but they do when there is a sheer lack of space. The Government has a serious case to answer in this regard.

I acknowledge that there has been significant investment in national schools. Despite this investment, I could list half a dozen schools in my area which are still seeking extensions or new school buildings, but progress has been made. The Labour Party motion does not state this has not happened, but it points out that there are difficulties in particular areas. The Government should have a clearer plan for solving these difficulties in the future. Some areas have large numbers of new houses, residents and pupils, and we cannot allow the problems that developed at the start of this school year to become a regular occurrence, as has the issue of school bus tickets, which occurs at the start of every school year. We cannot allow a similar situation with regard to primary school places.

The Minister's comments contain an element of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. An unprecedented number — hundreds of thousands — of new housing units have been built across the country. People have mentioned Adamstown, which I am sure is a wonderful place, although I have never been there. A couple of other well planned communities have also sprung up in the past few years. Sadly, however, there are many more areas that have not been planned as well as Adamstown, where sufficient educational facilities have not been provided. They have not been allowed for in the building of huge new housing estates.

In a previous life, I was a member of a local authority. In my own area, there was a significant problem with a school in Rosbercon, which is one of those unusual areas which is almost in County Kilkenny but is actually in County Wexford, although we claim it nonetheless for Kilkenny. The school in question has not had a playground for a number of years because the prefabs have taken over the yard. The multi-purpose room is now divided into three classrooms. Four years ago, when I was on Kilkenny County Council, we zoned a site for a new school. Because all of the built-up area is in New Ross, County Wexford, the only area for potential growth is in the Kilkenny end. However, there is no danger I can see, although I have lobbied long and hard, that a new school will be built there. To place the blame on local authorities is incorrect, because in many places they have zoned lands for educational facilities, although there are many areas in which they have not. The response from the Government has been insufficient.

Parents have the right to choose the school their children will attend. The overwhelming majority of parents, as far as I have established, want their children to go to a school of a particular denomination. The largest Church of Ireland boarding school in the country, Kilkenny College, is in my constituency. Schools have every right to protect their ethos and give preference to siblings of existing students and to members of their particular faiths. This is right and proper. People of many faiths attend Kilkenny College, which is a brilliant school. Similarly, parents who wish to send their children to primary schools of a particular faith should have that right. However, the kernel of the problem is not the ethos of the school. It is that in situations such as we have seen, of which there will be more in the future, there is not enough space available. The Government, the Minister and the Department need to ensure sufficient places are provided in those areas for students to attend primary school.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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I thank my colleagues of all parties for their contributions to this debate. I also thank the Minister for her close attention to the points made in the course of the discussion. Senator Keaveney made the point, which was reflected by the Minister, that there were concerns about figures obtained from baptismal records. Senator Keaveney seemed to suggest that because there were difficulties with the data, there was almost an argument for doing nothing. I am not suggesting the Minister or anyone else is doing nothing, but if the data are insufficient, the answer is to improve them——

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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That is the point I was making.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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——and not to abandon the idea of utilising demographic information.

Senator Ormonde seemed to think there was no problem with the extent of public debate on these issues. I know Adamstown. I am a former member of South Dublin County Council, as is the Senator. If that level of planning is good enough for Adamstown it is good enough for the rest of the country.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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The problem is not that Adamstown is not a great beacon, which clearly it is, but why we do not have more Adamstowns.

Senators:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Absolutely.

7:00 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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Why can we not have Adamstowns in the north, south, east and west? That is the difficulty. South Dublin County Council is a very progressive body, but that level of input does not seem to be replicated in other parts of the country. The Minister's notes state she is anxious that more local authorities use certain conditions to ensure new schools are in a position to be ahead of or in line with demand. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that anxiety is not sufficient. The Minister and the Government must insist that this be done, whether by way of mandatory guidelines to local authorities or by legislation. Anxiety is not enough. Change must be delivered through actual requirements imposed by central government. I was a member of a local authority for three years and I know it is mainly a function of the manager rather than a reserved function. Even in South Dublin County Council, progressive as it is, I saw little or no debate of these issues within the council and it is not such a live issue in local authorities as has been suggested.

The fundamental point in this debate has been my party's call for a convention. The Minister touched on it at the end of her contribution. She felt there was no real need for one. If she does not mind me saying so, I thought she scoffed a little at the idea in that the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, had held one previously for a period of two years and this called into question the need for another forum.

The level of the debate in this Chamber suggests there are a large number of issues that would bear public debate and scrutiny. What is wrong with having that level of debate? We do not suggest large infrastructure or something that would last forever and a day but a convention where consideration could be given to all these issues, including the ethos issue described by Senator Regan and others.

There is a compelling argument, which Senator Bacik made, that the churches should not be involved in education or perhaps we should move towards a largely non-denominational system of education. On the other side of that coin is a real implication, of a financial nature if no other, for us as a community. Even if we leave aside the ethical, moral and political arguments that go with it, if the State must pick up the entirety of the tab, that is a substantial political issue for us all to consider and it is not as easy to say we should just show the churches the door. It will not happen that way and none of us can be naive enough to think it will. That is another issue that needs to be put into the frame in such a forum.

Senator Mullen, in the rhetoric of his speech, stated that the Labour Party does not have the right to prevent people sending their children to denominational schools. There is no suggestion, in the motion or elsewhere, that we would ever wish to do that but, as the Minister has acknowledged, there is an emerging need for a debate on the balance that needs to be struck between the State's involvement, which will inevitably increase, and the churches' involvement which, even according to their own statements, will inevitably recede in the next period. Let us bring that into the public domain.

I remember when I was a child in the early 1970s that there was a debate about community schools and there was a roadshow on television from the then Department of Education. The Department, if the Minister would not mind me saying so, has not always been the progressive organisation it is claimed to be now but even then, in the early 1970s, it got on the road and introduced a debate in urban and rural communities about community schools, their implications, etc. There is nothing wrong with that approach now. It is the kind of issue that is crying out for public debate. In the circumstances, it is not asking a huge amount of the Minister and the Government to provide for that forum and that is the basis on which I move this motion.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 30 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Peter Callanan, Ivor Callely, Ciarán Cannon, John Carty, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Eoghan Harris, Cecilia Keaveney, Tony Kett, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 21 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Alan Kelly, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Dominic Hannigan and Phil Prendergast.

Amendment declared carried.

Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.