Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Free Education Scheme
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter regarding Gormanston College, which, according to media reports and public announcements last week, has decided to abandon the fee-paying model. I greatly welcome this decision, as Gormanston College has a marvellous history both in the community and nationally, as well as having a fabulous location. In general, the news has been widely welcomed in the areas of Stamullen, Gormanston and east County Meath in general, where there is something of a crisis in respect of secondary school places. A situation arose there recently about which I raised concerns, in which the local Louth and Meath Education and Training Board school, Coláiste na hInse, was potentially unable to accept all applicants from Stamullen. While this news is welcome, there is a concern within the locality that when two other schools switched from being fee-paying to not being fee-paying, charges remained in place for students.
People want clarity on the position when this school joins the non-fee paying sector but, overall, it is very welcome.
I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the situation with regard to the recent announcement by the school authorities of the Franciscan College, Gormanston, that it will join the free education scheme from September 2014.
The Senator will be aware that where the authorities of a school approach the Department about entering the free education scheme it is because they are concerned about the future viability of the school and wish to explore all options in considering the future of the school.
A number of fee charging schools, including the Franciscan College, have been engaged in discussions with the Department concerning their future. Detailed discussions have taken place since last March between the authorities of the college and officials of the Department. Arising from these discussions, the school authorities have decided that their future would be best served as a school operating within the free education scheme and, to that end, the school applied to enter the scheme and the Minister has accepted that application.
The key changes resulting from this decision are that the Franciscan College will receive its teaching allocation in the 2014-15 school year based on a pupil-teacher ratio of 19:1 rather than that of 23:1 as applicable to fee charging schools. In addition, teaching posts are allocated for special needs students and the Department provides for curricular issues that arise in schools.
Voluntary secondary schools in the free education scheme receive capitation funding. The precise capitation and other programme grants to be paid to the Franciscan College will be a function of the confirmed enrolment in the school.
The school will continue to operate a boarding facility and will be entitled to charge an appropriate fee for that service.
From September next, the attendance of day pupils will not result in the payment of a compulsory charge in respect of tuition. It is a key requirement for all recognised schools in the free education scheme that such schools must not operate a charge, in whatever form, that is in effect a mandatory fee and that is contrary to the principles of the free education scheme.
While the demand for school places in the Laytown feeder area does not require the immediate entry of the Franciscan College to the free education scheme, I consider that the college can ultimately make a contribution to meeting the growth in demand in the area, thereby justifying admission to the free scheme.
My Department is in the process of opening a number of new post-primary schools in the surrounding areas to meet the demographic demand in the coming years. That includes new post-primary schools already announced for Balbriggan, Drogheda and Ashbourne as well as a number of extensions. The admission of the Franciscan College to the free education scheme will further enhance post-primary provision in that area.
The rationale for granting admission to the free scheme is based on the need for places in the area in the latter part of this decade, which is projected to see further growth in demand. Accordingly, the patron will be required to agree to grant priority in the enrolment policy to those from the area should oversubscription arise. If boarding is continued, that would ultimately require prioritisation of the entry of day pupils over boarding provision. I thank Senator Byrne for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter.
It is clear from what the Minister of State said that there will not be any mandatory charges for day pupils. The Minister can take it from me that there is a real need for this school in that area. A crisis would have occurred this year were it not for the fact that Meath Vocational Education Committee was flexible about Laytown, but that situation was not going to continue. This is fantastic news for the community in Stamullen, Gormanston and the surrounding areas.