Wednesday, 17 May 2017
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I will give him a rough guide to the school and the service it gives to the students, particularly to those in the area of Bagenalstown. The proposed closure of the Muine Bheag vocational school, which was announced in March 2016, was a devastating blow to the community of Bagenalstown. Parents, students and staff alike were shocked by the unexpected announcement from the Carlow-Kilkenny Education and Training Board, ETB. After that, an action group was formed with the aim of overturning this decision. There was a sense of betrayal and loss at the prospect of the closure of the school, which had provided quality education to the people of Bagenalstown and surrounding areas for 54 years.
Students of Muine Bheag vocational school enjoy a rich educational environment and access to a broad spectrum of subjects including modern languages, business information, Irish, English and the STEM subjects - science, mathematics and engineering. Students have enjoyed enormous success in a wide variety of extra-curricular areas such as promoting mental health. The school was awarded the amber flag in 2015. The students have mini-enterprises. They provide such a service to the community. The school has a state-of-the-art sports hall which was only opened in 2015. I believe more than €1 million was spent on that building.
Muine Bheag vocational school prides itself on extending the educational experience beyond the school walls and into the greater community of surrounding Bagenalstown. In keeping with the school's DEIS status, equality of opportunity and access to education are of the highest priority in initiatives such at the "One book, One community" scheme, which promotes literacy in the community but also acts as a catalyst for community involvement. All the primary schools, secondary schools and community groups in the area were given a sense of ownership with this particular project, which was a great success.
At the heart of the ethos of Muine Bheag vocational school is the breaking down of barriers to education at all levels. The school has been active in providing numerous literacy programmes for parents, supporting their education development. This has been crucial for the school itself. The importance of life-long learning and access to education are at the core of the beliefs of Muine Bheag vocational school. This is also evident in the provision of the adult junior certificate and leaving certificate programmes.
Muine Bheag vocational school is an integral part of the local community and, as such, it strives to maintain links with businesses in the community. It has a great system wherein students go to businesses and work with them. It is also important to note the school has a great system in respect of apprenticeships. That is crucial going forward. The issue of apprenticeships in every school needs to be addressed. In keeping with its values, the school has also set up an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit in the Carlow-Kilkenny region, which supports students on the autism spectrum with additional educational needs. Continuity of care and predictable routines are essential for students with autism spectrum disorders. The lack of planning for their future care is really irresponsible when dealing with an ASD unit. At the moment, we do not know what is happening. The school also provides the applied leaving certificate. These are all crucial programmes which this school provides.
These are the real questions. This all happened on 10 March. The CEO informed the school that there would be no more enrolment for first-year students. This was a shock to the community. On 14 March, there was a meeting with the parents at which the junior and senior cycles were spoken about. There was a big public meeting in the McGrath hall on 29 March and from that a task force was set up. When it had finished its few months and carried out a study, the task force said it would give the school an extra 12 months, which it did. This school currently has 120 students. There are 40 students on post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses. On the leaving certificate applied programme, there are six students in fifth year and six in sixth year. A total of 172 students attend Muine Bheag vocational school. I cannot explain to the Minister the service this school provides and how important it is to the parents and students. Does the Minister support the Kilkenny and Carlow ETB? Will he support the retention of this school? Can he clearly set out the roles and responsibility of the CEO of the ETB in respect of communication with parents at a time when the school is at risk of closure? What are the roles and responsibilities of the ETB board of management of Muine Bheag vocational school in identifying that the school has a low intake of first years that is impacting on retaining sufficient staff levels to deliver the full curriculum? What is the criterion for recommending closure? My final question is crucial. What effect will the introduction of the new special education model in March have on the closure of the school, the students and the number of teachers the school would lose based on the new calculations? I thank the Minister for coming to the House.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter of Muine Bheag vocational school. It is important to clarify the position.
The Education Act sets out the framework within which any school considering closure has to operate. The Act provides for the right of schools to manage their own affairs in accordance with its provisions and any charters, deeds, articles of management or other such instruments relating to their establishment or operation. That is set out in sections 8 to 11, inclusive, of the Act. That statutory provision allows the Minister to designate a school on request and also provides for a request for a school closure submitted by the patron. The initiative for a closure may come from a variety of sources such as parents, staff, boards of management or patrons. Any proposal to close a school must first involve consultation with the relevant stakeholders. A decision taken at local level follows the consultation process. In that regard, any proposed changes must be well-planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of students, parents, teachers, local communities and contributes to an inclusive education system. Where a patron of a school advises the Department that it is no longer in a position to continue to operate a recognised school, the decision to close the school concerned is ultimately a matter for the patron. Any discussion to close a school requires consultation between the various stakeholders, including parents, members of staff and their representative organisations and the board of management.
Muine Bheag vocational school is a co-educational DEIS school under the patronage of the Kilkenny and Carlow ETB. There were 119 pupils enrolled as of September 2016. The figure in 2012 was 134. Following meetings on the issues concerning the school, the ETB, the patron of the school, set up a task force to consider options for the future viability of the school in view of declining pupil enrolments. The task force report was adopted by the patron and work is ongoing on the recommendations to increase enrolments at the school. The task force was constituted as a committee of the ETB and comprised ETB nominees, parent nominees, teacher nominees and an independent chairperson. A primary recommendation of the task force is to have a targeted enrolment level of 20 students into first year for the school year 2017 to 2018 and that the school would subsequently establish and grow the targeted intake each year to reach a figure of between 15% and 17% of the transfer population within a three-year period, which has now been extended. Considerable work has been done in the past year to grow the enrolments and all stakeholders are working together to keep the school viable.
Details of the roles and functions of ETB boards of management and chief executives are set out in the Education Act 1998 and in the Education and Training Boards Act 2013. The Education Act and the board of management handbook for Education and Training Boards outline that the function of the board of management is to manage the school or college on behalf of and in cooperation with the ETB and for the benefit of the students and their parents and to provide or cause to be provided an appropriate education for each student at the school for which that board has responsibility.
The special needs model is a way of allocating resource teaching having regard to the profile of the school's needs. The profile is based on the number of children in the school who have complex needs or learning difficulties. Under the provision, I have provided an assurance that no school will lose resource teaching in this allocation. The arrangement provides that no school will lose out and, indeed, the allocation will be made to the school in respect of each child and, therefore, no child will lose out under the new model.
I also thank the Minister for his reply. The situation was handled very badly. Damage was done. If one is a parent and believes that a school could close, one looks at one's options as a mother or father and whether to leave one's child the school even though it is unclear whether it will be open in five years' time. It is important that the Muine Bheag school is kept open. It is a DEIS school and provides great service to the surrounding areas such Bagenalstown and Carlow. It is crucial because it has an autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, unit and all the services a school needs. It has provided a service to Bagenalstown for the past 54 years. I ask the Minister to keep it open.
The task force is now in place under the ETB. It will engage with parents, teachers and everyone else. The key to the school's long term success is its capacity to attract students. That is vital. It has set targets in terms of the student numbers it needs to attract. That matter is being vigorously pursued. I am very optimistic because there is a pathway to deal with this and everyone is involved in trying to deliver on that.