Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

2:30 pm

Photo of Rose Conway WalshRose Conway Walsh (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for coming into the Seanad to address this important issue and hopefully provide some much needed clarity to parents and those involved in Educate Together schools. While my question relates to Castlebar Educate Together national school, I am aware of difficulties and commonalities in Tuam, Tramore, New Ross and Trim.

Many parents believe the Minister is trying to fix a problem that simply does not exist. All five schools have demonstrated pre-enrolment numbers for 2018-19 to accommodate a full stream and have expressed frustration and anger at the prescribed barriers to further development being applied by the Department of Education and Skills so late in the school year.

These schools never opened to remain as half-stream schools and some opened with more than 13 students. Castlebar Educate Together national school and New Ross Educate Together national school were two of those. At no stage in the establishment of any of the five schools currently in this situation did the Department of Education and Skills suggest to Educate Together that they would remain as "half-stream and non-developing schools" as was outlined in recent correspondence. This correspondence appears to directly contradict the agreed terms upon which these schools opened. At no time did the Department of Education and Skills say that numbers were to be capped at 13 - this was always a minimum requirement. The decision now means parents are faced with splitting up their families. One parent I spoke to this morning has two children. One started in an Educate Together national school last year and had a most enjoyable experience through the year. His second child is due to start school in September and he has been told there will not be a place if the numbers continue to be restricted. This simply does not make sense.

The uncertainty attached to carrying out a review will obviously influence the decision of parents as to where to send their children for the next school year. In a letter from the Department of Education and Skills it was stated that national demographic exercises are to be carried out at primary and post-primary levels to identify areas of demographic growth, but this has already been done and submitted to the Department by Educate Together. Why would the Minister seek to have the same work done again? When is this duplicate report due to be completed and when will its recommendations be implemented?

This is also a question about choice both for parents who want their children to attend a religious ethos school and those who prefer a non-denominational educational setting.Most of all, it is about obtaining clarity for the parents. Without it it will be impossible for them to make the proper choices about their children's education.

The programme for Government states:

We need a dynamic and innovative education system that reflects the diversity of Twenty First Century Ireland. We will strengthen parental choice and diversity in our school system, reflecting the need in modern Ireland for new forms of multi-denominational and non-denominational education, while also safeguarding the right of parents to send their children to denominational schools that offer a distinct religious ethos, should they so wish.

I know that the relationship between Castlebar Educate Together national school and the other national schools in the area is healthy, productive and inclusive. The schools were set up in urban areas where there would be no effect on existing schools. That the State must intervene and force parents to choose a religious education in order to "preserve a balance among all schools in an area and to ensure that one school is not expanding at the expense of another" is not the rationale one would expect in a democratic republic.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It dates back well before my time to 2012 and the report of the advisory group to the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector which recommended that demand for patronage diversity be met in areas with a stable population by divesting patronage of existing schools where there was evidence of parental demand for change. In that context, in 2012-13 my Department undertook surveys in 43 areas. The surveys were carried out as part of the patronage divestment process put in place by the former Minister Ruairí Quinn. In 28 areas, including Castlebar, a sufficient demand for more choice was established. The divestment process was always conditional on property becoming available from existing schools.

The establishment of Castlebar Educate Together national school as a four classroom school has its origins in the report which indicated a size of at least half a single stream school, comprising four classrooms, being required to accommodate parental demand in the area. As part of the patronage divestment process, a school could be opened where a school building became, or was due to become, available as a result of an amalgamation or the closure of an existing school. In some areas, in responding to demand for diversity where existing patrons were unable to make school properties available, the Department also included an examination of properties held in public ownership. That was the background in Castlebar where a school was suggested but deemed to be unsuitable. In that case, a property owned by Mayo County Council - Marsh House - was obtained from it and the Department arranged for refurbishment works to be undertaken to facilitate Castlebar Educate Together national school to operate from there and provide four classrooms and ancillary accommodation for it.

It is a general policy of the Department that schools, irrespective of their location, have to operate within their available accommodation and manage annual pupil intake accordingly. The initial establishment of Castlebar Educate Together national school as a four classroom school and the need to be cognisant of managing the available accommodation have been reflected in my Department's engagement with the patron body of the school. When the school raised the issue of expanding its enrolment, my Department invited Educate Together to submit a case to it in that regard. Expanding the enrolment of the school would mean that the accommodation currently provided would no longer be suitable. A case has been submitted by Educate Together to further expand Castlebar Educate Together national school and four other schools under the patronage of Educate Together which opened as part of the patronage divestment process. As outlined by the Senator, they are New Ross Educate Together national school, Trim Educate Together national school, Tuam Educate Together national school and Tramore Educate Together national school. The case is under consideration within the Department.

The Senator has indicated that my Department is carrying out a nationwide demographic exercise and asked if it is duplicating the work done by Educate Together. The work is being done by the Department based on the very best databases available in the country. It is looking at 314 separate planning areas and using up-to-date data for child benefit payments, school enrolments, preschool enrolments and other matters. It is a very sophisticated forecasting.The Department sits down with the local authorities to assess the projected levels of property or housing development in their areas so it can factor them in. Therefore, this is not a question of Educate Together providing data and the Department seeking in some way to duplicate it; this is a planning exercise carried out in all 314 planning areas. I was speaking to Senator Murnane O'Connor in this regard. The exercise is designed to ensure we anticipate areas of need, plan for the new schools in the areas of expansion and have a patronage exercise whereby parents would decide what would happen in the event of what I describe.

I fully agree with Senator Conway-Walsh that we need to respond to the changing nature and make-up of this country. We are doing so in respect of a range of issues. We are reforming the admissions legislation. My intention is that religion will not be used as a criterion for selection in the vast majority of schools. I am making a new provision whereby children who do not want to participate in religious instruction in a denominational school will have clear programmes. These will be stated in the admissions policy. I am seeking to introduce a parent and student charter, which will involve legislation.

Let me return to the issue of patronage. The initiative of 2012 to divest based on amalgamations and closures has proven to be a very inflexible model. It has generated only ten cases in the relevant period. I am considering a new approach to try to encourage patronage transfer. The original proposal of the patronage group was to see patronage transfer from existing schools to new schools. The new approach I am proposing would see live transfers so a school would transfer from an existing patron to a new patron without requiring closure or amalgamation. We hope this will be an easier system to adopt. It will be done through surveys by the local community-influenced education and training board.

On the substantive point, my Department is reviewing the requests from Educate Together. I have given the background. I note the point the Senator made. Generally, the Department's policy has been not to provide for the growth of a very popular school that is growing very rapidly if there are empty places in neighbouring schools that are not so popular. That restriction has been based simply on the money available. We do not have the ability to build schools when there are empty places elsewhere. That has been the general policy; it is not a special policy to disadvantage Educate Together in some way. As I stated, we will review the submissions made to us.

Photo of Rose Conway WalshRose Conway Walsh (Sinn Fein)
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When will the review be completed and when will the recommendations be implemented? The Minister said, in reference to transferring patronage, that we must be honest and admit the system has not worked. We must also be honest and admit that the Educate Together schools do appear to be working. They are demand led and they are what families want in the areas in question. This speaks for itself. In Article 42 of the Constitution, it is provided that the State shall not oblige parents, in violation of their conscience and lawful preference, to send their children to schools established by the State or to any particular type of school designated by the State. On legal grounds, these restrictions would need to be lifted with immediate effect, and buildings should be provided to allow the schools to cater for the growing demand that exists under this inclusive school model.

I accept the Minister's point that nobody wants to see a school left without pupils, or the number of pupils being reduced, but the areas in question were specifically picked as urban areas in which there are sufficient numbers of children to do as proposed. Whatever review is to be carried out needs to be carried out in a very timely way, and the recommendations need to be implemented. Within the review, it is crucial that the Minister speaks not only to the local authority and other bodies but also to the parents and families who are most affected.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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There is a huge surge in demand for non-denominational schools but we must begin from a starting point where 95% of schools are denominational. The State honours its commitment to provide free primary education through that structure.The constitutional provision is that no child should be forced to take religion in their class. There is not a provision, however, which states every parent should get the school of their choice. Such a provision, unfortunately, would be unworkable.

I fully acknowledge the quality of the Educate Together model. I also commend the Foras Pátrúnachta and the Gaelscoil model, as well as the education and training boards' community and national schools. These are all multidenominational models with different approaches and are excellent in their approach. I strongly commend them. Virtually every new primary school which I and my colleagues before me have built has gone to non-denominational patrons. There is no question about parental preference. The model that is driving this is transfer of patronage. The old model through amalgamation, divestiture and selling off has proved difficult to deliver. Complemented by a new model, we are hoping we can get greater progress.

On the specific situation concerning the schools which developed under that model, I will look at the case being put forward. I cannot say when that review will be completed at this point. The Department will have to see the demographic numbers in each area, as well as issues around feasibility of accommodation solutions and the nature of available space elsewhere. Ideally, we would like to see patronage transferred to new patrons, including in areas such as these.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I know it is an issue of particular concern to parents which we are taking seriously.