Tuesday, 8 May 2018
I thank the Minister for attending the Chamber and the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter of St. Gabriel's special needs school, Bishopstown, Cork.
The Minister is familiar with the school. It was originally designed for Scoil Cholumbáin and Scoil Therese primary schools. When they closed, St Gabriel's was allowed to use the building. It is fair to say that this building was never designed to be a special needs school. The building's conditions are unacceptable for the 43 pupils and staff. These are children, between the age of four and 18, who are most vulnerable with severe to profound intellectual disabilities. I have met with the parents and visited the school. The school campus does not match the mission statement of the school or the philosophy espoused by the Minister and the Department of Education and Skills. Neither does it match the capital building programme outlined by the Department or the investment in education facilities, particularly in special needs, across the city of Cork.
Urgent funding needs to be put into this school's buildings. The school’s parents’ association has commenced a GoFundMe page. This is a matter of priority. This is a statement of how we treat the most vulnerable children who need the help of the State. The education they are receiving is absolutely exemplary. The school building, however, is unbelievably bad. Many of the pupils are non-verbal. The school enrols children with dual diagnosis with severe to profound intellectual disabilities and autism. The school building, however, is not fit for purpose. If we believe in early intervention to allow students to achieve their full potential, then this school’s building requires a complete overhaul and a commitment from the Government to change it as a matter of urgency. I hope the Government will prioritise the upgrading and refurbishment of this special needs school. It would send a message to the children, parents and staff that we will provide for them.
Being involved with the COPE Foundation, I recognise the importance of every individual in society. I hope the Minister will look favourably on this plea for help from St. Gabriel’s school and its community.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter and the Minister for being present.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. My Department clearly accepts that the accommodation in St. Gabriel's special school is not fit for purpose. It has spatial limitations, particularly for children with challenging behaviour. The school caters for 43 pupils and it has a strong complement of teachers and SNAs. The pupil-teacher ratio is 1:1.9 and, therefore, the State provides significant support but there is a recognition that the facilities need to be addressed. I understand the school applied last year for improved accommodation and my officials have visited the school and assessed that need. They have also taken the opportunity to discuss with the NCSE the general need in the area and the school will have the potential to expand the scope of its services to meet the local need.
The adjacent accommodation is owned by the Diocese of Cork and Ross. St. Gabriel's special school currently occupies two classrooms in this adjacent building by agreement with the diocese. My Department will send an official to visit the school authority tomorrow, 9 May, to progress the assessment of the proposed works, finalise the scope of works and work out how they can be moved forward and in what delivery mode they can be done. My Department recognises the seriousness of the case and will work with the school to seek a solution to its needs.
I thank the Minister for his positive reply. It is a unique school and it shares a site with the Brothers of Charity and the Diocese of Cork and Ross. The staff need has been met by the Department but changes are needed to the built environment and the learning environment. I hope that tomorrow's visit will be the beginning of a positive progression of the proposed development.