Thursday, 5 July 2018
I raise concerns over the Carlow County Childcare Committee surveys on school reconfiguration for diversity being carried out on behalf of Kilkenny and Carlow Education and Training Board. This is being done through the Department of Education and Skills. I am sure the Minister of State is standing in for the Minister for Education and Skills and I know he will relay my concerns.
The Government’s plan to increase provision of multidenominational and non-denominational schools is dependent on choice. With this in mind, surveys of parents of preschool children were completed in recent months. These surveys of parents in 16 areas across the country commenced the schools reconfiguration for diversity process to fulfil a key action in the Action Plan for Education, which aims to make Ireland’s education and training service the best in Europe by 2026.
These childcare surveys should use approved methodology to identify the exact needs of the whole community by gathering information in a systematic way. However, I have been contacted by a number of my people in my area who felt they were not consulted during this survey. In fact, they felt actively excluded. Tullow with 4,673 citizens is the third largest town in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency only surpassed by Kilkenny city with 26,512 citizens and Carlow town with 24,272 citizens. Tullow is now the 94th largest population centre in Ireland. The town and surrounding areas have nine primary schools, eight of Catholic patronage and one of Church of Ireland patronage, and one post-primary school, which provided educational facilities for the town and the surrounding hinterland.
Tullow is an important service centre in north-east Carlow and has a significant role in accommodating future population growth and economic development of the area. This role in County Carlow and its growing population urged an examination of the need for multidenominational and non-denominational school for the town to see if there was an appetite within the area for an Educate Together school.
The anonymous survey asked parents to indicate if they were happy with the current primary school provision and what type of primary school they would choose for their children. However, if a child was not attending an ECCE-approved preschool in the area, his or her parents were not asked their opinion. Parents who work outside of Tullow and place their small children in a crèche or Montessori closer to their workplace for convenience were not consulted. Public health nurses who have access to the information of all children in the target group were not consulted to balance up the numbers to ensure all parents were consulted.
In the survey, some parents, whose intention is to send their child to an Educate Together school already in another area closer their work, were asked their opinion. The numbers then do not give a true reflection of satisfaction with the currently available choice. Given that only a fraction of the population of potential primary school children had access to the survey, it indicates that the survey results cannot possibly give a true reflection of the need or desire for a multidenominational or non-denominational school for primary aged children.No parent of a child currently in the school system who did not have a younger sibling in ECCE-approved preschool was asked for his or her opinion.
We have a problem getting DEIS status in Tullow. This matter needs to be conveyed to the Minister for Education and Skills. I have fought for DEIS status to be granted to schools in Tullow for years. The people in the area have been ignored. However, that is a matter for another day. We need to ensure that we get a multidenominational or non-denominational school in the area. The Government has said that it aspires to make Ireland's education system a world leader but there is a problem in the context of how the data upon which plans are made is gathered. I would like to be informed as to the exact instructions that were given to the Carlow County Childcare Committee, which comes under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and which carried out this survey on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. The measure was applied to 16 areas. There is great confusion in my area and I ask the Minister of State present to clarify the matter. I want people to have equal opportunities. In that context, we must ensure that everyone concerned is surveyed.
I thank the Senator Murnane O'Connor for raising this issue. The Minister for Education and Skills sends his apologies for not being present. I am taking this matter on his behalf and I will set out for the Seanad the position in terms of the schools reconfiguration for diversity process.
In January 2017, the Minister announced new plans aimed at accelerating the provision of multidenominational and non-denominational schools across the country in line with the choices of parents, families and school communities and the programme for Government commitment to reach 400 such schools by 2030. He would like to point out that the previous model of patronage divestment yielded only a limited number of schools for transfer to multidenominational patrons, and only ten since 2013. He believes that this new schools reconfiguration for diversity process, which will involve the transfer of live schools, has the potential to significantly increase patron diversity in our school system. He also believes that lessons have been learned from the previous process.
The main provision of the schools reconfiguration for diversity process involves a survey of preschool parents across specific geographical areas and the potential for a subsequent transfer of patronage of a school by the existing patron to a multidenominational or non-denominational patron on the basis of a report on the survey outcomes. This process consists of two separate and distinct phases. The identification phase includes the current roll-out of surveys across 16 pilot areas, including Tullow, and is being conducted by the educational training boards, ETBs. This phase is under way. The ETBs have identified, on the basis of census date, towns or areas where there is likely to be demand from families for a greater diversity of school patronage. The ETBs have worked with Childcare Committees Ireland, CCI, to establish evidence of this demand among a cohort of preschool parents, via surveys being facilitated by the relevant local city and county childcare committees in conjunction with the CCI. There will then be discussions between individual ETBs and existing patrons or landowners concerning the possible transfer of existing schools to accommodate a demonstrated demand for diversity of patronage. Each ETB will then prepare a report for the Department outlining the levels of indicated demand arising from the surveys and the responses of the existing patrons as to how this might be accommodated through the reconfiguration of existing school provision. These reports will be published on the website for the Department of Education and Skills, with quarterly reports on implementation.
The second phase relates to implementation. In the event that the identification phase reveals a level of demand for multidenominational schools sufficient to justify transfer of at least one school from denominational to multidenominational patronage, a process will commence to give effect to this. There will be a role for the existing patron or landowner in consulting with local community and school interests. The development of protocols for the implementation phase is proceeding. It is clear from the discussions that have taken place that all parties, including church authorities, want the process of the selection of a new patron to reflect the wishes of the parents and school community. In agreeing the protocols for the implementation phase, the Department of Education and Skills will be clear that, in arranging for transfers of schools to multidenominational patrons, the choice of alternative patronage should be based on principles of transparency and co-operation, and reflect the wishes of parents. The Minister for Education and Skills has already stated his belief that the best way to achieve this will be to hold a public meeting where each prospective patron can make his or her case to the school community, followed by a vote of all parents within that school community whether they attended the meeting or not. It is envisaged that in most cases transfer will be by way of voluntary live school transfer rather than the amalgamation and closure model that formed the basis of the previous patronage divesting process. It is expected that in many cases the school property will simply be leased at a modest or nominal rent from the existing landowner.
I hope that I have clarified the position and reaffirmed that Tullow, and other areas, are being considered in a proper and clear way.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I tabled a Commencement matter on this topic due to the confusion generated by the survey. There are parents who feel that they should have been surveyed but, unfortunately, it was only the parents of children who participate in ECCE schemes that were surveyed. As the Minister of State stated, surveys have been circulated in 16 pilot areas. I ask him to convey and highlight all of my concerns to the Minister for Education and Skills. We need to work together and we need to ensure that all parents have an opportunity to express their views about education for their children. No matter what, we must respect everybody's wishes and that is what I am here to do. I know the Minister of State will convey my concerns to the Minister for Education and Skills.
Yes, I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister has clearly stated that he wants parents to be consulted and for the system to be right. That is what he is trying to do and it is the reason he changed the process.