Seanad debates

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Commencement Matters

School Accommodation Provision

2:30 pm

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire nua. Go n-éirí leis sa phost nua tábhachtach seo atá aige.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this. The lack of secondary school places in Rush and Skerries is a huge concern for parents. Fingal is one of the fastest growing parts of the country, if not in Europe. We have a very large young population and this is not changing but is likely to rise. We found ourselves with the extraordinary situation where children in both villages, or towns as they are now with a population in excess of 10,000 each, cannot be guaranteed a place in their own secondary school in their own town.

St. Joseph's is the only secondary school in Rush and has a student population of approximately 740. It opened its doors to new students and 220 people turned up on the day. As a consequence of this, we have 102 children on a waiting list and 102 families terrified about their child and not knowing what to do. There is a similar situation with a long waiting list to get into the secondary school in Skerries. These are all in one catchment area. Not only can they not now go to school in their own town, they cannot go to school in the next town over. They will be forced to go to God knows where. It is not satisfactory.

We have known that this growth has been taking place and that more houses are planned, yet here we are in this situation. For the next five years, St. Joseph's will have to limit the intake of new students to 120 when it is getting in excess of 200 applications. Some 89% of the 102 on the waiting list are from Rush. The trend will continue for at least five years, as I said. There are not alternatives in the immediate area.

I have a formal request for a meeting with officials from the Department of Education and Skills to meet members of the board of St. Joseph's to progress the purchase of approximately 14 acres for a new school and playing pitches in Rush. Will the Minister arrange that meeting next month because the school site needs to be bought now? The road access will be resolved in early December when the compulsory purchase order, CPO, is completed. Two weeks ago, the board put in a formal application for emergency accommodation so that we can accommodate as many of these young people as possible, yet we have had no response.

Skerries community college has encountered the same problem, as I pointed out. We are getting emails from frantic, worried parents in Skerries who cannot get their kids into school in their own town. This never happened before. This problem has been highlighted in the local newspaper, the Skerries News, and it is causing turmoil. People are very worried and we need to have this new emergency accommodation put in place as soon as possible to give people some certainty. They do not know where they are going to send their kids next year and that is not good enough. The community college has planning permission for a permanent extension of five classrooms and other key facilities granted by Fingal County Council in 2017.

This problem is not going away. We need to get this temporary accommodation put in place in Rush, we need the prefabs for Skerries community college, and we need an outline of the future for both of these schools. This problem is only going to get worse. We have the best of teachers giving the best of education to our young people, preparing them for the world, in surroundings that are utterly unsatisfactory in the case of Rush and which provide utter uncertainty for parents, which is grossly unfair.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teach fá choinne an seans labhairt leis na Seanadóirí inniu agus táim buíoch as na focail cineálta fosta. Tá an ceart ag an Seanadóir. Tá sé iontach tábhachtach don todhchaí, is léir go mbeidh daonra ollmhór i gceantar Fine Gall, agus táim sásta an freagra seo a bhaint amach.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the current position with regard to my Department's plans to meet the demand for school places in St. Joseph's secondary school in Rush and in Skerries community college in the Fingal area. As the Senator may be aware, my predecessor, Deputy Bruton, announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the next four years, 2019 to 2022.The announcement follows nationwide demographic exercises carried out by my Department to assess the future need for primary and post-primary schools across the country. The four-year horizon will enable increased lead-in times for planning and delivery of the necessary infrastructure.

The announcement includes three new post-primary schools to be established in the Fingal area, as follows: a new 1,000 pupil post-primary school to serve the Donaghmede, Howth and Dublin 13 school planning area, to be established in 2019; a new 800 pupil post-primary school to serve the Blanchardstown West, Dublin 15, and Blanchardstown, Dublin 15, school planning areas as a regional solution, to be established in 2020; and a new 800 pupil post-primary school to serve the Donaghmede, Howth and Dublin 13 school planning area, to be established in 2021.

In addition to the new schools announced, my Department’s capital investment programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms in existing schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified. The requirement for new schools will be kept under ongoing review and, in particular, have regard to the increased roll-out of housing provision, as outlined in Project Ireland 2040.

With regard to St. Joseph’s secondary school, Rush, my Department recently received an application from the school for additional accommodation. The application is being assessed and a decision will issue directly to the school shortly. I will make sure it is kept very firmly on the radar. The Senator will also be aware that a major building project to provide a new replacement school building at St. Joseph’s secondary school is included in my Department’s six-year construction programme. A site is required for this purpose and currently being pursued.

In addition, the Senator will be aware that in September 2013 my Department established a new 1,000 pupil multi-denominational post-primary school, Lusk community college, under the patronage of Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, to serve the Rush and Lusk school planning area.

With regard to Skerries community college, my Department has been liaising with the school’s patron, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, on the applicant level for school places. I understand the school has indicated that it has been unable to offer a place to all applicants in September 2018. I advise the Senator that, in response to an application for additional accommodation from the ETB, my Department approved in principle the provision of additional permanent accommodation consisting of three general classrooms, one science laboratory, one art room and three special education teaching rooms. I am aware that the provision of additional accommodation on the site must be carefully planned, considering the limitations of the site. In that regard, my Department’s professional and technical staff will shortly be visiting the school site to determine how the project can be advanced. As an interim arrangement, my Department has approved the rental of temporary accommodation to the school, pending the delivery of the permanent accommodation solution. My Department will continue to work with the ETB to address the school’s interim and long-term accommodation needs.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his response. However, as whoever wrote it speaks about Howth and Donaghmede and places miles away from the area I am addressing, I will say no more about it. The bottom line is that additional accommodation has been approved for of one portacabin in Skerries when three are badly needed. That is what the school applied for. I am glad to hear that a more permanent solution will be forthcoming.

In regard to St. Joseph's secondary school, we have been pursuing the site at Rush for some time. All that is required is for the Department to instruct Fingal County Council to purchase the site. It happily does this on a regular basis for the Department on the basis of shared facilities after school hours. It needs to be done. The CPO to open up the road and the lands is to be completed in December. However, we are facing a delay because there was a misunderstanding between CEIST, EDUCENA and the Department about who was going to purchase the land. CEIST and EDUCENA made it very clear they were not in a position to do it; therefore, it falls to the Department.

With regard to Lusk community college, it is very welcome that we will have a secondary school, the second half of which is being built, but it is very clear to all concerned that it will not be able to accommodate the increased demand for place from pupils in both Skerries and Rush. It just will not wash. I am told by Councillor O'Leary who is in the Visitors Gallery and many constituents that all of the local crèches are full and that the problem will just keep building.

We need a serious signal from the Department that it is going to take action in purchasing a site for St. Joseph's secondary school which has been identified for well over a couple of years. The school is just waiting for the order from the Department to enable the local council to act. I appeal to the Minister as I know that parents in both schools are extremely upset and very angry.While the next academic year, 2019-20, may seem a long way away, they have applied for places and have been declined. What the Minister's Department - the Department more than the Minister - will face if it does not act is a slew of section 29 appeals which it will not be able to handle. As we discuss this matter, these children have no school places for next year.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Minister to be brief. We are over time.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I will be brief. I take very seriously the issues the Senator raised, and there are obviously concerns in very heavily populated areas. I get the concern of parents and understand the need to progress matters as quickly as we possibly can. I am also conscious, however, that we have been dealing even today and over the weekend with legacy issues of schools having been fast-tracked over too short a period. We learned many lessons from that. We are looking at longer lead-in terms, but this cannot be used as an excuse for not dealing with the immediate pressures. I get the Senator's concerns. As I said, a request for additional accommodation has been submitted. We will make a decision on that and ensure that the officials are proactive in this regard. As for the Senator's observation on the inclusion of Donaghmede, and in defence of the officials who prepared this answer, the first part of the question referred to Fingal, although I acknowledge the Senator's interest was in the two areas to which he referred.

Walking the corridors of this House and bumping into colleagues from every constituency, I am finding out about the increasing pressures, demands and populations in their areas. These are issues, but the only way we can do this properly is to have a trajectory of a long-term plan. For this reason, the Government has provided funding of €8.4 billion in the ten-year capital plan. It is the first time in the State that we are working on a ten-year plan. I understand that news of ten-year plans is no good to parents whose children are going to school today but we must manage this. In raising this matter today, the Senator has highlighted the need to deliver this as speedily as possible while adhering to new policies and guidelines, which are also necessary to provide the right solutions and buildings.