Seanad debates

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation Provision

2:30 pm

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, is very welcome to the Seanad Chamber. I thank him for responding to this very important item. Newtownwhite national school is a rural school situated between Killala and Ballina and was in decline until September 2012 when under the patronage divestment process the patronage transferred from the Church of Ireland to Educate Together. It is safe to say that since then the school has gone from strength to strength. Next September the school will increase from 54 pupils this year to 60, which will allow it to have a third teacher. I commend the Church of Ireland authorities, the local bishop, the school community and in particular the staff and board of management for their great work. All of that is in spite of the fact that the school accommodation is poor. The school is old and its accommodation is substandard to the modern day needs we envisage pupils should enjoy. One can imagine their joy when they got the news six weeks ago that they will get new accommodation comprising two mainstream classrooms and a special education room. That will enhance their offering and free up existing classrooms which can be put to other use such as for storage and a PE hall.

That is good news. However, there is a problem which has been ongoing for years. At the time of the divestment the property was in the name of the Church of Ireland and, as I understand it, a lease must be drawn up between the Church of Ireland and the Department of Education and Skills to regularise the situation. The school cannot act on foot of the notification from the Department to provide additional accommodation. The Church of Ireland authorities have been waiting for years to get the lease sorted out and they are not happy for the project to continue without the lease being sorted. That is only as a last resort and I hope we will make progress and get some answers today.

I have been communicating with the office of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, and his predecessors for some time, inquiring about the reason the lease, which is a basic thing, has not been drawn up. What are the delays and obstacles? The school has no clear answers. I should also add that the school is on a constrained site but is has an offer of land immediately adjoining the school to expand it. The school community is not going to buy land when the title of the land it is on is not even sorted out. We all understand that is a basic requirement for the school to be able to continue and to grow. I would like some answers today and beyond that it would be a welcome relief to the staff, school community and parents if we could see some progress as they want their new accommodation to be built.

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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Senator Mulherin may be happy with the answer I will give her today. I thank her for raising the matter. As she may be aware, the Newtownwhite Educate Together national school opened in September 2014 under the patronage divestment process. The process is one of a number of steps taken by the Department of Education and Skills to provide a more diverse range of primary schools to cater for children of all religions.Under this process, following surveys undertaken in 2012 and 2013, it was envisaged that existing school patrons would make buildings surplus to requirement available for greater diversity if sufficient demand for a school under different patronage could be demonstrated. Some 11 new multi-denominational schools have been established under the process, with another due to be established in September.

As the Senator will be aware, the patronage of schools often involves ownership of schools and school properties. The ownership and control of school property can be a complex issue, both constitutionally and in respect of property law and rights. The ownership of the vast majority of school property by religious orders and trusts is an historical legacy of how Ireland's education system developed. Typically, ownerships involve religious trusts; trustees; religious orders; bishops, both as landowners and school patrons; and the State. The divesting of the school in Newtownwhite to Educate Together was facilitated by transfer from the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland Trustees, which owns the property, and Educate Together engaged directly with each other in respect of the leasing arrangements for the property. A draft lease was drawn up but was not finalised and executed between the parties. The school authorities submitted an application to the Department for additional accommodation in September 2019 because an additional teacher had been sanctioned for the school. The Department recently approved funding for additional accommodation for the school to construct two mainstream classrooms, one special education teacher room and one toilet for assisted users. Given the timeframe for the planning permission process and the construction period, the school is working on interim solutions for September 2019.

On foot of a request from one of the parties, given that the school has been located in the property since 2014 and in recognition of the additional accommodation to be made available for the property, the Department recently agreed to engage with the representatives of the landowners with a view to regularising the position on the lease, which is good news for the Senator. I have been told by the Department to inform the Senator that the case is being actively progressed. As the engagement is ongoing, however, it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment on it, although the Department is committed to finishing the process. Perhaps in a few weeks I will be able to provide further information but I am not currently at liberty to comment on the progress of the engagement.

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response, from which I take some hope and positivity. Nevertheless, I am sure he will agree the issue of the lease, which has been ongoing since 2014, has taken an inordinate length of time to be resolved. It must be resolved, however, because as I have described, a further delay will hold the school back in respect of the provision of additional accommodation and the acquiring of adjoining land, which the school cannot do.

Will the Minister of State clarify whether the Department is party to the lease? My understanding is that a lease will be drawn up between the Department and the Church of Ireland, while a sublease will be provided to Educate Together. While the Minister of State's has not indicated that, it is indicated in the information provided to the school. It is a significant issue because the Minister of State seemed to indicate there is an issue between Educate Together and the Church of Ireland Trustees, whereas my information suggests that the issue is with the Department. The school community needs to identify the parties in question, the people who must agree on the lease and the parties to the lease. I do not know if the Minister of State has the information to hand but it is critical to what I have asked. Is the Department party to the lease?

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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I do not have that information to hand but I will revert with it to the Senator in the next couple of days. Having briefly spoken to the Department earlier, I know that it is confident the negotiations will produce a result.I agree with the Senator that dealing with this issue since 2014 is a long time. Given the timeframe of all that has happened, the planning permission process, the construction period and so forth, September 2019 is the date for the work to be put in place. I am not familiar with the question the Senator asked. I will find that answer for her and ensure that the relevant information associated with the question is given to her within several days.