Seanad debates

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation Provision

2:30 pm

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, to the House.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I have been asked by Councillor Rory O'Connor of Wicklow County Council to raise this important issue with the Minister on behalf of the parents and staff of St. Andrew's national school in Bray.

As the Minister may be aware, St. Andrew's national school is a fantastic school with a long and impressive history, having been founded in 1888 under the patronage of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It has undergone many changes, funded for the most part by the generosity of the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian communities in Bray. Over the years, it has expanded to include pupils from the Methodist Church.

St. Andrew's national school is unique as it was the first, and remains the only, school in Ireland to be shared by three churches. This arrangement has worked very well and is mutually beneficial, with all three churches playing an active role in the life of the school. The board of trustees comprises representatives of all three churches and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin is the school's patron. The ethos of the school is inclusive in nature and it welcomes everybody equally. The problem now facing the school is that there is no feeder status for St. Andrew's national school to any school in the area with the same ethos. As we know, Article 44 of the Constitution confers freedom to practice one's religion and State aid for schools. Schools cannot discriminate between different religions and denominations and parents of minority faiths have a right to send their children to schools of their ethos and values.

I have been told that currently some of the pupils in sixth class in St. Andrew's national school still have no places allocated to them for next year. The transition to secondary school is challenging enough for young people and their parents, without the added impediment of there being no school available with their religious ethos. For example, pupils from St. Andrew's have no category 1 access to any school in Bray. Newpark Comprehensive School is the closest to St. Andrew's but it is still some distance away and over-subscribed. Outside of Newpark Comprehensive School there is little choice for parents unless they have the means to pay extremely high fees to other schools which are not close to Bray. The options could not be more limited. Parents with children in St. Andrew's national school find themselves in a unique and, frankly, worrying situation. In Bray, there are barriers to their children accessing places in schools of other faiths. For example, to gain admission to the Presentation College, Bray, category 1, a child needs to have a parent who is a past pupil or a sibling who attended.Loreto school is fed into St. Patrick's school first. St. Andrew's school worked tirelessly 25 or 30 years ago to get East Glendalough school in Wicklow up and running, only to be told St. Andrew's is not in the school's catchment area. Indeed, I represented East Glendalough school in my time in the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI.

In 2011, the school began a campaign to build a school such as East Glendalough school in Bray, but was told it could only bid for the proposed school in Greystones. The school was initially assured that the new school would be regional rather than local. It entered the bidding process and again received verbal assurances that the catchment area would be regional. However, it was subsequently informed it would be a local school for local children, leaving a considerable number of pupils outside the catchment area. One possible solution is Temple Carrig school, which is only five minutes up the road and is the only nearby school in Wicklow of a similar ethos. Will the Minister give serious consideration to giving feeder status to Temple Carrig school for all St. Andrew's pupils?

I understand a new secondary school is being fast-tracked to open next year with capacity for 1,000 pupils. St. David's Holy Faith secondary school is getting an extension in February 2020 to bring its capacity to 750 and Temple Carrig school is seeking an extension to accommodate 1,000 students. For St. Andrew's students to access places in Temple Carrig school the school places would have to be ring-fenced and St. Andrew's assigned category 1 feeder school status. I hope the Minister will have good news today for the pupils, staff and parents in St. Andrew's in Bray, who deeply need a school that shares their ethos within a reasonable distance of pupils' homes. I thank the Minister for taking this matter today and for his attendance in the House. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an cheist seo a ardú inniu. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the position relating to the provision of post-primary schools in Bray and the position of St Andrew's primary school as a feeder school.

To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, using data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. With this information, my Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level. For school planning purposes, St. Andrew's national school is located in the Bray school planning area which is currently served by six post-primary schools, including north Wicklow Educate Together secondary school, a new 1,000 pupil multidenominational post-primary school established in 2016 to serve the Bray school planning area with a current enrolment of some 225 pupils. In April 2018, the Government announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the four year period 2019 to 2022, including a new 800 pupil post-primary school to serve the adjacent Greystones and Kilcoole school planning areas as a regional solution which is due to be established in September 2020. The requirement for new schools will be kept under ongoing review and, in particular, will have regard for the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040.

New schools established since 2011 to meet demographic demand are required, in the first instance, to prioritise pupil applications from within the designated school planning area which the school was established to serve. This does not preclude schools from enrolling pupils from outside of the school planning area where they have sufficient places, but reflects the need to accommodate in the first instance the demographic for which the school was established. The capital programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms, if required, for schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified or where an additional teacher has been appointed. Details of schools listed on this programme can be found on my Department's website at and this information is also updated regularly.

The question of enrolment in individual schools generally, including the setting of catchment areas, is the responsibility of the board of management on behalf of the school patron. My Department does not seek to intervene in decisions made by schools in such matters. My Department's main responsibility is to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all pupils seeking school places in the area.A board of management may find it necessary to prioritise the enrolment of children from particular areas or on the basis of some other criterion, including giving priority to applicants who have attended a particular primary school, known as a feeder school. The criteria to be applied by schools in such circumstances and the order of priority are a matter for the schools themselves. Parents have the right to choose which school to apply to and, where the school has places available, the pupil should be admitted. However, in schools where there are more applicants than places available, a selection process may be necessary. This selection process and the enrolment policy on which it is based must be non-discriminatory and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants. This may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice. As the Senator may be aware, the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 provides a new framework for school enrolment that is designed to ensure that every child is treated fairly and that the way in which schools decide on applications for admission is structured, fair and transparent.

I thank the Senator again for the opportunity to outline to the House the position in respect of feeder schools and the provision of post-primary schools in the Bray planning area.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank him very much for his response. With regard to the current environment in Ireland, many people are watching from abroad to see how we treat members of other faiths. In this particular instance, members of three faiths attend the primary school. There is an opportunity for the Government to be seen as magnanimous and understanding with regard to the placement of children. If Temple Carrig school could give category 1 status to pupils of the national school in question, it would go down well with the local community and would help show Ireland as a caring and understanding country with respect to the observance of the ethos of specific religions. We are becoming more multidenominational. I take the Minister's point regarding the opening of the multidenominational school in Bray, but we have to keep parents' right to choose under Article 44 of the Constitution to the forefront. Will the Minister commit to at least examining the possibility of giving category 1 status to such pupils applying to Temple Carrig school? Will he get his officials to have a look at that and to see if there is some way in which it could be facilitated?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator once again. One of the things I found out very early in this job was how important the integrity of all 314 school planning areas is. We had an issue in Dublin quite early on. Parents were making a similar demand. They also wished for their feeder school to be moved into a different planning area but the integrity of the planning areas must be respected because we would otherwise not be able to operate a structure to measure demographic changes and demand.

On Temple Carrig secondary school, which the Senator has mentioned, this is a 750-pupil post-primary school established in 2014 with a Church of Ireland ethos. It is in the adjacent Greystones school planning area, some 4 km from St. Andrew's national school in Bray. New schools established since 2011 to meet demographic demand, including Temple Carrig secondary school, are required to prioritise, in the first instance, pupil applications from within the designated school planning areas they were established to serve. The important point, which I know the Senator accepts, is that this does not preclude schools from enrolling pupils from outside of the school planning areas where sufficient places are available. Rather it reflects the need to accommodate, in the first instance, the demographics for which the school was established. There is therefore nothing precluding young primary school students from applying to Temple Carrig secondary school but, because of respect for the integrity of the school planning areas, pupils from within the school planning area are prioritised.

I will reiterate that there are six post-primary schools in the planning area and that demand is growing as a result of demographic increases. This is not only occurring in greater Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, Meath, and Louth.I was in the Leas-Chathaoirleach's own county - the kingdom of Kerry - on Friday. As I went through different urban areas of the county, I learned that pressures like increases in the number of housing applications are increasing the level of demand for school places.

I would like to give an indication of the position in the Bray school planning area. Woodbrook College has a Catholic ethos. Loreto secondary school has a Catholic ethos. Presentation College has a Catholic ethos. St. Kilian's community school is an interdenominational school. Coláiste Ráithín is a multidenominational school. North Wicklow Educate Together secondary school is a multidenominational school. There is continuing pressure on school places. As numbers change over the next five or ten years, the pressure will come off the primary sector and there will be increased pressure on post-primary schools. I understand where the Senator is coming from on this matter. If places are available at Temple Carrig school, I am sure students and pupils from St. Andrew's national school will be accommodated.