Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for taking this matter. I understand that at the moment, given the current Covid numbers, she is particularly busy with managing the opening of the education and school system and keeping it going. I pay tribute to her and teachers throughout the country, who have kept schools going. One of the most important issues relates to keeping children in school, and the impact of lost days is significant, not least for kids in my area and from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I raise the issue of capacity within the school system, with a particular focus on St. Patrick's National School in Chapelizod. The school building has enough space for only one classroom per class. There are three small special-needs rooms but there is not space for a specialised autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit, which the school's principal believes are becoming increasingly necessary within school settings. The school is oversubscribed by approximately two times. There are 70 applications for the junior infants class each year. The school can take 30-something pupils and at the moment is at capacity, with 36. The yard space is limited given the number of children in the school and the size of the yard precludes the option of an extension for the school for anything else. Moreover, its location on a three-way crossroads makes it difficult and dangerous for the children coming to school.
In light of these constraints, limitations and the potential for the expansion of the school to take in a sufficient number of pupils from the catchment area, a site has become available across the road, opposite the old school post office. I understand a compulsory purchase order, CPO, for the site is being processed. I accept the Minister will not have a direct answer during this debate, but she might follow up within the Department to engage with Dublin City Council with a view to purchasing the site for the development of the school across the road. It would keep the school within the local area, with enough space for pupils from the catchment area, and allow it to expand. It would also allow it to include an ASD unit and, potentially, to run a number of additional classes. The school building is 50 years old and expensive maintenance is required. An application has been lodged for a grant of €300,000 to fund the replacement of old windows and frames. That was submitted two years ago but appears to have stalled. There is an expensive maintenance cost in the upkeep of an old school building that is too small and is not fit for purpose.
Will the Minister and her Department engage with the principal and Dublin City Council with a view to allowing the school to move to a safe site just across the road that will allow for expansion to serve the educational needs of children within the local area, including through an ASD unit?
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to speak with her today. I express my gratitude for her very positive comments on the school sector and Department. She is correct that a significant body of work has been undertaken by the entire education sector to ensure our schools could operate safely and continue to operate. It is a significant achievement that today I can say that we in the education sector cater for 1 million students in 4,000 schools with 100,000 staff. They are not operating without challenges in particular areas, and we are conscious of that. Significant resources have been provided for schools so that they can operate. I have been consistent in my view that resources are significant but they would be of no value if the goodwill and generosity was not available on the ground to implement them. We have seen that in abundance in the education sector. It is a positive reflection on society that schools continue to be supported to operate.
On St. Patrick's National School and the issue the Senator raised, the specific school was not flagged with me in advance. If it had been flagged in advance, I would have had a more specific and detailed answer for her. I will commit to her that engagement will be provided by my officials regarding a specific update on the school.
In general terms, we have a very significant building programme within the Department of Education. The provision of new builds and additional accommodation, as required, is all provided for. Even during lockdown, the school building programme continued. It always continues, with the collaboration of and close engagement with patron bodies and schools. The Senator referred to local authorities, which have been very helpful and have engaged with us positively in advancing specific education needs in specific locations. We have benefited very much from the proactive engagement of the partners in education. I acknowledge that local authorities have played a role where necessary.
In respect of St. Patrick's National School, I am happy for my officials and the Department to examine the matter. I will revert to the Senator in due course with an update.
I thank the Minister. I understand her comments. I did not frame the Commencement matter in a specific way because such matters are sometimes ruled out of order. I also did not expect it to be selected for that reason. I understand that I sprung the issue on the Minister. I will email her and the Department after this debate. We can continue the engagement because I do not expect a specific answer, given that I did not flag the issue in advance. I thank the Minister for her engagement.