Thursday, 18 November 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I am, of course, happy to share my time. The very first Commencement matter I raised in this House was on this exact issue. Here we are a year and a half later and the situation is only getting worse. I am speaking on behalf of tens, if not hundreds, of families who are at a complete loss due to their children not being offered any secondary school place for next September. We had this situation last year and it was only alleviated by an extra class being taken by Newbridge community school. We had it the year before and the year before that. Schools are trying to do their best to accommodate the students who want to attend but it is proving to be an impossible situation. There is a huge need for a new school. That has long been agreed but there is an inordinate amount of delay in the acquisition and provision of a site.
I appreciate the Minister of State is here to take this. I had a conversation with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, this morning. She has a meeting at this time but I had asked for an urgent meeting. She assures me that site is almost at a closing stage. However, that is still not going to solve the problem for those who need a place next September. I have reached out both to the primary schools which the sixth class pupils are leaving and to the secondary schools to get their views, input and experiences. There is a huge amount of anxiety on the ground. I am hearing it from parents, students and teachers. The teachers are very concerned about the young people they are teaching. The young people feel isolated because they do not have places. One principal was talking about a child who is 44th on the waiting list in one school, 67th on another and 88th in a third. It is unacceptable. Young people have enough to cope with, given the challenges of life, without adding to it the worry of not having a school place or being able to be in school with their friends.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am also glad to be sharing time on this very important matter for families in south County Kildare. I, like my colleague, have raised this continually since becoming a Member of the Seanad. Indeed, I think this is the third time I have raised it on the Commencement.
We need a temporary three- to four-year plan. We have just heard we may have a school that was promised and announced in 2018 but we still do not know that with any certainty. There is no certainty for the families ringing my office and others and crying down the phone. That is what is happening at the moment. This school was promised in 2018. It was to be a new 1,000-pupil school, yet we do not even have a site for it. That is not acceptable.
I wanted to bring some of the parents' worries and concerns to the Minister of State this morning. As he can see, I have received much correspondence. I will mention some of it:
From day one, the application process put huge amounts of stress on the children. The school spoke directly to the children, asking them to relay the message to parents. This caused panic, a feeling of being overwhelmed and my 11-year-old couldn't understand why she had been told she had less chance of getting a place because she is the eldest. She was so distraught in school that a teacher had to take her aside to assure her it would work out. It hasn't worked out. She is number 35 on the waiting list.
Another parent wrote:
My son is 11 years old. Last Friday he received an unsuccessful application for his secondary school place in Kildare Town. Since then he won't go out playing with his friends.
Here is one more example for the Minister of State:
As a parent in Monasterevin we selected our local school because we were told there was a new school in Monasterevin. To say we were shocked when we got no offer for a place for our daughter is an understatement. Our daughter is worried about this. She would rather attend the same school as her friends.
And so it goes on and on. In addition, I received a call this morning from a principal of a rural school in south Kildare who said that parents are now choosing urban centres to send their children to primary school, and bypassing her school, because they think they will have a greater chance of getting a place in a secondary school in Kildare South. This is a crisis. I am glad the Minister of State is in the Chamber and I look forward to what he has to say.
I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, who has another commitment and regrets that she cannot be here. I thank both Senators for raising this matter, which provides me with an opportunity to clarify the current position, which I suspect the Senators are well aware of. It is important to bring it to the attention of the Seanad to keep the pressure on everyone involved in the matter.
To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and various data is collected as part of this process. Where data indicates that additional provision is required at primary or post-primary level, the delivery of such provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through either one, or a combination of, the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school; extensions to existing schools; or the provision of a new school, which the Senators raised.
As they will be aware, since April 2018, the Government has announced that 47 new schools will be established over a four-year period between 2019 and 2022, some of which will be in the Kildare area, including two new post-primary schools to serve school planning areas Kilcock and Maynooth, which I note is in north Kildare.
I advise the Senators that the Department of Education is aware of the increasing pressure on south Kildare. Where capacity issues arise, it may not be due to a lack of accommodation but may be driven by a number of factors, which the Senators have mentioned. They include duplication of applications, whereby people put their names down for a number of schools based on geographic grounds, where the family has gone to, or the school they feel they have the best chance to get into; the school of choice, whereby people want to get a place in their preferred school rather than the nearest school; some towns have single-sex schools and while places are available in the school, they are not available to all pupils; and external draw, whereby people might want to travel into an area that has a good reputation. All these issues need to be discussed.
Similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, the Department is engaging with patron bodies, including in the Kildare area, to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming years. A number of building projects are planned for south Kildare, including the Curragh Post Primary School. It is intended that significant additional capacity to address post-primary demand will be provided through a new 1,000-pupil school building that will replace and expand the existing Curragh Post Primary School. In this regard, a site is required to construct the new school. The project is also intended to address the issues in the Kildare-Curragh-Newbridge school planning areas. Departmental officials are currently in negotiation with a landowner regarding the acquisition of a suitable site for the building project. The Department will continue to work closely with officials from Kildare County Council with a view to progressing this. I assure Senators that, having raised this matter today, this project will be given enhanced priority by the Minister. The Department is attempting to bring the matter to a close, as soon as possible, with a view to commencing the architectural planning process to deliver the project.
From my experience in dealing with the situation in Monasterevin, it is essential that there must be a clear understanding on the part of the local authority that the site being purchased is suitable from road traffic and water services point of view. There is no point acquiring a site, as occurred in Monasterevin, that has difficulties with road access and subsequent difficulties. All those aspects must be confirmed before the deal is done, because years could be added to a project if Irish Water were to highlight an issue down the road. I stress to all involved that they need to deal with that issue. My advice from my dealings with these issues is to get a site and make sure it is the absolute right site, and the council must be involved in the process to give a little comfort to that before the site is purchased.
I assure the Minister of State that Kildare County Council has been involved in looking at all the proposed sites with the Department. I agree with him about having the site located in an appropriate place.
I accept the statement he has given us but there is nothing new in it that will give either of us comfort regarding the provision the school places that are needed for next September. That is where the pinch point is. We need provisions in place to make sure that every child in south Kildare has a secondary school place next September. We need to know what the long-term plans are to ensure our school infrastructure keeps pace with the rapid expansion of the area, because a number of housing estates are being built in Newbridge, Kildare, Rathangan and Monasterevin. We do not see the school infrastructure keeping pace with this.
This school was announced in December 2018. That was three years ago, which is enough time for anyone to ensure that everything is in place. I, too, was involved in St. Paul's school, as the Minister of State will be aware, and that took so long. Three years is long enough for anybody. We are tired waiting on this. It has to happen.
I wish to draw his attention to something he did not say in the final paragraph of his reply. It states: "for the forthcoming year(s) which may necessitate action." I assure the Minister of State and the Minister of Education that we need action now. We cannot afford to have children staying in their bedrooms and not going out to play with their friends because they do not have a place in their secondary school in Kildare South. We need action now, not promises. I could have written the Minister of State's script. It is exactly the same response, as Senator O'Loughlin said, as what we got in May this year. It is simply no good enough. Let us see the plan. I hope he brings that message back to the Minister for Education.
I thank both Senators for strongly driving home the point. I had a similar experience in Portlaoise. It is an expanding area and school places is always an issue. I am providing practical experiences and not the official script. It will take a couple of years to build a new school, even if the contract is signed tomorrow. Architectural design, planning, tendering and construction is required. There will be a few years during which there will be a problem and one of the key solutions is that some schools will have to agree to take on temporary accommodation in the area if children are to be accommodated. There is no point saying otherwise. If it takes a two-, three- or four-year period for all that to be done, the schools in the area will have to come together and collectively agree who will help out in this situation on the basis of it being temporary accommodation. That is the practical advice I have to offer. I have a long script to hand, all of which I did not get to read in the time available. A lot of work has been done in this area. On a temporary basis, there must be a coming together between the various school principals and boards of management to see what solution can be put in place. Otherwise, there will be problems and people will leave the area to go somewhere else, and may never come back, to finish their secondary schooling. It is important that this happens.