Seanad debates

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

10:30 am

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I also welcome the class from Swords. A day will come as the teachers know, when it will be a compliment rather than an insult to be classed as younger than you are. In time, they will see that as a big compliment.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and thank him for taking the matter. I hoped the Minister, Deputy Foley, would be able to take it but obviously she is busy. It is a busy time.

I know she is aware of this school in Tipperary and I hope she will do what she can in her remit to support it. I would be grateful if the Minister of State relays some of the points I make today back to her. He is from a similar constituency to Tipperary and will understand the importance of small rural schools and the role they play not only in the village but for families across the county.

Golden National School is one of those small schools in rural Ireland. Slightly fewer than 100 children attend it. It is a four-teacher school and the principal is Mr. James McCarthy who was a pupil back in the day and is now principal. The chairperson of the board of management is Mr. Michael Ormond. They have a challenge in modernising the school.

The school was built in the 1930s and an extension was added in the 1980s but essentially nothing has been done since then. If the Minister of State were to travel across the country to see all of the local primary schools in small villages, he would be hard pressed to find one in as much need of an upgrade as Golden National School. I was there a number of weeks ago with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. My colleagues, Councillors Michael Fitzgerald and Declan Burgess, were there and, as it is his home town, the former Minister, Mr. Tom Hayes, was present.

We visited the school to raise a flag but also to look at an application the school is making for additional accommodation for classrooms and an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classroom. The school is fortunate to have a lot of space to build on but the problem is that applications were made before and they were refused. At the moment, two classrooms are outside the school grounds in the local community hall. The two classrooms house third and fourth class; and fifth and sixth class. This means that four of the classes are not even on the grounds of Golden National School. It has also had issues with electricity, fire requirements and health and safety requirements. This is a place in drastic need of an upgrade. The school put forward an application for additional accommodation before and it was refused on a technicality. We have a situation where third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes are not even on the school grounds because we do not have classrooms for them. We need to prioritise places like this that have not had any upgrade over the past few decades.

The Minister of State will have seen in the past few years that this Government has invested hugely in education. The Minister knows and the Minister of State will know from higher education, that we have invested heavily in education. As a Government we prioritise it. This school has applied for two additional classrooms and an ASD unit. It is not excessive by any stretch of the imagination. We are building a school in my home town of Cahir. It is a redevelopment of a girls' and a boys' school. It is a massive school. A lot of money was put into it and that is welcome, but the Golden school is just as important as all of the others and it needs investment to be able to go forward. It is a school that is progressing. It expects more pupils to join in the next few years because businesses are employing more people in the area and the staff want to send their children to Golden National School. They need this accommodation to be able to take them. It is not ideal for parents who are sending their children to school to find out that four of the classes are in the community hall next door.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline the current position in respect of the accommodation needs of Golden National School, County Tipperary, and the Government's firm commitment to enabling students with special education needs to receive an education appropriate to those needs.

Golden National School is a co-educational national school which caters for pupils from junior infants to sixth class. The school had an enrolment of 94 pupils in 2021 and has a mainstream staffing complement of three mainstream teachers for the current academic year. In addition, the school has one special education support teaching post.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs, in consultation with the relevant education partners and the HSE. This includes the establishment of special classes and special school placements in various geographical areas where there is an identified need. When the NCSE sanctions a special class in a school at primary or post-primary level, school authorities can apply to the Department of Education for capital funding to reconfigure an existing space or spaces within the school building to accommodate the class or to construct additional accommodation under the Department's additional school accommodation, ASA, scheme, or both. Recognising some of the difficulties experienced by parents in securing appropriate school placements, since 2020 the Department and the NCSE have been working closely on a more streamlined and joined-up planning process which has ensured a targeted approach to meet demand for special needs placements ahead of each new school year. This intensive intervention has seen 393 new special classes opened nationwide for the 2022-23 school year, bringing the total number of special classes to 2,545.

There are currently three special classes established in the Cashel school planning area, with two in Thomastown National School and one in St. John the Baptist school. In addition, there are two special schools, namely, Scoil Chormaic Special School and Scoil Aonghusa. The NCSE is aware that there is demand for further provision and is grateful to schools that have responded positively to the needs of children in their communities. The NCSE, through its network of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, is currently identifying areas of priority in the area. The Department is liaising with the NCSE on this matter and the need for a special class to be established in Golden National School.

Golden National School submitted an ASA application in October 2022 requesting funding for two special classes. Supplementary information was requested from the school by officials in the Department in respect of the school's engagement with the NCSE and special class requirements in the area. Once this information is received, the Department will be in a position to fully assess the accommodation needs of Golden National School. The Department is also liaising with the NCSE on the matter.

The Senator will be aware of the significant schools building programme that is currently under way, including projects for the provision of special class accommodation. Overall, there are in excess of 1,300 school building projects at various stages of design, planning and construction. The current status of approved projects and projects already completed under the schools building programme is listed on a county-by-county basis on the Department's website and that list is regularly updated.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his detailed response. He is correct. As I stated, significant funding has been allocated to school building across the country. In that regard, County Tipperary has been no different from the Minister of State's own county of Limerick, or anywhere else. He is correct that in the area there are two special schools - Scoil Chormaic Special School and Scoil Aonghusa - and there are ASD units in Thomastown as well, but there is still very high demand and Golden National School has recognised that. Mr. James McCarthy, its principal, has seen that demand and wants to be able to facilitate those kids. As the Minister of State is aware, that is not the case with all schools across the country. When a school is being proactive in trying to build ASD units as part of an ASA application, that should be looked at positively.

He is correct that supplementary information has been requested by the Department. A change of the school's SENO is the reason for the delay but the information will be submitted quickly. The main point from the principal and the board of management is that half of the school's pupils are not even located on the grounds of the school. I do not know how long one would have to review the case to realise that if third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes are not even on the grounds of the school, it needs further accommodation.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to reassure the House that the Department of Education is committed to ensuring that children can access an education suitable to their needs. Planning is actively under way to ensure that children without a placement for next year are provided with a suitable placement. The NCSE is leading the work in this regard.

This year, the Department of Education will invest in excess of €2 billion, or 25% of the Department's budget, in the area of special educational needs. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased from 548 to the current total of 2,545 for the 2022-23 school year.

I reassure the Senator that the Department will continue to support the NCSE and schools through the provision of the necessary funding and capital investment to ensure all children are successful in accessing education. In this regard, I assure the Senator that the application for capital funding for Golden National School will be assessed when the NCSE has confirmed to the Department the special needs requirements for this area. The school authorities will then be notified of the decision directly.