Seanad debates

Wednesday, 22 November 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

10:30 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I add my voice of welcome to the students from Our Lady's School in Ballinteer. It is always wonderful to see young people coming in and having the opportunity to see how we operate in these Houses.

I have raised this matter in the House a number of times. It seems to be quite close to the previous topic. We need to have a much more co-ordinated approach to allocating secondary school places. It is very welcome to see towns such as Newbridge, Kildare town and others around south Kildare continuing to grow and prosper. People are moving into homes and a record number of houses are being constructed in those towns. This is obviously a very welcome boost to our local economy. However, I have been raising the red flag within the Oireachtas for the past seven years. The rate of growth is far outpacing our infrastructure advancements. Towns whose resources are already maxed out are continuing to grow. The infrastructural deficits are becoming more burdensome for residents who have issues with traffic congestion, school places, accessing GPs and road infrastructure. We really need to see these issues addressed along with a focus on building sustainable communities which have access to adequate resources in south Kildare.

I am standing here absolutely frustrated having to raise the perennial issue of second-level school places in and around Newbridge. Many children aged 11 and 12 are already completely stressed and worried about where they will go to school next year. Their parents are anxious and are trying to manage their children's expectations. I spoke to a number of parents over the past week who had applied to four schools in the area, one of them being a fee-paying school. They have not got a place in any of the four and are way down the list without any expectation of receiving a place. I acknowledge that following conversations with the Minister, Deputy Foley, there has been some response in terms of the school place application. It always happens at around this time of year. I have had the opportunity to communicate the hurt, the fear and the stress that is being experienced by students and parents on the ground. It is not just this year or last year, but has been going on for several previous years.

A number of capital projects will help with the longer term squeeze, such as the new Curragh post-primary school at Magee Barracks and the ongoing works at Cross and Passion College, Kilcullen. The Patrician Secondary School in Newbridge is awaiting the results of the tender process.

However, parents are highly frustrated at the moment, not just with the fact that their children have no places but also with the haphazard and somewhat chaotic process they must follow. We all know the impact duplicate applications can have on the process and how they result in long waiting lists that cause unnecessary stress because they are not necessarily reflective of the true demand. I have spoken to the Minister about trying to implement a better and more streamlined single application process in Newbridge. Parents want a streamlined CAO-style process for second-level applications, something that is happening at primary school level. I am pleased the Department has assigned a member of staff to oversee this year's process. I understand the schools and their patrons have agreed to share data on a secure basis with the Department to ascertain the level of duplication. I understand this is to become operational this week. I hope this facility will aid the process and reduce the anxiety on the ground.

Will the Minister of State outline the Department of Education 's plans to ensure every child Newbridge and surrounding areas will have a school place next year? When does she envisage parents and students knowing of this allocation for the next academic year starting in September 2024?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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The Senator will have heard me respond to Senator Kyne, not about Newbridge but about Galway. As she mentioned, ensuring we have adequate school capacity throughout the country is a perennial issue and Kildare is no exception to that. As I mentioned to Senator Kyne regarding the 315 school planning areas, child benefit data, school enrolment data and residential development activity, which Senator O'Loughlin mentioned, will all inform what capacity is required and where it is required. The projections are informed by multiple factors, including primary school enrolments in the area and primary-to-post-primary transfer patterns. The Department can then assess where additional provision is made as necessary where the existing capacity is insufficient for future needs.

The Department is working to establish the true extent of any capacity issues across school planning areas through ongoing discussions with the relevant school patrons and authorities. As I mentioned to the previous Senator, a critical next step is to acquire clarity on the actual number of first year places required for 2024 in order for any necessary solution to be put in place. The same applies for Newbridge where schools have been requested to share data on applications for admissions. The Department is liaising closely with schools in the area to ensure this data is provided as soon as possible, and once it is received, the actual requirement for places can be established. The Department is having discussions with the relevant school patrons and authorities regarding potential solutions, but until the data is to hand, it cannot decipher where the actual school places are needed.

That close engagement with schools and patrons is ongoing. It is not just about September 2024 but also about planning into the future to try to alleviate the constant worry for parents as to whether they have a school place for their child.

The Department's projections for post-primary school place requirements in Newbridge and the south Kildare area are showing continued growth in the short term. The Senator mentioned a number of building projects under the national development plan. The project that will provide the most significant additional capacity is a new 1,000-pupil school building for Curragh Community College which will also provide four classrooms for pupils with special educational needs, which I very much welcome. This provision of a new replacement school and relocation to the former Magee Barracks site in Kildare town will provide significant additional capacity in the area.

There are also additional projects approved at the schools in Newbridge and south Kildare, including a major project for Patrician Secondary School, Newbridge to expand the school to cater for 1,000 pupils. That project is currently at stage 2b, architectural planning detailed design. In addition, there is also a major project approved for Cross and Passion College, Kilcullen, which is to expand the school to cater for 1,000 pupils, and this project is also currently at stage 2b.

I appreciate what the Senator said about duplicate applications, which can be troublesome when trying to decipher how many places are actually required. I also note her suggestion about a streamlined CAO-type process. I can bring that suggestion back to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Department. There is certainly merit in considering something like that for the future.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for the response I appreciate the consideration she has given to it. It is important to note we are not just talking about the main towns of Newbridge and Kildare but also smaller areas in the vicinity such as Athgarvan, Lackagh, Milltown, Suncroft and Nurney, which have no secondary schools and are completely reliant on school places in Newbridge and Kildare town. I appreciate that there are ongoing discussions with school boards of management.However, I honestly do not understand why that is taking so long because ultimately we know the number of children who are in sixth class in each school within the vicinity of the secondary schools. Therefore, we should have access to that data, and planning should be starting 12 months before it currently is. Forward planning is hugely important but it starts too late.

I was speaking to a principal last week who said that around 1 December, when the first round of offers have been given and accepted or refused, there should be a high level of knowledge of where we stand. I ask the Minister of State to tell the Department that it should give a strong message before Christmas on the timeline of when parents will know they will have a guaranteed place for their children for next September, albeit it may not be their first choice but absolutely that they have a place.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I can understand why the Senator is advocating for Kildare, Newbridge and, as she said, not just those places but other smaller villages and towns in the vicinity. We want to make sure that as a State we provide an appropriate education for every child. Sometimes, there is not a streamlined approach between a primary school and a post-primary school, where a child may have received a really good education in a primary school and then is at a loss as to where to go for post-primary. We want to make sure that does not happen.

There is a huge body of work in the Department at present on forward planning for September 2024. These particular schools in the Senator’s constituency area have been asked for data, particularly in respect of first-year enrolments, so that the Department can ascertain where exactly places are needed. There will always be slightly moving parts to this because of new families coming in, people changing their minds, duplication of enrolment applications and so on, but some of that has to be factored into the general forward planning. The geographical information system, as I said, provides much information, such as child benefit data, school enrolment data and particularly around residential development activity, which of course needs to be taken into account also.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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Before we take our concluding Commencement matter - this is also of relevance to the Minister of State – we welcome the second group from Our Lady’s school in Ballinteer, who are guests of the Minister of State, Deputy Neale Richmond. They also get the great opportunity of being here to see one of their other TDs, the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, in action.