Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 March 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

9:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for taking this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, to the House.

Castlebar Educate Together National School was started by a group of people in 2015. They organised an old national school, the Burren National School, but the parents rejected this. It was not suitable. It was outside Castlebar and did not have what was required for a school. The school was established in 2016, which is not that long ago, and opened in temporary accommodation in Cavendish Lane, Castlebar, with 12 students in 2016.

In 2017, Marsh House, an old urban district council building, where meetings were held and which had the Castlebar town council offices, was renovated, and the school moved there with 32 pupils. It had three half-size classrooms, the largest being only 33 sq. m. That was not really suitable either.

In 2018, a half-stream enrolment cap prevented more than 13 pupils from starting in junior infants. That was rejected, so the school grew to 55 pupils in 2018. In 2019, after a year of uncertainty around the half-stream issue, 11 junior infants enrolled. The school had grown to 62 pupils. In 2020, planning permission for Marsh House stipulated a maximum capacity of 68 pupils was a requirement. Therefore, only six junior infants could be enrolled in 2020.In 2021, additional accommodation was granted and a new classroom for 20 junior infants started in the old hat factory where hats used to be made in Castlebar. That is not suitable for a school either. The school became a split campus in 2021. The total number enrolled in 2021 went up to 85 pupils. In 2022, 24 junior infants started in the hat factory and the Minister of State’s colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, on a visit to Castlebar in September 2022, gave an undertaking that they would get a permanent school.

Pupils were based across two sites, with a total enrolment of 116 pupils in 2022. In 2023, the board of management compiled a file of potential brownfield and greenfield sites in the Castlebar area, as requested by the Minister on her visit in 2022. That was then sent to the Minister's office. Emergency accommodation for a classroom in Cavendish Lane was sourced as they had run out of classroom space in Marsh House, as well as at the old hat factory. The school is now based across three campuses and it has 141 pupils.

I am raising this issue on behalf of the board of management, the teachers, the parents, who are very responsible, and the students. The school has a very good board of management and it is very well run but the Minister of State must appreciate that it is very difficult to run a national school over three campuses. That is not suitable at all but it has grown significantly from 2016 when it was established to this year when it now has 141 pupils. It is a large national school but it is difficult to run it over three campuses. I therefore urge the Minister of State to outline the necessary steps that are required immediately and I look forward to his response.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of our colleague, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, who is in the midlands this morning. The Department would like to thank the Senator for raising this matter, which provides me with an opportunity to outline the position on Castlebar Educate Together National School.

I would like to first state to the Senator that officials in the Department of Education are in regular contact with Educate Together regarding the current accommodation requirements for the school in question. I can confirm that the school was established as a four-class school under the terms of the divestment process. Nevertheless, the Department has agreed that the permanent accommodation solution will provide for eight classrooms and Department officials are working to put this solution in place as soon as possible. However, in the interim, and in line with agreed terms, the school has been instructed to take cognisance of its existing accommodation capacity when managing its enrolments. The current enrolment of the school is 134 pupils. While the Department is working to put a solution in place for the long-term needs of the school, additional accommodation has been provided for the school in recent years. In July 2022, the school was approved to proceed with rental of accommodation at a premises at Newport Road, which provided two additional mainstream classrooms. The school received approval to negotiate further with the owners of the premises for additional space to include one special education tuition room, a staff room and a toilet. It was necessary to obtain planning permission for this work, and this has since been obtained.

The Department is now prepared to provide capital funding for the necessary reconfiguration of this additional space for use by the school. I can also confirm that the Department is currently engaging in a site identification process for a long-term solution here. The Senator will appreciate that site identification and acquisition is a process that may take a significant period of time but I assure the Senator that this is a priority for the Department of Education.

The Senator will be aware that the main focus of the Department's resources over the last decade and for the coming period is on the provision of additional capacity to cater for increasing demographics, particularly at post-primary level, and for the provision to meet the needs of children with special educational needs. The Senator will appreciate that the immediate priority of the Department is to provide the required new and replacement school places each year to ensure that every child has a school place, including the thousands of children newly arrived in this country.

The Department of Education has successfully supported and facilitated the enrolment of more than 18,000 children from Ukraine in our primary and post-primary schools. Under Project Ireland 2040, the education sector will receive a total of approximately €4.4 billion in capital investment over the period 2021 to 2025. There will be a rolling five-year funding envelope, which will be updated annually for the period from 2026 to 2030 within the Government's overall NDP funding envelope of €136 billion in Exchequer capital. There is €165 billion in total capital, including the non-Exchequer funding, that will facilitate building modern and sustainable school infrastructure.

This significant investment allows us to move forward with certainty on our ambitious plans and deliver high-quality building projects with a real focus on sustainability for school communities across Ireland. The Department will continue to work to ensure that the capital investment in our schools is targeted in the most efficient and effective way to support schools in meeting the education needs of their students and communities.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for outlining what the Department is doing. I know he can appreciate the difficulty that the school faces in operating over a number of campuses. It is quite difficult, particularly with small kids. I ask for a site to be identified immediately. I am sure that there is some fundraising that the school will have to do as well. It needs to be able to get on with that work, so it needs certainty. I urge the Department to identify a site immediately and get this in train. I hope the Minister of State will take this issue back to his senior colleague.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I once again thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline the position to the House on Castlebar Educate Together National School. As I have outlined, the Department is engaging with Educate Together on the accommodation that is required in the short, medium and long term. I can assure the Senator that the Department is working to provide a long-term accommodation solution for the school in question. Our officials remain available to work with the school authorities in that regard.