I welcome the Minister. The primary school on Sherkin Island closed last June. Children now attend school on the mainland, which means using the ferry to get there. There is no supervisor on the ferry or on the mainland once the ferry docks. The children must then walk to the school bus, which is some distance away. This poses a significant health and safety risk to the children, some of whom are as young as four years of age while others are 12. I call on the Minister to address this as a matter of urgency.
I will set the scene. Sherkin Island is one of the most southerly points in Ireland, an island approximately one mile off the west Cork coast. Three miles long and one wide, it has a beauty and a variety of landscapes. It epitomises all that is good about island living.
As the Minister is aware, Sherkin Island national school closed its doors for the last time at the end of the most recent school year. This saw the end of 124 years of primary education on the island. From the time that the island community was notified that the school was closing, it did its utmost to work with parents, the patron and the Government to ensure that the children on the island had continued access to education. Those children are now attending school on the mainland and, obviously, must use the ferry to get there.
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has provided an extra ferry to ensure that the children can get off the island in the morning. The residents are grateful for this. However, there is an urgent need for a chaperone on the ferry and to escort the children from the pier to the bus in Baltimore on the mainland.
The Department of Education and Skills stopped the grant aid for the school and left the island people with no provision to access education. The island community, working with the patron and the school, requested meetings with the Department and submitted a proposal to ensure continued access to education.
The Department of Education and Skills advises that ferry services operating from offshore islands do not come under the education transport scheme and while the island community has successfully negotiated a deal whereby the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht would subsidise an additional ferry for morning travel, it does not go far enough. At present, parents of children between the ages of four and 12 are operating a rota system to chaperone their children on the ferry and thereafter from the ferry to the bus on the mainland. This is a four-hour daily commute for parents wishing to educate their children by the only means open to them. It is unfair. They are working parents who cannot afford to take time off. In essence, this system is not sustainable in the long term. The Department of Education and Skills has a responsibility for the safety of these children. There is a social and community benefit to the State supporting these children to attend school on the mainland and still live on the island. I therefore call on the Minister to recognise this oversight and provide a chaperone in order that these children may access education as is their right, in line with their peers on the mainland. If we want to keep our island communities vibrant and sustainable, we need to allow young families to keep living on the island. It is time for a bit of common sense and long-term thinking when it comes to supporting our islands. Will the Minister please provide a chaperone for these children for the ferry?