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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Mar 2018

Vol. 257 No. 2

Commencement Matters

Schools Building Projects Status

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I would like to ask the Minister for Education and Skills for a comprehensive update on when a permanent structure for the Gaelscoil in Kinsale will be built. The school has been working out of prefabs since 2003. In this day and age, that is totally unacceptable. The prefabs have deteriorated rapidly in the past two years. One of the prefabs in the Gaelscoil was abandoned during the winter because of its condition. There was a leaking roof and water came into the toilet and the senior infants' room. In this day and age, it is totally unacceptable to have a school of prefabs in which the senior infants' classroom is abandoned because of the condition of the prefab. We need to get clarity on where the site will be. We need clarity on when the site will be developed.

We probably have two options. We could have a new site, the position of which is to be decided, or we could build on the original site where the prefabs are. The Department is working with Cork County Council on locating a site. The issue is urgent. An exceptionally expensive regime has been put in place to maintain a school of prefabs. We have seen that this year with one prefab being abandoned. We really need to see two things now. We need clarity on what the Department proposes to do. Does it propose to build on the original site where the prefabs are or will it work with the local authority to find another site to get zoned and built? That is the first step. We need clarity on where the site will be and when it will happen.

The other thing we need rapidly is a major financial programme to ensure the prefabs are brought into proper nick. It is a huge issue for us. The electrical, engineering and roofing contractors that are required to keep the school up and running is an expensive regime for the school. It has to be recognised. The board of management and particularly the parents' association have been trying to work with everyone to ensure the conditions in the school are appropriate. They are doing a fantastic job. We need the Department to help the school board of management with finances. It is unbelievable to think we have been waiting five, six or seven years to get the school up and running. There have been major improvements in schools throughout the country. Unfortunately this one has lagged behind. To have a school of prefabs is unacceptable. Clarity on the site is required. Financial support is required to help the board of management to ensure the conditions in the school can be improved.

Will the Minister of State talk to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, about the issue? There needs to be a meeting. The Department needs to meet with the school. There has to be a concerted effort at the local authority to find a suitable site and it must be fast-tracked. The site is the key to solving the issue.

I thank Senator Lombard for raising this very important issue. It is an issue I am familiar with as a Dáil Member.

I have seen these prefabricated buildings. If they are old, they are too warm in the summer and too cold in the winter while school authorities experience many problems with leaking roofs, etc. They cause many problems. The Minister for Education and Skills rang me last night and asked me to take the debate on his behalf as he has urgent business to attend to this morning. I will convey sentiments and issues raised by the Senator to him. I asked him on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills to clarify the position in respect of the development of permanent accommodation for Gaelscoil Cionn tSáile, Kinsale. The Gaelscoil is a primary co-educational all-Irish school. It is currently located in temporary accommodation and a project to provide for a new permanent school building is included in the Department’s six-year capital programme.

Officials in the Department have engaged with Cork County Council officials under the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of schools sites with a view to identifying and acquiring a suitable site to accommodate a permanent school building for Gaelscoil Chionn tSáile. Under the memorandum, local authorities assist the Department with the process of identifying and acquiring sites for the development of school accommodation. The first step in this process is the identification of suitable sites by the local authority. The identified sites are then technically assessed on a joint basis by officials from the local authority and the Department’s professional and technical staff. The Senator will appreciate the importance of a thorough appraisal of site options at this point to ensure the achievement of value for money and to minimise the potential of any issues arising during the planning and development stages.

In the case of Gaelscoil Chionn tSáile, further to assessment of options, the Department identified a potentially suitable site and made offers to acquire land for the school as far back as 2016. However an acquisition was not achieved at that time because after lengthy negotiations, ultimately agreement was not reached. That happens from time to time, particularly given the price of land. Matters have progressed in the meantime. The site on which the school is currently located in temporary accommodation was zoned for community-educational use in the Bandon-Kinsale municipal district local area plan adopted in August 2017. Specific reference was made within the local area plan to the fact that the Gaelscoil is currently operating in a prefabricated building and is in need of a purpose-built unit. The local area plan further states: "The site at Cappagh is zoned for educational use and allows for expansion at this facility."

Cork County Council, on behalf of the Department, is currently engaging with the landowner to progress matters. The Department's objective is to acquire a suitable site for the school as quickly as possible and it is working in conjunction with the council to meet that objective. It is difficult to indicate a timeline for the completion of the acquisition of a site for the school, as it is dependent on the outcome of current negotiations and on the complexity of the conveyancing process. However, I assure the Senator that the acquisition of a site for this school is a priority for the Department and officials are working to progress matters as quickly as possible. Once a site has been acquired, the project can progress to architectural planning. The Minister has taken a special interest in this case because the Senator has met him on a number of occasions and constantly reminds him of the urgent need for the school. I will convey his sincere concerns about the school to the Minister. I know what it is like for students to be housed in outdated accommodated that needs to be upgraded. Officials have been in contact with the school authorities to arrange a meeting with a view to updating the school on the progress with regard to the site acquisition.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response to the issue. He has exceptional knowledge of it based on his own experience in County Clare. I welcome the statement that departmental officials will meet the school authorities over the Easter period. That will be an important step forward. I welcome the meeting and, hopefully, the update will help to move the project forward.

I have no doubt the Senator will be turning the sod there soon.

School Curriculum

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As he may know, calls for inclusive and robust relationships and sexuality education, RSE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE, curricula have been made for some time. It is has come to the fore in recent months, having been reflected in the ancillary recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly and Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and it is the top priority of the LGBTI+ youth strategy for which 4,000 respondents made a similar call. It has become apparent that the current model is not fit for purpose. The ad hoc nature of SPHE and RSE is failing to fully equip young people with positive and informed outlooks on their sexual health, self-care, body image, relationships, gender identity, contraception, consent and sexuality. For young people, who are learning how to have relationships and going through their formative years, the value of teaching positive ideals to them will shape their outlooks throughout their lives. This is not the case when elements are excluded. When LGBTQI young people or young people with disabilities are excluded from these conversations, they are forced to attempt to piece together an informed, but potentially distorted, view of relationships and sexuality from a one-size-fits-all model that is delivered in a heterosexual and able-bodied context in the hope of staying safe. When consent is excluded from the conversation, we fail to teach young people how to respect another's boundaries or give confidence in asserting their own.

I have worked with Senators Grace O'Sullivan and Lynn Ruane on this issue for almost a year, meeting a variety of different teachers, students, groups and organisations to understand how we could bring about robust and inclusive curricula. First, there is a major obstacle in legislation, namely the Education Act 1998, which determines that ethos-based schools can essentially derogate from certain aspects of a curriculum that they believe contravene the "characteristic spirit" of a school. While the Department has issued circulars stating that schools are required to teach "all aspects of family planning, STIs and sexual orientations", they also should also uphold the ethos of the school. The issue is that this creates a grey area and many schools either act with indifference, omission or direct defiance of this circular, leaving teachers too afraid or vulnerable to suggest inclusive elements. This is a constant theme.

Furthermore, many teachers do not feel supported, adequately trained or resourced to teach all aspects of SPHE and RSE. They feel that, by and large, schools treat it as a box-ticking exercise and a distraction from core subjects, and do not appreciate its potential. Many teachers have received no formal training and what we are hearing is that the curriculum is ad hoc and, in practice, lacks formal characteristics. Not all ethos-based schools confine the SPHE and RSE models to heterosexuality and many work hard to ensure their pupils are informed in an inclusive setting.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. He has another busy day, as he is hosting a meeting with Oireachtas Members about sexual awareness. I apologise for the absence of the Minister for Education and Skills but he has an urgent meeting elsewhere. He rang me last night to take three Commencement Matters on his behalf. I will get back to him regarding the issue that has been raised.

Section 9(b) of the Education Act 1998 requires schools to provide the curriculum as prescribed by the Department. Currently, that includes the requirement to provide an RSE programme for all students.

The RSE programme is delivered in the context of social, personal and health education, SPHE, for students from primary level to the end of junior cycle. A separate RSE programme is in place for senior cycle.

The right of schools to uphold their ethos and characteristic spirit is protected in a number of laws and the Department recognises that RSE will be delivered within the characteristic spirit of the school. The school's RSE policy, which should be developed and reviewed in partnership with parents and, as appropriate, students, should clarify how RSE is to be provided in accordance with the ethos of the school. It remains a requirement, however, that all aspects of the RSE curriculum, including those relating to sexual orientation, contraception and sexually transmitted infections, should be covered.

At post-primary level, all schools are required to provide an RSE programme as part of SPHE for all students from first year to sixth year. Where students are not taking SPHE at senior cycle the RSE programme is still mandatory.

Through RSE, formal opportunities are provided for students to acquire knowledge and understanding of human sexuality. While gender and orientation are not explicitly designated topics in the SPHE syllabuses, those syllabuses provide opportunities for teachers to explore such issues at an age-appropriate level. The topics included are intended to develop in students respect for their own sexuality and the sexuality of others.

The Department's SPHE support service, which is now integrated with the professional development service for teachers, has worked collaboratively with GLEN, BelongTo and the HSE to develop the resource, entitled Growing up Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. This resource is for use by RSE classes at both junior and senior cycle levels. It includes lesson plans which support students to achieve a better understanding of the concepts of gender identity and transgender. The menu of in-service courses and supports offered by the PDST to schools also includes the topics of sexual orientation and homophobic bullying.

Regarding primary curriculum provision, the SPHE course is designed to foster in the child a sense of care and respect for himself, herself and others, an understanding of his or her sexuality, and an appreciation of the dignity of every human being.

As children progress through the SPHE programme, they encounter a wide range of issues. These include substance misuse, relationships, sexuality, child abuse prevention, prejudice and discrimination. The SPHE curriculum is structured in such a way that these issues are not explored in isolation; rather the emphasis is on building a foundation of skills, values, attitudes and understanding relevant to all these issues, with specific information provided where necessary.

I again thank the Senator for raising the issue and I will convey his concerns to the Minister, Deputy Bruton.

I thank the Minister of State for agreeing to convey the sentiment. The issues raised here need to be met by Department-led initiatives. I take the opportunity to welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris's, document that specifically references potential reforms to the RSE curriculum as part of the ancillary recommendations to the report of the joint committee. I ask that the Minister would update the House on plans to deliver this.

Will the Minister for Education and Skills investigate the effects of the characteristic spirit clause on SPHE and RSE? Will the Minister assert through a circular or otherwise that RSE must contain aspects that cater for LGBTI students, students with disabilities, modules on consent and all contraceptive options in a more certain way than was done in a Department of Education and Skills circular 0037/2010 to give teachers adequate security?

I will convey all the concerns the Senator raised, specifically the areas he covered in the latter part of his contribution.

School Accommodation Provision

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing the Commencement matter I have tabled. It is a pressing and urgent matter that needs to be heard by the Minister for Education and Skills and his officials. It relates to a school I attended, St. Declan's community college in Kilmacthomas, which serves the entire mid-County Waterford area.

Established as a vocational school in the 1970s, St. Declan's college is one of the huge success stories of the vocational educational system. It has been successful across many areas, including academia, vocations in jobs, in producing graduates and high performance in sports. The school will participate in an all-Ireland colleges football final on Saturday against a school from Ardee in County Louth. The school also produces excellent graduates who go into technology and engineering throughout the region and indeed the country. I am very proud of the school and the vocational educational system should also be very proud of it.

Unfortunately, it is now a victim of its own success. Student numbers have risen steadily since it was established. Credit for this is due to the current and former principals, and the current and former staff of the school. Today I think of people like my former teachers, Seán Ahern and Jim Timmins, who were teachers, and deputy principal and principal at the school. Unfortunately both of them have now gone to their eternal rest. They would be very proud to see the school's present success.

For the coming school year in September 2018 more than 170 applications for enrolment have been made. The school normally enrols 120 students each year. Over recent years it has projected increases and in 2015 it applied for additional accommodation. The school has gone to enormous lengths to accommodate the additional applications this year and 150 students have been accepted for September 2018. However, that leaves 21 students and their parents very concerned and frustrated because they have not been accepted even though they come from immediate feeder schools.

Almost ten of those students come from Kilmacthomas primary school which is next door to the secondary school. A few more come from Newtown national school, which is only 5 km up the road and more come from Kill national school. The nearest alternative secondary school for any of these students is 20 km away, which would mean longer days, costly bus trips and all the other issues associated with ferrying students to and from school. It is causing enormous stress to the students.

I am asking for the Minister of State's support for my request that the Department of Education and Skills provide the urgent additional accommodation to meet the needs of the school, now and for the years ahead. It is a successful school. It deserves support on merit. I hope I will get good news this morning that the school will receive funding for the additional accommodation so that all the students who live in the area, some of them attending primary school right next door, get the support they need and can access the school in September.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter. It is an issue with which we are all familiar in our constituencies. I have a similar problem in my constituency. Students who have applied to the local school in Ennis, which their father or mother attended, find that the school enrolment is full. It is an issue for everybody and we need to try to deal with it in a structured way. I again apologise for the Minister, Deputy Bruton, not being available this morning. St. Declan's college made a good job of Senator Coffey, who is a past pupil. It is great to see that Waterford is taking to football as well as hurling.

I again thank the Senator for raising the matter, as it gives me the opportunity on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to outline the status of an application for additional accommodation at St. Declan's community college in Kilmacthomas.

As the Senator mentioned, St. Declan's community college is a co-educational school catering for boys and girls. Enrolments have declined over recent years from 686 in 2012 to 663 students currently. The patron of the school is Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board.

The Department of Education and Skills received an application for major capital funding for additional school accommodation from Waterford and Wexford ETB. The Department has engaged with the ETB on the application and the ETB has advised that it intends submitting a revised application to the Department shortly.

When received, the application will be considered and a decision conveyed to the ETB.

I understand there are eight primary schools in the school planning area in which St. Declan’s community college is located. An indicative analysis indicates that the school authority is enrolling pupils from a number of schools outside its school planning area. On school admissions, parents can choose to which school they wish to apply and, where it has places available, the pupil should be admitted. However, in schools where there are more applicants than the number of places available, a selection process may be necessary. The selection process and the enrolment policy on which it is based must be non-discriminatory and applied fairly for all applicants. However, this may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice.

In order to plan for school provision, the demographic data for the Kilmacthomas school planning area, like other school planning areas nationwide, are being kept under ongoing review by the Department of Education and Skills to take account of updated child benefit and enrolment data. Where the demographic data indicate that additional provision is required, its delivery is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may, depending on circumstances, be delivered through either one or a combination of the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; or the provision of a new school or schools.

I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister. I am well aware of the issue. As the Senator said, the school is a victim of its own success, given the fact that there are so many parents who want to send their children to a school that has done so well during the years. It is certainly an issue, on which, as I said, the Department is in touch with the school authorities. It is reviewing the position on enrolment.

I again thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position on the application for additional accommodation at St. Declan’s community college. The Department will continue to liaise with Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board on the school’s accommodation needs. I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister. As he said, the school is a victim of its own success.

With local councillor Seanie Power, I have met the concerned parents. This issue is causing a lot of worry and stress. There are students living next door to the school who cannot access it. We have engaged with the Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board and the board of management of the school to try to find a solution, but the only solution is the provision of additional accommodation.

To be honest, I am disappointed with the response as it refers to the school planning areas. With due respect to the Minister of State, it is the typical response from officials in the Department of Education and Skills. I come from Portlaw, the school in which has traditionally been a feeder school for the school in Kilmacthomas. In fact, if the officials were to look back at the records, they would see that a technical school was closed in Portlaw and a commitment given that all students from the area would be educated in the new vocational school in Kilmacthomas, which is now St. Declan's community college. It is not good enough that the same officials now say Portlaw and surrounding areas are not included in the school planning area. There is a history to this matter on which I expect the officials to look back. I also expect them to support the school that was set up in the 1960s and give us the additional accommodation the students need and deserve. I will continue to pursue this issue until a satisfactory solution is found. The students, parents and the school needs it.

I hope the situation will work out for those students who have not yet found a place in Kilmacthomas. There is still time before September and I have seen it happen from time to time. As the Senator said, there is a history to this issue which I will convey to the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton. The board of management may have met senior officials in the Department, but, if not, it is important to pursue that aspect through the Minister and the Department. I hope that, when he is in Waterford at some stage, the Minister will have an opportunity to visit the school to see at first hand the unsatisfactory situation outlined by the Senator. The problem is critical. Of course, everything depends on the provision of resources.