Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (60)

Declan Breathnach


60. Deputy Declan Breathnach asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of communication with a person (details supplied) regarding the reopening of a school under a new patronage; if he has been in communication with Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB, which is willing to reopen the school by September 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29234/18]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

I acknowledge the Minister's interest in this sorry saga of Faughart national school in my constituency which has been closed since September owing to difficulties with leadership and management. Stalling, procrastination and dilly-dallying do not help the cause of parents, children and the community of Faughart in their wish to return the children to Faughart school. I ask the Minister to enlighten us on any progress made.

I acknowledge the Deputy's continued interest in the issue. I know it is very frustrating for him and the community. As he will be aware, I announced new plans aimed at accelerating the provision of multidenominational and non-denominational schools throughout the country, in line with the choices of parents, families and school communities and the programme for Government commitment to reach 400 such schools by 2030.

In cases such as that referred to by the Deputy, these can be considered under the early movers' provision of the schools reconfiguration process, which involves voluntary reassignments of patronage under section 8 of the Education Act. To date, such early movers under this process have come about on the basis of local parental support for a move to a specific multidenominational or non-denominational patron. In the case of Faughart referred to by the Deputy, I understand the local community has met multidenominational patrons and has approached the existing patron to request a transfer of patronage of the school to Louth and Meath Education and Training Board.

The process is that, if the existing patron is willing to support such a move, given that the local community has set out its support for a transfer of patronage, the existing patron would write to me to request the transfer of patronage of the school under section 8(3) of the Education Act. I would welcome such an application.

My Department and the existing patron have been in correspondence in this regard. My Department and patron representatives have arranged to meet in the coming days to discuss the school.

I welcome that a meeting is to take place. I spent 35 years teaching, 25 of them in a rural community. Anybody who lives in a rural community such as Faughart, of which there are many, will know the school is the focal point not just for teaching but for the community. Archbishop Eamon Martin outlined to the parents' association that he has no difficulty in principle with the proposal. His letter clearly delineates what his issues are with it. While we all understand the need for due process, people have moved their children. The school enrolment was down to 64 from 100 before the problems started. If the school does not reopen in September there is a danger that people will not bring their children back there because they will obviously settle in other schools. Based on the contents of the archbishop's letter, I urge that his issues be clearly resolved to ensure they are not batted from one side to the other in letters. A commitment was given to reopen the school under alternative patronage once the problem with the school was resolved by closure.

I understand the Deputy's perspective. It is good that the two sides are getting together and that it is not, as he described, just an exchange of correspondence that could go all around the houses.

I recognise that this would be a very good outcome for the community. The Deputy understands that under the Act the Minister cannot make a decision by fiat on this. It is an issue for the patron to initiate the procedure under the Act. I am glad that a meeting has been organised and, like the Deputy, I hope it is fruitful.

I am sure the Minister is well aware that in excess of 30 of the families involved have pre-enrolled with Louth and Meath ETB which has clearly indicated that it can have the school operational in September if the will is there. While I understand some of the archbishop's concerns, which may relate to the transfer of faith teaching or whatever, the management of LMETB has assured me that faith teaching will be available at a reconstituted school. My only interest in this is to see the community survive through its primary school. While the issues Archbishop Eamon Martin has raised are valid, we cannot delay the process any longer because we will lose the pupils to the other schools they have gone to in the past 12 months, which would not be wise.

As I am sure the Deputy has, I visit a number of community national schools which are based on the model the ETBs run. They are exemplary models. While they welcome children of the Catholic faith, they give an equal welcome for children of any other faith or of none. Every student is recognised and that diversity is valued. It becomes a feature and a strength of the school that such diversity can be acknowledged and celebrated in the school. I hope the conversations are fruitful.

The next question scheduled is in the name of Deputy Murphy O'Mahony. Owing to other commitments, Deputy Niamh Smyth has requested that her question be taken first and Deputy Murphy O'Mahony has agreed. I am prepared to accept that. Is the House prepared to accept that? It is accepted.