Thursday, 17 October 2019

Questions (12)

Brendan Smith


12. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills the analysis his Department undertook of detailed submissions forwarded by community groups about the proposed closure of two second level schools (details supplied); if the analysis by his Department was brought to his attention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42594/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Education)

Through correspondence and parliamentary questions I have raised with the Minister the total opposition of local communities in west Cavan to the proposal by Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board to close St. Bricin's College in Belturbet and St. Mogue's College in Bawnboy. Local committees did exceptionally good work in seeking the views of the local communities on the future of second level education in north-west Cavan. They made detailed submissions to the Minister's Department outlining very clearly the people's desire to retain those schools. Unfortunately, not only did those submissions get no reply, they did not get an acknowledgement.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he is aware, the decision-making authority for any amalgamation is the patron or trustees of the schools, subject to the approval of my Department. Any proposed change involves extensive negotiations at local level and must be well planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of students, parents, teachers and local communities and contributes to an inclusive education system. My Department was not involved in these negotiations.

I can confirm to the Deputy that the report received by my Department, dated 11 July 2019, from Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, which sets out the proposal to amalgamate both schools, was analysed by officials in my Department along with submissions from the groups referred to by the Deputy. In addition to considering the submissions received, officials in my Department’s planning and building unit carried out an analysis of the current enrolment trends, intake patterns, future demographic demands and the current curriculum provision. The outcome of this analysis concluded that the best outcome in the interests of all stakeholders was the approval of a new school building to facilitate the amalgamation of the two existing schools.

The two schools due to amalgamate will continue to operate from the existing school sites until a new school building is provided. It is envisaged that the construction phase for the new amalgamated school will be facilitated with investment available during the second half of the national development plan running from 2018 to 2027.

The new amalgamated school will be built to the highest standards and will be compliant with Part L of the 2017 building regulations. This will also provide the opportunity for the school to have a fully equipped PE hall with a fitness suite as well as accommodation to meet special educational needs at post-primary level in west Cavan.

I thank the Minister for his reply but I must say it is most disappointing. It is literally a rehash of what I have received in written replies to parliamentary questions in recent months. I doubt the veracity and provenance of the Department's analysis of the submissions that were made to it. Those detailed submissions from committees representative of the school communities of St. Mogue's College in Bawnboy and St. Bricin's College in Belturbet were not even acknowledged, either by the Minister's office or his Department. How can I accept that they were analysed in detail when they were not even acknowledged? I had an understanding with the Minister that he would meet the group. Unfortunately that commitment was not honoured. When those groups corresponded with the Minister's office to seek a meeting, they said that if it was not possible to meet his good self due to time constraints, they could meet a senior official or officials. Those requests were not even acknowledged.

Does the Minister stand over that type of governance and maladministration on the part of his Department? It is deplorable. Volunteers carried out excellent research through public meetings, online information gathering and questionnaires. They outlined that information and presented it in a comprehensive fashion to the Department and it was not even acknowledged. I do not accept that it was properly analysed if it was not even acknowledged.

It is very important to put on the record of the House that my Department does not and did not make that decision. It was a responsibility of the patron.

The patron advised that an invitation to consultation meetings was forwarded to the boards of management of both schools in question and to all representative groups identified in both communities. Eleven groups were identified and meetings were arranged between February and July 2019. The patron advised that the majority of the meetings proceeded and the majority of views were taken into consideration. A small number of meetings were cancelled by the groups or associations concerned and did not proceed.

Following the Deputy's intervention, we had informal conversations on the issue. I acknowledge his bona fides and take his representations seriously. There was urgency over reaching a decision on the matter. I asked for this not to happen. We had conversations in January, February and March of this year. Following the Deputy's intervention, I spoke to my officials to ensure that time was given for consultation, but it was consultation through the patron, not my Department. Obviously, once that letter came in, a decision had to be made.

This is not about closing schools but about the amalgamation and strengthening of a school. It is also trying to ensure that students in west Cavan stay in west Cavan rather than going to other schools.

The Minister has now admitted that the Department made the decision before the new ETB met. That is the suspicion in the local community and the Minister has confirmed that now. The decision was made at the end of August, just days before the new ETB was about to meet, at which point it might have had a different opinion. The consultations the Minister mentioned took place after the ETB made its decision; there was no proper consultation. I ask the Minister to stand over not implementing the recommendations of the Action Plan for Education 2019, which states:

To protect the sustainability and viability of rural communities we will not close any small school without the consent of parents. Existing support schemes will remain open for new infrastructural investment in schools.

In response to a Topical Issue I raised, the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, stated:

...any proposed changes must be well planned and managed in a manner that accommodates the interests of parents, teachers and local communities and contributes to an inclusive education system. If I may add, students' views must also be taken into account. Any proposals are then subject to the approval of the Department of Education and Skills.

That modus operandi of how amalgamations should take place is laid down in successive departmental policy statements and strategies. That policy has not been adhered to in this decision coming from the ETB and approved by the Minister. It is not acceptable and the two local school communities will not accept the decision that has been made.

It is my understanding that representatives of St. Mogue's College parents association were due to meet the patron in February 2019. This meeting was cancelled at the request of the parents association-----

The decision was made in November 2018.

-----until an architectural assessment of the building was carried out. Following this assessment, another meeting was scheduled for the end of June 2019. I understand this meeting was subsequently cancelled by the parents association on 24 June. Meetings were scheduled for the end of June 2019 and early July 2019 with both Belturbet and Bawnboy community groups. I understand both of these meetings were cancelled by the community groups. However, I believe both groups submitted to the patron a written response to the architectural assessment. I again emphasise that the patron makes the decision and not the Department.