I thank the Ceann Comhairle for permitting this important issue, which focuses on the urgent need to secure approval for a new secondary school in Kinnegad, to be addressed on the floor of the Dáil this evening. It is important that this matter reaches the Dáil, as it has done in the past by means of the parliamentary questions I have been persistent in raising.
My colleague, Mr. Denis Leonard, who is a former member of Westmeath County Council, remains a tremendously dedicated community activist despite his defeat in the local elections last May. His loss from electoral politics has been severely felt. He has been and remains at the vanguard of a campaign to establish a new secondary school in Kinnegad, which is now the third largest town in County Westmeath with a population of approximately 3,000 and the demographics associated with an expanding population. It has experienced a rapid increase in population and continues to grow from a demographic perspective. This augments the case and makes a persuasive argument for a new school. Mr. Leonard, who was a councillor at the time, was not behind the door in June 2011 when he let us all know in no uncertain fashion that he was greatly disappointed and annoyed by the failure to include Kinnegad in that month's announcement of 40 new school projects to be completed by the end of 2017 as part of the public capital schools programme.
This failure was particularly disappointing in the context of the N4-M4 study, which was conducted by the Department in 2004. The 2004 report advised that a site should be specifically reserved for the development of a secondary school in Kinnegad to cater for a projected enrolment of more than 700 students in the long term. Indeed, it referred specifically to post-2011 needs; in other words, the requirements we have now. As I have said, the population of Kinnegad has doubled since then. It is now the third largest town in County Westmeath and its population is still increasing.
Approximately 560 pupils are attending the excellent St. Etchen's primary school in Kinnegad. Significant numbers of new students are starting there in September. There are five primary schools, with an average of approximately 100 pupils per school, within six miles of the town. Children in the general Kinnegad area attend approximately nine different secondary schools, some of which are approaching maximum numbers because their own immediate catchment areas are population growth centres as well. Many of these schools are also stretched from an accommodation perspective.
Unlike some people who have shown a belated interest in the need for a secondary school in Kinnegad, I have not come to this topic recently. As long ago as 2006, I tabled a parliamentary question to the then Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin, calling for a school to be put in place in Kinnegad by 2011 on the basis of the then population projections for the Kinnegad area. In response, the then Minister said:
The local area development plan for the N4/M4 corridor outlines my Department's long-term educational strategy at both primary and post-primary level for the area concerned. The recommendations in the plan are being considered in the context of the School Building and Modernisation Programme from 2006 onwards subject to the prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects.
When I contacted the then area manager of Westmeath County Council - the late great George Lambden - to seek a response from the council to the need for a site to be acquired for a secondary school in Kinnegad, he indicated that the council would be willing to meet officials from the then Department of Education and Science to discuss the matter and said that a site could be identified if the Department were prepared to purchase it. In 2006, the then vocational education committee confirmed that the subject of a secondary school for Kinnegad had come up for discussion with the Minister of State's Department when future educational infrastructure developments were being reviewed.
Things have progressed positively at local level since then. I am aware that approximately 17 acres of suitable land are now available at a very reasonable price. A smaller acreage can be bought if that is what is required. More importantly, this specific land is zoned as "educational" in the county development plan and an access road has been constructed adjacent to the local primary school. It is perfectly located from a strategic perspective, in terms of the clustering of educational infrastructure. It is clear that the closer to each other the primary and secondary schools are, the more they will complement each other.
I do not need to over-elaborate as I spell out how important and vital a secondary school would be to the future development of the Kinnegad area and its large geographical hinterland. It would allow young people to attend secondary school in their own localities. As a consequence, it would give them a greater sense of local community. It would allow them to have opportunities to contribute to the community as young citizens through school programmes. It would ensure young students, who are at the heart of the community, do not have to leave the local area every day to secure their secondary education. It would minimise the strain on the school transport system and lead to savings for parents who currently have to pay for school transport. This is another issue that is often referred to locally, as school transport costs represent a significant drain on the hard-pressed budgets of parents.
On behalf of the citizens and the community of Kinnegad, I request that the commitment given to the provision of a secondary school in Kinnegad be honoured. That is no more and no less than what the people of the area deserve.