Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 11 May 1983

Vol. 100 No. 8

Adjournment Matter. - Freshford (Kilkenny) School.

The matter I should like to raise on the Adjournment is not contentious, and obviously to the press people who do not normally accommodate us in this House, it is not very important either. I want to speak about the possibility that a school in Kilkenny may close down. I said this is non-contentious.

I feel I am pushing an open door when I suggest that the Mill Hill Fathers' College in Kilkenny should remain open. This year Mill Hill College in Freshford, County Kilkenny, celebrated its 50th anniversary. Now there are reports that certain people within the Department of Education would like to see this school closed down. Historically, the Mill Hill Fathers' College in Kilkenny has been an educational establishment known worldwide because of the fact that it was a juniorate or a novitiate for the Mill Hill Fathers. From Freshford priests went to the foreign missions. Not alone did they go out to educate people in Third World countries, but they were also educated themselves in the agricultural/horticultural spheres. They gave formal education to people in those countries and showed them how they could get sustenance from the land. In some of the countries in which these people served it was said that if you stuck down your thumb your nail would grow, but the people had to be educated in agriculture and horticulture.

One of the problems we have in this modern age is that fewer people are going forward for the Church and, because of this, the numbers in the novitiate or juniorate in the Mill Hill Fathers' College started to dwindle. Ten years ago a decision was made to open the college as a boarding school on a limited basis. As such it has provided a wonderful service to a number of people from surrounding counties. There is no doubt that the service provided for people outside Kilkenny, and a limited number in Kilkenny, can be continued. The Mill Hill Fathers have now agreed to transfer the college buildings to a local committee headed by the teachers in that college. They will give that college to the nation, if you like, free of charge.

In the college at present there are five full-time lay teachers. One teacher is shared with another college in the county, and there are two priests. In the college at present there are approximately 100 students. The suggestion from the community is that the community will take over the school, that it will be run on a shared basis by the teachers and the community, and that the college authorities will give the building to the committee for a very nominal sum.

A survey carried out in the immediate region of Freshford shows that, in the next academic year starting in September, there will be 43 pupils available, without taking any pupil from any other school. The people who carried out this survey were very careful not to impinge on the areas which are served at present by schools in Kilkenny, Castlecomer and Johnstown. As the committee see it, a 43 pupil intake would provide a 200 pupil secondary school within a five year period. That is taking into account only the Freshford national school and the Clontubbert national school. The Freshford national school principal, who I am glad to say is the President of the INTO. has a magnificent grasp of the educational needs of that area, and not alone of the area, but of the whole country. I refer to Mr. Tom Waldron. That primary school is a 300 pupil school. The Clontubbert school is a 70 pupil school approximately.

Within the Department of Education it is suggested that the Kilkenny school could not survive as an educational entity, and that it would hinder the growth of a new second level education school in Johnstown, County Kilkenny, which is under the aegis of the VEC. The Department of Education have been totally wrong in County Kilkenny before, as they have been totally wrong in many other areas. I am not blaming individuals within the Department; I am talking about policies which came from the Department. In County Kilkenny, Graiguenamanagh vocational school was to be closed down. It was suggested it could not be sustained because of the small numbers attending. That school is now very viable and an important part of the community. We were told the Ballyhale school could not survive. We were told the Mooncoin school could not survive. We were told the Glenmore school could not survive. We were told the Castlecomer school could not survive. Each of these schools is now a very viable school. The suggestion initially from the Department of Education was that they should be closed down because they were nonviable educational establishments.

We have seen through the years the problems created at primary level when small local schools were closed and bigger regional schools were built. We now see the problems which have arisen because of that policy. It does not behove me to say who dictated that policy, but the cost of bringing children from areas in which there were small schools to regional schools is not alone a heartbreak and a financial burden on the parents but also a heartbreak and a financial burden on the Department of Education and on the taxpayers.

In Freshford we have a viable school. If it is allowed to remain open, which I sincerely hope it will be — and, indeed, nobody has told me it will not — in September pupils will not have to be bussed to it. It is viable within its own locality. At present we have children from Freshford being bussed to Kilkenny. They are being bussed to Johnstown and they are being bussed to Castlecomer. If the Freshford school closes down, there is no possibility of an intake into St. Killian's College, no possibility of an intake into Loreto Convent, no possibility of an intake into the Presentation Convent, no possibility of an intake into St. John's College, and no possibility of an intake into the vocational education system in Kilkenny.

In the past year a problem arose in Kilkenny city. Because of overcrowding in schools, at the end of the intake of pupils to all the schools and colleges in Kilkenny, there were only 18 places left, and I have named the particular schools. This year, because of increased numbers in the primary section, it looks as if these schools will be closed to new pupils because of increased numbers in the primary schools.

In an age when capital input into education is so high, it would be disgraceful if an educational establishment such as Freshford were allowed to close. In Freshford we have a local school which has served the community very well. It is a modern building built about 24 years ago. The cost today of replacing that building would be in the region of £2.5 million. They lack only facilities for metal work and for domestic science. The reason for the lack of these two facilities is that up to now these two subjects were not taught in the school. The people in Freshford would like to see these two subjects being catered for. The capital cost would be neglibile because of the fact that the building is there. The only cost would be the cost of providing cookers and utensils in the domestic science area, and metal work equipment in the other area.

At a time when we have a proliferation throughout our educational system of prefabricated buildings nobody in the Department of Education should consider closing down a school which is modern, which will serve a local community without cost to the State, except the cost of the teachers' salaries involved. If they are let go, not alone will there be a loss to the State in terms of the educational abilities of these teachers, but there will also be a loss in educational terms which cannot be sustained in the Ireland of today. We are short of money to build schools.

I am not raising this matter in a contentious way. My colleague, Senator Browne from County Carlow, attended a public meeting in Freshford on this issue, and Deputy Dowling, who is also in the House. It was the best attended public meeting I have seen. It was a public meeting at which there was the commitment from the people of the locality to the educational needs of the locality. It has been suggested that, if this college is allowed to continue it will be to the detriment of the vocational education system in Kilkenny. This is not the case. The numbers involved in primary education in Kilkenny are growing and the need for buildings and educational facilities in Kilkenny is growing at the same rate as it is growing in every other county.

If we cannot sustain that building, that educational establishment, we will be letting down the people in the immediate area, and not alone the people in the immediate area of Freshford, but also the education system. Over 50 years that school has provided academic facilities which could not be provided in a big multi-teacher school. The educational facilities of that school have to be sustained. I have seen the difference between pupils who come from a small integrated school and pupils who come from the 1,000-plus pupil schools. I ask the Minister to give us a statement of intent regarding the school. I have laid before the Minister what I consider to be a matter of paramount importance in the education system, not alone within the immediate Freshford area but for the country as a whole.

Beidh mé beagáinín tapaidh mar tá a lán ráite ag Micheál Lanigan agus tá mé buíoch dó gur thug sé trí nóiméad dom. As Senator Lanigan said, I was at the meeting in Freshford. I was very impressed by the case made by the people there. I was very impressed by my own leader, Mr. Tom Waldron, President of the INTO, who assured the meeting that there was no question of a shortage of pupils. In this age of recession everything possible should be done to save money. This is a very good college which needs a certain amount of expansion. The teachers are there ready to take over and help it. I ask the Minister to use any power he has to try to keep the college open. I know we are living in difficult times and that there are financial problems, but I believe firmly, like Senator Lanigan, that some of these very big colleges are more a hindrance than a help. They are only sausage machines eventually. A small school has a great deal of personality and character, which the big ones do not have.

I followed with interest the contributions made by Senator Lanigan and Senator Browne on the history of the Freshford school. I do not mean to be discourteous, but I will not be following Senator Lanigan into the statements he made in connection with other schools, and the policy of the Department and whether they were right or wrong. The Department have difficulty on some occasions in reaching decisions on the retention or otherwise of schools. The Department are not infallible in that regard. I am here to reply to the debate on a particular school and that is what I intend to do. I want to outline as briefly as possible the position in relation to the school at Freshford.

The position about Freshford is that some months ago the Mill Hill Fathers told my Department they would be closing St. Joseph's College in June 1984. St. Joseph's is a small secondary school for boys. There are 91 pupils in the school at present and 63 of them are boarders.

In March last, representatives of the local community and the teachers in the school asked my Department to agree to the continuation of the school as a day school for boys and girls after June 1984. A number of different and complex aspects will have to be considered fully before a decision can be made. The pros and cons will have to be weighed carefully.

I am conscious of the strong wishes of the local community for the continuation of the school. Representations have been made to me on their behalf by Deputy Crotty and Deputy Dowling. A recent deputation from Freshford made a very stong and impressive case for the continued operation of the school. The school is an important local amenity and makes an important contribution to the social life of the community.

I have been told, too, that some pupils from Freshford have been unable to get places in secondary schools in Kilkenny city. The development of a day school in Freshford would help to reduce transport costs and would eliminate the inconvenience of travelling for the children in the locality. They would get their post-primary education within their own community. The Mill Hill Fathers are agreeable to make the existing school buildings available for a co-educational day school.

There would be some drawbacks associated with the continuation of the school, however. The most recent forecast of the yearly intake to a day secondary school for boys and girls in Freshford suggests that the school would eventually have a total enrolment of around 170 pupils. A school with such a relatively low enrolment would have great difficulty in offering a broad curriculum to the pupils, as is apparently the intention in Freshford. It would not have the necessary teaching resources. The school also lacks some specialist facilities such as a wood work room and a home economics room.

I also have to take into account the fact that the development of a day school in Freshford will result in some reduction in the enrolment in Johnstown vocational school. This possibility is, I am aware, causing some concern to the County Kilkenny Vocational Education Committee and the Teachers' Union of Ireland. A significant number of pupils from the Freshford area get their post-primary education in Johnstown Vocational School at present and an extension to that school which is being planned includes provision for pupils from Freshford. There is also the possibility that enrolments in St. Fintan's College in Durrow could be adversely affected to some degree.

The House will appreciate from what I have said that this is not a straightforward case. It is difficult and complex, and all the issues must be given the fullest consideration. I have asked the officials of my Department who are dealing with the matter to conclude their consultations with all the interested parties by the earliest possible date. The taking of a decision will not be delayed any longer than is absolutely necessary.

I assure Senator Lanigan, Senator Browne and all those who are interested, that my sole consideration will be what is the best decision in the interests of the pupils. I cannot give any further information. In a case like this other interests have to be consulted. A decision will be made at the earliest possible date and I hope it will be a favourable one.

The Seanad adjourned at 4 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 18 May 1983.