Dáil Éireann - Volume 618 - 27 April, 2006

Adjournment Debate. - School Closures.

  Aengus Ó Snodaigh: It is a pity the Minister for Education and Science is not here as my comments are addressed to her in particular, but the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, being a Dublin Minister, might be aware of Inchicore and of the emergency resulting from the disgraceful decision by the Christian Brothers to close St. Michael’s CBS in June. I do not believe the Minister for Education and Science is fully aware of the consequences of such a closure.

The school is located in one of the most disadvantaged estates in Dublin. Most of the estate has been demolished pending regeneration and that is a recognition of the need to address a problem which existed. The school is contained within historic buildings and is part of the Richmond Barracks complex. Ninety years ago tomorrow, the leaders and volunteers of the army of the Irish Republic, including, I presume, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform’s grand-uncle, were held and court-martialled there in one of the buildings which still exists, the gymnasium.

The school has been and is intended to be part and at the heart of the regeneration of this community. It is a small school with 67 or 69 pupils and given that small number, it is a model of good practice. It has small classes and individual attention is provided when and if required by some of the pupils who are better because of it. The new principal was hoping to add the school, the programme of work and the teaching environment in the school.

For the teachers, parents and young children at the school, last Tuesday’s announcement was a [1032] bolt out of the blue. The teachers will have no jobs at the end of June and the parents will have no school to which to sent their children in September. What is required is for the Department and the Minister to step in to ensure the school is kept open, whether under the Department’s control or that of another sponsor group. The Department should make itself aware of the regeneration plans which include building 137 family homes next to the school within the next year followed by 583 other homes. Obviously, within a year or two those families will be looking for schools in the locality in which to place their children. None of the other local schools has capacity to take the new people who will be coming into the area or even the existing pupils. There are no sites left in Inchicore on which to build a new school or even the secondary school required in Inchicore.

The Minister has responsibility in this regard because what is the point regenerating an area if one of the central planks of it, namely, educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, is removed? The Minister should invite the parents and board of management to a meeting immediately to ensure the school continues and is viable into the future.

  Dr. Upton: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this issue which in the past couple of days became quite a critical matter for the parents, teachers and pupils in St. Michael’s CBS in Inchicore. It is a school which has been part of that community for 70 years. As has been mentioned, it has great historical association apart from the educational aspects. The proposal to close the school at the end of this school year came as a major shock to the parents whose children attend the school and to the teachers who deliver a quality programme of learning on a daily basis.

The school has a high reputation of delivering a caring learning programme for the pupils and, given the small number of pupils, the student-teacher ratio has been very favourable. It is true the ratio is significantly better than in most other primary schools but this is the system to which children who attend the school have become used and they would, therefore, find it difficult to adapt to larger classroom experiences at this stage. The proposal to reduce the number of teachers and special needs assistants and the absence of a caretaker, for example, would make it extremely difficult to provide the same level of care and attention for the pupils which they have experienced up to now.

If the school is to close this June, parents must find places for their children in other schools immediately. I know of parents who booked their children into schools the day they were christened so that is a four year lead-in period. It is a bit too much to expect the parents to find a school with which they are entirely happy within the next [1033] eight weeks. That is a very practical issue for them. If they get places in alternative schools, for the most part it will mean they will have to travel by bus into perhaps the inner city. We are talking about children from the ages of eight to 12. Walking to school would not be an option for them because of the distance. Apart from the difficulty for children getting to school on buses, there would also be a significant cost factor for the parents involved. It is also possible that parents would have to send siblings — for example, two brothers currently going to school in Inchicore — to two different schools and that would probably add to the difficulties for them.

Inchicore is an area where much good development is taking place, which is welcome. There will be an increasing and young population there in the next couple of years. These are the issues which face the school today and within the next five years. The parents are very proud of their school and their locality. I would have liked the Minister for Education and Science to be here. I do not know whether she has visited the school and seen the work going on there or knows of the impact a reduction in staff levels would have on the quality of teaching and the morale of the school if it was to be retained with an understaffed quota relative to what it currently has.

The Christian Brothers have quite rightly stated that if the resources are not provided, the school will not be able to deliver the quality of teaching that has come to be expected and that they wish to deliver in one of its schools. It is also the case that parents passionately want their local school to be retained, not just for now but for the future.

5 o’clock

I ask the Minister to meet the Christian Brothers, together with the board of management, to resolve this dilemma. The primary interest must be the welfare of the children attending the school and their right to a quality education, not just for now but also for the next five years, during which time many young children will become eligible to attend the school. The news of the school’s closure, which is due at the end of this academic year, certainly came as a body blow to the parents when it was announced earlier this week by the Christian Brothers. The timing is not very good or encouraging for the parents. Every effort should be made to assuage their fears and ensure teaching capacity in the area is retained.

  Mr. Ardagh: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this very important matter. I am very concerned at the proposed closure by the Christian Brothers of St. Michael’s CBS, Inchicore. Many of us were educated by the Christian Brothers and I received my primary education from them. It was a very good education. The Christian Brothers provided, to millions of young boys in particular, an education that was second to none in spite of the difficulties [1034] and lack of resources experienced over the past 100 years. The challenges that now exist in St. Michael’s CBS are small in comparison with those the Christian Brothers faced in the past and which they overcame through hard work and dignity, thereby resulting in success.

St. Michael’s CBS is a particularly important school, not only for the people of Inchicore or Dublin South-Central but also for the people of the whole country. The Inchicore area, especially around St. Michael’s, is the most socially and economically disadvantaged and deprived area in the country. The school is providing education to a very small number of children who need individual attention because of the physical, social or familial problems they face and because of all the other factors that impinge upon the development of such young children. The teachers, Christian Brothers and board of management have worked very hard and successfully over recent years to provide the type of education and nurturing these children need and deserve.

I understand the Taoiseach visited the school not too long ago and met all the pupils and teachers. Despite the fact that the school did not have the correct pupil-teacher ratio, the Taoiseach saw the need for an administrative principal in the school and enabled the creation of this position. I understand circumstances have changed and I therefore ask the Minister for Education and Science to do as Deputy Upton suggested, that is, meet the Christian Brothers, board of management and parents of the children and visit the school to see for herself the case that exists for having an administrative principal so the education the Christian Brothers want to give to the children can be continued in the school.

I pay tribute to the parents of the children in the school. Many are lone parents and have difficulties parents in more affluent areas would not experience, yet they were able to come together, hold a meeting, take the initiative, protest and articulate their horror and disgust over the proposed closure. They have done this in a manner that has made all their public representatives proud. I would like support to be given to these parents and particularly to their children so that St. Michael’s CBS can continue to operate.

  Mr. McDowell: I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the House, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, the position of her Department on the recently announced closure of St. Michael’s national school in Inchicore. The Minister has asked me to apologise on her behalf for being unable to attend to deal with this matter. She is addressing the Secondary School Management Association conference in Killarney this afternoon.

Reports in the media that the Christian Brothers intend to close St. Michael’s primary school at the end of June came as a shock to the Mini[1035] ster. Closing the school at such short notice is a very unusual decision which is understandably very upsetting and distressing for the parents, teachers and pupils involved. The Minister has arranged an early meeting with the Christian Brothers for next week. It would have been expected that the Department of Education and Science would have been afforded the courtesy of being informed of the decision at the earliest opportunity so that it could commence procedures to ensure the pupils concerned would have the certainty of an alternative placement for next September.

The Government has worked very hard to ensure that children from disadvantaged areas and those with special needs get all the extra support they need to reach their full potential at school. We have provided the extra staff needed to make this policy a reality. By next September, there will be 4,000 more primary teachers in our schools than there were in 2002. I acknowledge what has been said by all three Deputies on the particular deprivation many of the children involved will suffer in the course of their lives because of extraneous circumstances.

Schools such as St. Michael’s CBS, which serve children from disadvantaged areas and those with special needs, have enjoyed the benefit of the aforementioned policy to the extent that St. Michael’s has a pupil-teacher ratio of fewer than ten children to each teacher. This means the school has a very generous staff allocation, which many of the parents have pointed out in media interviews. For the next school year, the school was to have a principal and five other teachers for an enrolment of slightly more than 60 pupils. This is twice the normal staff level that applies in the case of most national schools of similar size. Given this substantially reduced pupil-teacher ratio, it is difficult to accept that the decision to [1036] close the school has anything to do with staffing. Even if the school authority feels it has issues regarding staffing, the decision to close it in such an abrupt and unexpected fashion could only lead to the type of reaction seen in recent days. Processes should have been followed regarding the closure of the school and other processes could have been followed to appeal the staffing allocation.

The Department of Education and Science will work closely with the school authorities to see if the closure can be avoided. If that is not possible, the Department will press for at least a phased and orderly closure. A phased and orderly closure and winding down of the school would ensure that there is sufficient time for any necessary and appropriate arrangements to be put in place for existing and potential pupils of the school. If it becomes necessary to seek alternative placements for some of the pupils the early indications are that places are available in some other schools in the area, including in a school in the Christian Brothers network as enrolments in the area have undergone a decline in recent years. The Department of Education and Science will take all necessary steps to ensure adequate provision in the area for the pupils concerned.

As Deputy Ó Snodaigh said, Richmond Barracks is a historic place. It was my grandfather and not my granduncle who went there in the context of the 1916 Rising and, for his trouble, was arrested, put on trial at that place, court-martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Westland Row in my constituency has a Christian Brothers secondary school, which is also under threat. That too is a disadvantaged community. Everybody must put the children from our disadvantaged communities first in our priorities.

  The Dáil adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 3 May 2006.