Seanad Éireann - Volume 171 - 11 March, 2003
Adjournment Matters. - School Closures.
Mr. Bannon Mr. Bannon
Mr. Bannon: I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher. In discussing the future of St. Joseph's secondary school in Newtownforbes on the outskirts of Longford town one cannot avoid looking beyond its proposed closure to the broader issue, namely, the repeated use of education as a political tool by the Government. Unfortunately for the people of Newtownforbes, we are once again faced with a scenario which is becoming all too familiar, that is, pre-general election promises being broken and local communities being left to pick up the pieces.
In this case the promise came from the Taoiseach when he travelled to Newtownforbes to meet the St. Joseph's steering committee in the lead-up to the general election. The committee accepted his word and believed he meant what he said. Prior to his visit it had received numerous representations from his office. There has been nothing but the sound of silence ever since. The general election is over and the Government has been re-elected but the students and parents of Newtownforbes have definitely lost out as they and others like them are left to suffer the consequences of the Government's mismanagement.
I turn to the events leading up to the current impasse in relation to St. Joseph's secondary school. More than two years ago the Sisters of Mercy announced their decision to relinquish trusteeship of the school. This news came as a great shock to the people of the locality as the nuns had a long and happy association with education in Longford. An independent assessor was appointed in 2001 to determine the viability of the school.
Despite numerous attempts, the steering committee was unable to secure a meeting with the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods. It was not until it staged a two day protest outside the Department of Education and Science that he agreed to a meeting. At the time the people of Longford were disappointed that the matter had to go so far before he agreed to such a meeting. The Taoiseach had also intervened to facilitate a meeting and half promised he would do his best to continue providing education in Newtownforbes. Was it his intention to get safely beyond the general election? The subsequent outcome proved this to be the case.
Following the meeting the consensus, both in relation to the Department of Education and Science's file on St. Joseph's secondary school and Dr. Tom McCarthy's report, was that the green light would be given to keep the school open to cater for the growing number of students in the area. Allied to the visit and promise of the Taoiseach, this gave great hope to the people of Newtownforbes.
The combined capacity of the other three schools in Longford town is approximately 1,555 pupils. There are 625 places in St. Mel's College, which is for boys only. We are all aware that Scoil Mhuire, which has 630 places for girls, recently turned away some 25 students because there were no places for them. The school is already overcrowded and has no space for expansion. I understand a similar problem arose last week at St. Mel's which was unable to accommodate all the students who turned up for enrolment and in Moyne, north County Longford. The vocational school has 400 places, 155 of which are already taken up on PLC courses.
Projected enrolment, a combination of normal projections, housing developments and improved employment prospects brought about by the announcement of Abbots of a commitment to create 600 new jobs in the Longford area, is approximately 2,225, which leaves a shortfall of 670 places for secondary level students. If we were to look further afield to Cardinal Health which, despite deferral, hopes to provide 1,300 jobs by the end of 2005, the shortfall would increase significantly. Allied to this, the recent census of population shows that the population has increased substantially which will leave us with an even greater demand for places in the future.
These figures back up our case and put the onus on the Minister for Education and Science to rescind his decision to close St. Joseph's secondary school. In a recent letter to me he appears to base his decision to close the school on figures and projections totally at odds with the accurate and well researched ones I have just outlined. I put it to him that his figures are not based on facts.
The Minister also stated in his letter: “I acknowledge that a small number of pupils may be disappointed at not gaining access to their first choice of post primary school.” Far from affecting a small number, the closure of St. Joseph's secondary school would cause major hardship and disruption to all the students of Newtownforbes and the surrounding area. In addition, pupils have traditionally travelled from outside the county to attend the school.
I am disappointed with the efforts of the two Dáil Deputies for Longford in this matter. They have let down the people of Longford and the Minister, whom they fed inaccurate information on needs and population. They were wishy-washy in their approach, which is a polite way of saying they did very little to assist Newtownforbes and failed the students, parents and teachers of the area.
Even based on such erroneous information, it is a serious indictment of a senior Minister to suggest, as the Minister for Education and Science did in his letter to me of 28 February 2003, that the population of Longford will remain static until 2009. If the decision to close St. Joseph's secondary school is based solely on such unusual statistics, God help Longford. The other secondary schools in the county do not have the capacity to take an increase in students. Will the Minister allow the children of County Longford to be transported at all hours of the morning to secondary schools outside the county? This would impose a huge burden on their parents who would have to pay extra transport costs. Why is there not a coherent policy to keep children in schools in their own county, rather than travelling to schools 40 miles away?
On behalf of the people of Longford, I ask the Minister to reconsider his decision on this fine school which has put Longford education on the map for many years. I have a petition on the retention of the school signed by all the councillors on Longford Town Council and in mid-County Longford. I intend to hand the petition, which has the support of the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Progressive Democrats parties in the area, to the Minister. A public meeting on the matter will be held in Longford in the near future.
Mr. Gallagher Mr. Gallagher
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Gallagher): I welcome this opportunity to outline to the House the position on St. Joseph's secondary school, Newtownforbes, County Longford. The school is one of four post-primary schools in the area and was established in the early 1950s. Formerly an all girls boarding school, co-education was introduced during the 1970s. In 1989 the boarding element was closed.
Enrolments at the school peaked in the early 1990s at over 450 pupils. However, ten years later there had been a steady decline in numbers to a level of 173 pupils in September 2000. Based on this pattern of decline, future intakes of less than 30 pupils per annum could have been anticipated. In December 2000 the school trustees, the Mercy Sisters, western province, announced their intention to effect a phased closure of the school over two years with final closure at the end of the 2002-03 school year. Accordingly, there has been no intake of first year pupils since September 2000 but all current pupils, including the 2003 examination pupils, were facilitated in completing their junior or senior cycles, as appropriate.
Following the trustees announcement of closure, the Department of Education and Science received representations from a local steering committee which was set up with a view to keeping the school open. The case for the retention of the school has been ongoing for some time and has been the subject of several reviews in the Department and also by an independent facilitator.
The Minister met representatives of the retention committee in October last and, notwithstanding all previous reviews, undertook to have his officials re-examine all the issues, including the most up to date demographic data from Census 2002, housing and planning applications data from the local authorities, pupil movement into and out of the catchment area and the capacity of the Longford town schools. Following this review, the Minister arrived at the definitive conclusion that there is no basis for the retention of a second level school in Newtownforbes. The Department is satisfied that there is sufficient capacity overall in the remaining schools in the catchment area to meet the projected post-primary education needs of pupils in the Longford-Newtownforbes area.
Enrolment trends in the Longford-Newtownforbes catchment area will be carefully monitored during the coming years. In the event that industrial and housing developments generate additional pupils in excess of existing capacity, the issue for the Department of Education and Science will be how to make good that shortfall within the capacity and potential of the Longford town schools. As resources permit, any requirement for capital investment will be concentrated on the Longford town schools.
Seanad Éireann 171 Adjournment Matters. School Closures.