Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic this afternoon. I have had it on for a good few weeks and I really appreciate it. I am disappointed that the Minister for Education and Skills is not here but I appreciate the fact that the Minister for State, Deputy Cannon, is here so he will have some understanding of what I am trying to say. All the Deputies in the constituency of Kildare North have been fully supportive of the proposals put forward by the Maynooth Schools Group. I met the group last night so what I am telling the Minister of State is fairly fresh. My personal interest is that I was a former teacher in Maynooth Post Primary School. I was lucky enough to be there for a year so I could see at first hand the benefit of a “one school for one town” philosophy. In his interim report to Co. Kildare VEC, Dr. Gerry Jeffers states that “Maynooth has been an exemplar of inclusive coeducational, multidenominational schooling”. I believe this is due to the elusive achievement of having one school for all pupils, which so many towns in Ireland would strive to reach. However, what the Department and Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board have proposed to do is to strip away all that Maynooth has achieved and create a divided community.
The community of Maynooth is central to this debate. The community was led to believe that the existing policy of “one school for one town” would be maintained and that the new campus would house all students attending Maynooth Post Primary School. The news that two separate schools were to be established has been met with dismay, anger and concern about the future of the town. According to Dr. Jeffers’s report:
The strongest single theme emanating from the public conversations with parents, particularly in Maynooth itself, centred on the idea of the town (population 13,6171) as a unified community, in the words of a number of contributors, ‘an extended village’, where the single second-level school, Maynooth Post Primary (current enrolment 1,175), acts as a powerful integrating force.
It is inevitable that two schools would create duplication and intra-community rivalry.
Solutions being put forward by the Maynooth Schools Group include amalgamation of the two schools, which is the key. One school board will decide the overall configuration of the facilities and an overall Principal for the Maynooth Post Primary School will delegate day-to-day management of its constituent parts to individual deputy principals. This is a reasonable attitude on the part of the community. The amalgamation can be on a permanent basis or on a temporary-pilot basis to be reviewed after five to six years or when the new school buildings are built.
There are real concerns on the part of parents. Only in essence is there a Maynooth Community College – there is no building and principal and there are no staff. How can sixth-class children prepare for entering second-level school in eight months when they have no idea where they will be, who their teachers will be or who their classmates will be, particularly when the prospective pupils and parents of Maynooth Post Primary School are invited to attend an information meeting at the end of the month to meet teachers and hear about their subject choices?
This brings me to the new enrolment policy of Maynooth Post Primary School, which is extremely worrying for many parents and pupils, particularly those who have children currently attending the school and studying through the Irish stream whose siblings are now being excluded from enrolment. I cannot understand how this is allowed to happen. The language medium through which a child learns should have no bearing on where their younger siblings attend school. If parents had been aware of this when they first opted for the Irish stream, they would surely have though twice about sending their children there.
All the community of Maynooth is asking for is that its views be understood and heard. At the moment, it believes that it is being completely excluded from the process because its views, which it thought were being taken on board, were ignored. The Minister is an inclusive Minister who is actively engaging with parents on a number of issues which affect their children, most recently that of patronage. I am asking him on behalf of a unified community of Maynooth to listen to its call for “one school for one town” and not to divide it.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Ciarán Cannon): I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to provide the House with an update on this issue. I understand that the Minister met with parents’ representatives on a number of occasions and also met Deputies Stagg and Durkan regarding this issue. I am glad to be able to provide an update as a result of those ongoing discussions. The Department’s plan for Maynooth at post-primary level is that there will be two separate fully vertical post-primary schools on one campus – namely a new replacement building for the existing Maynooth post-primary school and a new school, Maynooth Community College, which is being established in 2014.
Representatives of the parents’ associations from Maynooth initially put forward the view that the two schools should be configured as a junior school-senior school rather than as two separate fully vertical schools. This proposal presented difficulties, not least of which is the considerable stress that would be caused for parents and students with the introduction of a third transfer point between primary and third level and the lack of continuity of teaching for students between the junior and senior cycle. The Minister has communicated this view to local representatives directly and I understand that a more recent proposal has been put forward which moves away from the junior-senior configuration. This is a very welcome development in the ongoing discussion.
The Minister is more than aware of the desire locally to avoid issues of duplication or intra-community rivalry in the establishment of a second school and this has resulted in a new proposal from the parents’ group to amalgamate the two schools, either temporarily or permanently. The Minister believes, however, that there are a number of practical operational policy measures that can be taken, with the agreement of parents and school leadership, to foster a stronger sense of common identity and to benefit from the advantages of shared resources while maintaining two separate school entities.
My Department will now be engaging with the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, ETB, to consider this and I expect that it will, in turn, be engaging further with the school leadership, parents and the community as a whole in this regard.
As part of an earlier effort to address this issue, the Kildare and Wicklow ETB, which will be patron of both schools, has developed a specific management structure for the new educational campus. Each school will have, as usual, a board of management that will carry out the normal functions of such boards, including those relating to the delivery of a quality education for students. A single governing authority has been established to guarantee to parents and students a fair and equitable enrolment policy for both schools and to ensure that the overall management of the campus will be as cohesive and effective as possible. The governing authority will comprise an independent chairperson, the principals of the schools, a teacher and parent-guardian nominated by the board of management of each school and members of the ETB. The CEO of the ETB or a nominee will also attend meetings.
The Minister is satisfied that the arrangements made by the ETB to date and the further engagement on school operational policies that will now take place will ensure that the educational needs of all students, including those with disabilities or special educational needs, are identified and provided for in the curricular programmes planned and delivered at the schools and that a quality teaching and learning environment for all students will result.
As the Deputy knows full well from having taught there, the existing post-primary school in Maynooth is highly regarded locally. The intention of the ETB is to build on that wonderful tradition of high standards and success and to provide a new community education campus comprising two fully vertical new schools. There is significant and worthwhile thinking behind their establishment. I suggest to the Deputy that this will have a positive outcome for the community as a whole.
Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I thank the Minister of State for his reply. This plan does not satisfy the community’s needs. When I attended a meeting one and a half years ago, it was clear that the community wanted a single school. The idea of two vertical schools is not that school. The community discussed an amalgamation of the two under one board, one principal and one school uniform. Maynooth post-primary school is highly successful and well run and has catered to the united community for many years.
Sometimes, it is important for us as politicians to listen to what the community wants. Trying to impose what the Minister, the Department or the Kildare and Wicklow ETB believes is right for the community might not work. The community wants to stay unified, not be divided. We want one school for one town. This simple philosophy has worked for a number of years. I have worked in the school and have seen at first hand how well it runs and integrates the community. The Department is trying to split the town. Instead of a well run, integrated community, it will be divided.
I appeal to the Minister of State to consider the Maynooth schools group’s suggestions on an amalgamation and to revert with a concrete, positive answer with which we can proceed. I will stand before the appeals board next week regarding parents who cannot attend the Maynooth post-primary school even though their children’s siblings already attend it, which seems strange. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider the amalgamation process, discuss the matter with the Maynooth schools group and propose a positive suggestion.
Deputy Ciarán Cannon: Many times in the past two and a half years, some of our colleagues expressed a wish in the Chamber to the effect that we would seek to have our children educated in schools that kept numbers at a reasonable level. In my estimation, any parent who was asked whether he or she wanted his or her child to attend a school of 1,000 pupils or a school of 2,000 pupils would give a resounding response in favour of the smaller school.
I regularly attend meetings of parents and school management bodies across the country. An opinion is emerging, one that is backed up by national and international research, to the effect that the optimum number of school enrolments is approximately 1,000 pupils. This figure affords significant economies of scale. It also creates an environment in which the principal and other members of a school’s management body can retain some knowledge of each pupil’s progress, be it positive or negative. The 1,000-pupil limit enhances the school’s overall efficacy and adds to students’ positive mental health and overall experience.
The optimum figure of 1,000 pupils has not been arrived at in a casual way. It has been considered by the Department and others in the education field. It is the reason that we want to allow for the development of two vertical schools of 1,000 pupils each on the same campus. There was never any intention to divide the community or to put one element in competition with another. The Minister has established a forum and an overall governance structure, which will work well and will build, rather than detract from, the community spirit. There will be two state-of-the-art modern schools with every facility one would require on a single community education campus.
The Deputy referred to the symbolism of the students wearing the same uniform. If it is the symbolic gesture that is required to sustain a sense of community in Maynooth, it can be discussed with the ETB locally and progressed.