SIGNIFICANT efforts have been made to address a shortage of school places in the east Cork region, however, concerns remain about the capacity of schools in the region for the future.
The Taoiseach, the Minister for Education Norma Foley, local political representatives and eight secondary school principals from the East Cork region met virtually in recent weeks to discuss school capacity for the region amid concern that ongoing population growth in the east Cork area is causing a strain on the availability of school places.
At the time, the Minister committed to a review of school capacity.
School leaders and public representatives said that real progress has been achieved with regards to meeting the growing demand for school places, improving ASD facilities, and implementing essential development projects in the area.
It was recently announced that Pobalscoil na Trionóide secondary school in Youghal is set to receive additional capacity to meet the growing demand from students in their catchment area.
This development will see eight additional classrooms of 60 square meters added to the development, with works commencing as soon as possible.
It will be provided via two-floor modular accommodation in two separate blocks.
Each block contains two classrooms on each floor and toilet facilities.
Pobalscoil na Tríonóide principal Séamus O’Ceallacháin said the recent meeting involving all the various stakeholders was ‘excellent’.
“The Taoiseach and the Minister for Education are very committed to ensuring the issue of school places we face in East Cork is solved. From our own perspective, we have got the go-ahead for a 200 pupil extension. Planning for that will be lodged in the next four to six weeks,” he said.
Mr O’Ceallacháin said the planned extension will enable their school to have ‘sufficient accommodation’ to meet the growing demand.
“We have also got the go-ahead for temporary accommodation for the next number of years until the extension is finished. The temporary accommodation which was badly needed will be in place by September for the start of the new academic year. We will now have sufficient accommodation to cater for the numbers in our area because of the initiatives from the Department with regards to the extension and the temporary accommodation.
“It was needed as our numbers have grown from 840 a decade ago to the 1,018 pupils we hope to enrol this September. The school was initially built to cater for 1,000 pupils.
"All the areas in east Cork are currently experiencing a growth in the student numbers. Extra accommodation is needed and the government is trying to respond to meet the growing demand for school places.
"I don’t think any school can look for greater recognition than to have the Taoiseach, the Minister for Education, and the local TDs at a meeting. It shows they are committed to meeting the demands of east Cork. Our local representatives have all been trying to raise this issue at a national level. We are very appreciative of that,” he added.
Mr O’Ceallacháin said the new initiatives from the Department of Education will give them ‘breathing space’.
“The Department has given us the resources to provide great facilities for the students. We have also been given the go-ahead for two new ASD units in the school extension. It will give us breathing space. We have got a devolved grant to build the extension so it will be full steam away. We will aim to make as much progress as quickly as possible.”
The mixed secondary school which opened in 2006 offers a broad curriculum that aims to cater for everybody in their local community.
The school principal said education is ‘key’.
“We have introduced computer science, politics in society, and PE as exam subjects in recent years. We have also set up two ASD units in recent years. The demands on schools are increasing, but thankfully we have the resources to meet the demand. It is important to be continuously changing to meet the demands of the day,” he added.
The Cork Education and Training Board (ETB) is the patron and management body of a number of post-primary schools in the East Cork region.
A spokesperson said that in conjunction with the Department of Education and other stakeholders, Cork Education and Training Board has been engaged in a process aimed at increasing the provision of post-primary places in the East Cork area for the 2021/22 school academic year.
“Significant progress has been made and the process is now in its final phase. The new Carrigtwohill Community College, which will be part of the Carrigtwohill Educational Campus currently under development, will be ready for occupancy for the 2023/24 school academic year. This, along with infrastructural developments in other schools, is aimed at addressing the school capacity issues in the area.”
The spokesperson added: “Inclusivity is a core value for Cork ETB. Cork ETB is committed to playing our part in ensuring that all students in the East Cork area have access to a suitable placement for their post-primary school years.”
Cork East TD James O’Connor said bringing the eight school principals together to meet with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education highlights the need for improved communication and greater unity amongst all the stakeholders.
“It is great to see that the voices of principals are being heard. To have the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education intervene is unprecedented regarding school capacity. It shows they are serious about tackling this issue. The Department has vowed to increase its interaction with schools, while all of the schools were invited to provide their own case to the Department via correspondence. It is very evident there is a huge issue in Cobh, Carrigtwohill, Midleton and Youghal. All of the schools are full with the exception of one and that school is expected to be full in the near future.
“The one positive is that the number has been significantly reduced on the waiting list from the additional classes that have been allocated. There is still a great bit more work to be done however to alleviate that list. We are pressing the Department to ensure solutions are found. They need to move quickly to ensure pupils are not left without school places,” he said.
The Fianna Fáil TD said there are also ‘huge issues’ with regards to ASD capacity and special needs facilities in East Cork.
“We have a huge problem with ASD capacity and special needs facilities right around secondary schools in East Cork. Principals are concerned and they want to see improvements being made at a far greater pace. The Department is very serious about ensuring the needs of the various schools are taken into account and I’m hopeful they will be dealt with.”
Deputy O’Connor is due to meet the CEO of the Cork County Council Tim Lucey to discuss zoning and possible new locations for schools in the East Cork area.
“The population has surged in recent years. The ETB is working with their schools and the Department will work with their schools to try and find the capacity. We need additional grounds owned by Cork County Council to ensure that there is space available for new schools to help some of the schools to relocate. Some of the schools have expressed interest in coming out of old buildings and having new schools in new locations.
“I am meeting with Mr Lucey to discuss some of these issues in relation to the zoning of ground and the NDP to ensure that education remains a priority,” he added.
Deputy O’Connor said he hopes the recent meeting and announcements of development works in secondary schools will help to alleviate the pressure on families going forward.
“Many families have been frantic with worry. I want to ensure that every student in East Cork has a school place and that parents in the future won’t have to worry about this becoming an annual issue.
“The situation regarding house building in East Cork is much stronger than the national picture. There are developers who are trying to build in the region. It shows that there will be further pressure coming down the line if we don’t solve this problem immediately. I am satisfied that the Department is now fully aware of the situation. We need to see them now delivering. It is in everyone’s interest,” he added.
Fine Gael TD for Cork East David Stanton said the Minister for Education needs to start planning for a new secondary school in East Cork.
“There has been a huge issue over places in recent years. Credit to the Department they have made more places available in Midleton and Carrigtwohill. It is looking better. I have asked the Minister to start planning for a new second-level school in east Cork as we need another one. This can be installed in temporary accommodation for September 2022. This is very necessary as otherwise, we will be facing the same problems next year. The population is growing in the big towns and all the outlying villages such as Castlemartyr, Cloyne, Whitegate, Killeagh and Ladysbridge,” he said.
Deputy Stanton said a system that has been used successfully in Limerick in recent years to alleviate growing waiting lists could be replicated in East Cork.
“There is a system in Limerick, a type of common enrolment between all the schools. It is like the CAO. Parents fill out a list and they nominate the school they want their child to go to. It helps give an early indication of how busy lists are and it ends dual enrolment pressure. I am suggesting the principals look at this system as it might be worth considering.”
The Cork East TD has also called for a special school to be built in the foreseeable future in East Cork.
“There is also a huge need for a special school in East Cork. It is a growing concern.
"I am aware that children with additional needs are having to travel to the city which is not fair. This needs to be addressed in the short-term,” he said.
Sinn Féin TD for Cork East Pat Buckley said increased dialogue needs to be maintained going forward.
“More dialogue is needed between all stakeholders. A yearly review of school transport and a yearly assessment of needs for each school also need to be conducted. This would ensure the Department has the most up-to-date information on capacity issues and other logistical problems. The Government must stay ahead of the race and not be trying to play catch up all the time,” he said.
Labour TD for East Cork Seán Sherlock said the Department should have acted sooner before the issue spiralled out of control.
“This issue didn’t just appear out of thin air. The Department is aware of the additional education needs for East Cork for some time. The forward planning units should have been far more proactive and engaged on the matter to ensure the supply of additional education places.
“More questions are now emerging, around transport provisions, capacity constraints, and other areas. I have since written to the Minister with these queries and expect an answer shortly,” he added.
A Department of Education spokesperson told The Echo that they are satisfied the recent measures they have introduced will address the capacity issues.
“The shortfall in school places is being addressed by existing schools that have offered additional places for 2021, with capital funding, for additional accommodation, including provision for children with special educational needs, committed by the Department. The Department is satisfied that this additionality will address the capacity issues for September 2021 and onwards in East Cork.”
In relation to special education capacity in East Cork, the spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “The Department and the NCSE are aware of difficulties regarding the availability of suitable school placements in Cork. The NCSE is working with schools, patron bodies, parents and others to ensure there are sufficient special education placements available to meet local needs.”