The publication of the list for the capital programme for Primary School Building shows the continuing policy of the Department of Education and Science to restrict the development of diversity in Irish education.
Whilst the Minister’s commitment to transparency in publishing the various lists is greatly to be welcomed, the list highlights once again the abject failure of the state to provide for the basic accommodation requirements of Irish schoolchildren. It is unacceptable that the government utters the excuse of failing state finances as a justification for this situation. Investments in education, particularly redressing the historical under-funding of primary education and funding the long-overdue reform of our second level system will develop the prime resource and wealth creating asset of the country. This is an investment for which there is a guaranteed return and should not be regarded as a cost.
The publication of the building programme list masks other more challenging issues with the structure of our primary education system. It is staggering that of the 819 schools mentioned in the various primary lists the overwhelming majority are schools under private ownership. Cursory examination reveals that less than 20 of the schools mentioned are publicly owned. This in itself raises serious questions on the prudence of the operation of this system. Is it wise for the state to continue to invest vast sums to renovate or build schools that are privately owned? Does the state have any certainty that such investment can be recouped when such buildings are disposed by their owners? Does the state have any legal power to insist that such accommodation, heavily funded by taxpayer can be reallocated to other school types when social demands change?
A further serious question is the impact of this year’s capital building programme on the necessity for diversity in the system. Of the 3,200 national schools 99% are privately owned religious schools.This presents a huge challenge in a society in which social and religious attitudes are rapidly changing.
It would be reasonable to assume that since the Education Act with its commitment to the recognition of diversity in society, the state would proportionately favour developments addressing this need. Many would consider it wise for the state to start planning for the obvious changes that have already taken place in social attitudes. This clearly has not happened over the past two years. An examination of the detail of the lists published today show a dramatic decline in the response of the system to the need for structural change.
The list for the completion of major capital programmes shows the completion of four new Educate Together building projects. These projects represent about 4.5% of the national total under this category.
The list for those projects under construction or authorised to proceed this year show that only two out of the 82 listed are Educate Together schools. These represent only 2.5% of the national total.
The list for large primary projects that will be authorised to proceed in 2003 does not contain a single Educate Together school in the total of 12 and the list for projects at advanced stages of architectural planning has no Educate Together school out of a total of 122. There is no Educate Together school on the list for smaller scale projects or on the list for devolved projects for small schools. Only three of the 289 schools which are frozen at the early stage of architectural planning are Educate Together schools. These amount to barely 1% of the total. It is only in the list for the provision of temporary accommodation (3 out of 104 ) that the percentage creeps up towards 3%.
These figures are brought into stark relief when we examine the percentage of new schools coming into the system. In the past five years, only four of the 35 new schools have been denominational schools. The rest have been gaelscoileanna (17) and Educate Together schools (12) with one Muslim and one other. This is an accelerating trend, in 2002 of the 10 new schools, 7 were from Educate Together and 3 Gaelscoileanna.
The reality is that 15 out of the 28 Educate Together schools are in unsuitable temporary accommodation with possible as many as 6 more schools opening this year. There is irrefutable evidence that this growth will continue and that there will a sustained increase in demand for this form of education all over the country. If the system was indeed operating even in an equal manner, there would be a noticeable increase in the percentage of Educate Together schools in each list as the lists moved from completion all the way down to early architectural planning. The opposite is the case, and in addition, the Department is insisting on completely unrealistic and unattainable terms of locally sourced temporary accommodation. Instead of planning to address diversity, the Department is returning to a policy of restricting the growth of the multi-enominational alternative. If this attitude continues, it will create massive legal and financial problems for the government. It is very unclear that the courts will allow the state to compel parents to send their children to schools that a legally obliged to uphold a religious ethos that conflicts their conscience. It is probable that the courts will take dim view of continued restrictive and discriminatory policies towards new Educate Together schools. The failure to address the need for an alternative to denominational schools will lead to the inevitable problems caused by an increasing minority attending those schools who have a lawful preference for an alternative. This has already been remarked upon by major figures in the catholic church and widely in educational circles. The state will loose the huge benefit that it could gain by welcoming the potential of educational diversity. It is unlikely that the state’s subsidy of an overwhelming monopoly of one private educational provider can be sustained in a modern European state. If the Department does not address the necessity for diversity in the system and instead continues to restrict the growth of an alternative to denominational provision, it is very poorly serving the long term educational needs of the Irish people.
Irrespective of these points the most telling feature of the list published by the Minister yesterday is the contrast between the number of projects in architectural planning and those actually being worked upon. There are 411 in planning, and 189 ‘after planning’ but 92 of these are actually completed. In effect the number of live projects is only 97. The list of those waiting to start is four times the capacity of the conveyor belt. How many years are we going to wait for this backlog to clear? What about new schools? The minister has allocated only €0.5m for site acquisitions this year. As one Dublin housewife mentioned this evening, just how many potholes does the Minister consider this will buy? How â by any stretch of the imagination – can this be a realistic response to the burgeoning communities of new parents in new estates with no school provision. In some areas of Dublin, this total will barely buy an acre – less than half the acreage needed for an 8 classroom school. The formal response of the Department is to say that new schools will have to rent sites at commercial rates until the state is in a position to buy. Most parents would have a solution. None of us would consider renting our houses for 10 years and then pay the market price that had steadily inflated over the period. We take out a mortgage and reap the benefit as inflation eats its way into the real value of our repayments. Maybe the Government should do the same?