Today, I raised the need for a new Primary School Building on a new site in Barna to replace the existing Scoil Shéamais Naofa, which is very restricted on its present site and on a very busy regional road.

Inniu, d’ardaigh mé an gá atá le Foirgneamh Nua Bunscoile ar shuíomh nua i mBearna le teacht in áit Scoil Shéamais Naofa atá ann cheana féin, atá an-srianta ar a suíomh reatha agus ar bhóthar réigiúnach atá an-ghnóthach.

I thank the Cathaoirleach’s office for choosing this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the Chamber. To set the scene, Barna is a popular place to live. As I am sure she will be aware, it is on the outskirts of Galway city. It is a coastal town that has experienced rapid growth over the past 20 years. The 2016 census recorded a population of 2,000. The population projection is set to increase by 750 people by 2028 under the draft county development plan presently on display. In that plan, Barna is part of the metropolitan hierarchy.

It is connected to the Mutton Island sewage plant and, therefore, future development is pretty much guaranteed. While it is situated in County Galway, it is the closest urban area to Galway city.

Scoil Shéamais Naofa primary school is situated on the R336 coast road. It was built in 1980 and its enrolment at present is 259 pupils. The school is on a restricted site on a busy coast road, with heavy traffic and narrow footpaths. The building is outdated in terms of classroom size, layout and energy efficiency. The yard space is limited and is sloped, which results in pupils falling in wet or icy conditions and is particularly unsuitable for children with a physical disability.

Tá Bearna lonnaithe sa Ghaeltacht agus tá an scoil páirteach sa scéim aitheantais do scoileanna Gaeltachta. Tá 259 dalta ag freastal ar an scoil faoi láthair. Tógadh an scoil i 1980 agus níl sé suas chun dáta sa lá atá inniu ann ó thaobh fuinnimh, toirt na seomraí ranga, leagan amach an fhoirgnimh agus araile. Tá an scoil suite ar an mbóthar cósta R336, áit a bhfuil trácht trom, cosán cúng agus nach bhfuil aon áit sábháilte le dul trasna an bhóthair. Tá an Ghaeilge lárnach sa phobal agus ceadaíodh plean teanga do limistéir Bhearna agus Cnoc na Cathrach le déanaí.

The current draft county development plan includes a policy objective for the Barna metropolitan settlement plan to support the upgrading of or relocation of Scoil Shéamais Naofa to a more appropriate site within the plan boundary, which would facilitate increased pupil capacity and more expansive recreational facilities, with improved and safer access. This is similar to objectives in previous plans that have not come to pass. Lands suitable for the relocation of Scoil Shéamais Naofa, owned by community facilities in Galway County Council, have been identified off the main Moycullen road in the centre of Barna. These lands could be accessed via a continuation of the inner relief road in the town. This site would be more suitable than the existing school site, would provide more space, be safer and encourage more walking and cycling by children. The school in Barna is on a very busy road and it is of its time. It has a wonderful principal and staff providing a good standard of education. However, the site is too small for the school’s current needs, given that the village is close to Galway city and is only going to grow, subject to zoning, the county development plan and the projections therein. What engagement has the Department had with the school’s board of management regarding the possible relocation to an alternative site?

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Deputy Josepha Madigan)

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I will take this opportunity to outline the Department’s perspective on this matter. Scoil Shéamais Naofa is a Catholic mixed all-Irish primary school under the patronage of the Bishop of Galway. In September 2020, the school had an enrolment of 259 pupils. I understand that enrolments in the school have fallen by 9% in the past five years. The school currently has a principal, ten mainstream teachers, three special education teachers, a part-time special education teacher and one temporary mainstream teacher. The Senator said that the standard of education in the school is good.

The current accommodation comprises ten mainstream classrooms, a general purpose room, library, principal’s office, general office, staffroom and other ancillary accommodation. The Senator will be aware that, to plan for school provision and to analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It uses a geographical information system and data from a range of sources, including child benefit and school enrolments, to identify where the pressure for school places throughout the country will arise and where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels. The most recent analysis undertaken by the Department projects that more than 60% of enrolments in the 314 school planning areas at primary level are stable or decreasing for the period to 2024.

Conversely, some 90% of the school planning areas at post-primary level are anticipated to have increased enrolments for the period to 2027. The level of demand across school planning areas with an increasing net requirement ranges from small to medium increases, which are likely to be accommodated by existing schools, to significant increases that may require additional provision. Where data indicate that additional provision is needed, the Department considers a number of options, including utilising existing capacity, extending a school’s capacity, providing a new school or a combination thereof.

Scoil Shéamais Naofa is one of 36 primary schools in the Galway city school planning area. Following the most recent demographic exercise carried out by the Department, the demand for primary school places in that area is set to fall by at least 200 by 2024. The Senator will be aware that significant devolved funding was granted to Scoil Shéamais Naofa between 2009 and 2012 for the provision of permanent accommodation on its existing site, including two additional mainstream classrooms and two resource rooms, to meet its long-term accommodation needs. In 2016, the Department received an application from the school for a new 16-classroom school on a greenfield site. I understand that the school authority was informed at the time that the Department did not see the need for a new school building, as the level of accommodation available to the school was sufficient to meet its long-term needs and those of the school planning area. I understand that this remains the Department’s view.

The Senator mentioned one of the reasons for which the school was seeking a replacement school building on a greenfield site, namely, traffic management issues. Road safety measures on a public road outside a school’s vested site such as road signage, traffic calming measures and so on are matters for the relevant local authority.

Senator Seán Kyne

I thank the Minister of State for her response, which was somewhat disappointing. The capacity of the school or local authority to improve safety is limited at that location. It is a busy regional route and there is no space to widen the road, provide a car park or implement safety measures. A new school is needed in the area. Not only would this increase the safety of children and their parents when dropping children off, but it would also increase the safety of the road itself.

The Minister of State mentioned the Galway city school planning area and capacity, but Barna is a self-contained community. Children living there in future will want to attend locally, not in Galway city, and they deserve to get the best education within their local community. If we are to encourage walking, cycling and so on, a new location for Scoil Shéamais Naofa is necessary, as the current site is not suitable. I ask that the Department re-engage with the school to examine the possibilities and with Galway County Council to get clarity on what it can do in respect of school safety. I do not believe that anything can be done on that site, but such an engagement would be positive.

Deputy Josepha Madigan

I will bring the Senator’s comments and concerns to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I understand what he is saying about traffic management. This is a matter for the local authority, but we have to ensure the safety of children. That is critical.

The Senator should bear in mind the demographic exercise that is being undertaken on projected growth. The fact that the decrease in demand for places in the area in question will be approximately 200 by 2024 does not augur well for trying to find a new school for the area.

I am struck by his comments about the school yard being on a slope, particularly as it relates to children with additional needs.

Again, I will take it back to the Department. We always want to encourage children to walk and cycle to school. This collaboration with the local authority is important. It is on a coast road and I do appreciate the issues the Senator raised.