Adjournment Matter. - Lusk (Dublin) School Closure.

Thursday, 9 May 1985

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 108 No. 4

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[421]Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  The matter I propose to raise concerns the decision to close the open reformatory known as Scoil Ard Mhuire at Lusk, County Dublin. The closure of this school raises a number of very simple but important principles. First of all, to make matters simple, there exists at Lusk an open school which I referred to in my request to the Leas-Chathaoirleach to raise on the Adjournment as Scoil Ard Mhuire. It is proposed to close this school. Adjacent to this school there is also a closed school, Trinity School.

The four principles I want to begin with are as follows. The two schools, it was suggested when this matter was discussed previously, are amalgamated in what is now referred to as the Oberstown youth centre. It would appear to me, from the information that has been brought to my attention, that the staffing arrangements are such as to give the impression that both the philosophy and the form of administration of the closed school, Trinity School, is being extended to the entire joint entity, that is Ard Mhuire and Trinity School. The proposal as I understand it, was to close Ard Mhuire on 31 August 1985. It would appear to me that at that particular stage the social order of the closed school will then stand intact and prevail in the new entity. Ard Mhuire, the open school, with a regime that was appropriate and separate and quite different, which had been run by the Oblate Order, will at that stage cease to exist.

The issues that arise are the questions of the regime. People who are involved in correctional schools of any kind know what is meant by that, it is that the regime of the closed school will extend and prevail exclusively at the centre. That is the first issue. There is an issue of corrective policy involved. It is very regrettable that this should happen. The Minister for Education and I were both members of the MacBride Committee of Inquiry into the Prison System and we both concluded, in our report, that we were in [422] favour of regimes that were broadly in line with what I know to have prevailed in Ard Mhuire. I am very grateful to the Minister of State, Deputy Creed, who usually answers these questions and does so very thoroughly. I worry about a number of points and the manner in which they were put forward when this matter was raised previously. First, it has been suggested that Scoil Ard Mhuire has never been full. This is something at which I would look with considerable scepticism.

The scenario I have been describing is one in which in a new circumstance of amalgamation the entity that had the structure of being a closed school would prevail and the entity that had the structure of an open school would cease to exist. The issue that arises is a major issue of correctional policy. That gives me ground for concern. One of the arguments put forward is that the Oblates who ran the school are no longer available to run it. To this I would say that if the order of the school was valuable — and I would argue that when the Minister and I both served on the MacBride Commission we came down very strongly in favour of regimes such as that which prevailed in Ard Mhuire — it would seem to me that it should be part of an enlightened state's policy to make sure that it continued to exist. I would call very seriously into question any suggestion that it did not have sufficient numbers referred to it. That would raise the question of the basis on which referrals are made in the first place. I would question whether if you give an indication to, for example, those who make the referrals, the justices, that perhaps this institution is not likely to exist in the future, you are making a selffulfilling prophecy in so far as you are saying: “Why refer people to it if it is the intention to close it?”

The third point refers to a statement made by the Minister for Education in reply to a written Dáil Question from Dr. O'Hanlon on 27 March 1985, at column 806, Volume 357, of the Official Report which stated:

The cost of operating Scoil Ard [423] Mhuire, Lusk, in the year ended 30 June 1984 was £545,451, giving an annual unit cost of £18,184 per boy.

At column 807 she stated:

The cost of operating Trinity House School, Lusk, in the year ended 30 June 1984 was £756,395 giving an annual unit cost of £30,255 per boy.

The arguments put forward in relation to relative economies and relative costs are not very impressive but they would not be the most important ones with me. I am convinced that this decision is coming at a time of considerable danger in relation to the philosophy of correction. I hope the reaction that has set in has been exaggerated. It has been suggested that there might be a move back from available educational facilities within schools. The Seanad debated this last week on the Adjournment. Here we are talking about the implication of moving from an open regime to a closed one. That is a matter of fundamental importance.

I asked questions, as someone involved for nearly 20 years in the area of crime, deviance and punishment in my professional capacity as a sociologist, if it is that there has been some change in the populations being referred. One has to think immediately that there are 27 young people who now will be affected by the closure of Ard Mhuire. Has there been some change in their circumstances, some new facts discovered about them that make it necessary for them to be retained within a closed school and within the regime of a closed school? There is, of course, the very important issue — it is one upon which I support very much the people who have given their lives towards working in any kind of correctional institution or any kind of school dealing with essentially under-privileged people that it could be assumed automatically that they would move from one regime to another. I would argue that it is a qualitative change in one's professional orientation, capacity and commitment. I understand that the history of this whole [424] issue surrounding the closure of Ard Mhuire is that initially guarantees were given to the staff that their desire and wishes to work in the conditions which they had directed themselves would be respected and that later these commitments were not honoured. It was presented somewhat as a fait accompli that they could continue to work provided they worked in the new regime, that is the regime of the closed institution.

People must be moved by the arguments about correctional philosophy and the whole business of an appropriate method of dealing with young people involved. I have disposed of the question of relative economies. The fact that the Oblates left leaves a question mark. In what circumstances did the Oblates withdraw? It would be very interesting to know. It has been pointed out to me — I would be glad to hear that it is not so — that a considerable amount of money has been spent on Ard Mhuire in refurbishing the building, in relation to windows and basic structural aspects of the building and the making available of dental equipment and so on. One gets the impression from looking at it with great concern that it was a place that was an open institution, that had been refurbished, upon which money had been spent, which had a staff trained and oriented towards an open institution, that was composed of a population who would benefit from an open institution but was disappearing over a period of time. Another closed institution nearby has extended its reigme, will subsume the population and, it is suggested, would unproblematically subsume the staff, leaving us with an extended closed concept. This is very serious. It raises questions about young people, about the disposal of staff and, for example, the rights of the people who are involved.

I sought information on the number of people in Ard Mhuire at present. There is a certain amount of variation in their backgrounds but some are there for circumstances that are purely ones of fortune. There are very young children there. I question what is happening to [425] their rights when they are being moved towards a closed regime. From the information supplied to me in relation to the circumstances of Trinity House, and the arrangements made for staffing and the disturbances taking place within it, it may well be that the basis of such difficulty may be the character of the regime which prevailed combined with under-staffing at particular periods. I have listened to that argument and the response is that we will have effective closed institutions as a type of detention and community projects which will do everything that Ard Mhuire was doing. I have watched it in my own city and I have looked at youth projects in different parts of the country and I have come to the conclusion that the kind of person that is involved in the best structured and best intentioned youth projects are not the kind who either are in Ard Mhuire at present or who were in Ard Mhuire in the past.

It surely behoves those responsible to do an analysis of the backgrounds of the population of Ard Mhuire and the other closed institution, to see if they were similar and see if one could be matched to the other. Equally, if we are going to say that the youth encounter projects, the small community type interventions, disadvantaged areas schemes, youth encounter agencies and so forth are the answer we should take the people who are in these and say, “Are they the kind of people for whom Ard Mhuire catered?” I believe they are not. The staff in Ard Mhuire cannot be regarded as equivalent simply to the people who are involved in these community based schemes. They have a special kind of expertise which could be delivered in an open institution. The boys would benefit from an open institution. It is quite wrong, somewhat arbitrary and, certainly in policy terms, very retrograde indeed that the school should be closed at the same time as coterminous with it we have an extension of the closed concept.

There is a lot of paper policy in this. It is rather as if one was drawing things on paper. I welcome everything that is done in the community for young people, [426] everything of a preventative kind, but those of us who are involved in this business know, and the Minister agrees with me, as it says in the MacBride report, “Let us have everything that is preventative”, where we come to the point where we need a special kind of school and we have to make a choice between a closed school and an open school there are, equally, differences in the boys that have to be respected and differences in policy appropriate. It is not an answer to say that because we are doing a little more on the preventative side that we are automatically disposing of the case for an open institution. That is the reason why I raised this matter. I do so in a feeling of being positive.

There has been a suggested closure date for this school and I ask the Minister of State simply to go back to the basis of facts. I have suggested a line of action. It is not an answer simply to say that all of these facts have been carefully considered and so on. I have not seen evidence of this. The people who put me here, the social workers and so on, have approached me and expressed their concern. We see it as a backward step. I am urging the Minister to reconsider this decision in the interests of the children, of the staff, of the proper utilisation of an institution and in the interests of the best disposal of such scarce moneys that are available to the State. It is in everybody's interest. The whole bureaucratic half sideways movements involved with staff create a massive industrial relations complexity which is avoidable.

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Creed): Information on Donal Creed  Zoom on Donal Creed  Scoil Ard Mhuire was established in 1974 at Oberstown, Lusk, County Dublin, to replace the Daingean Reformatory School. It was managed by the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate on behalf of the Minister for Education. It had accommodation for 60 boys in an open setting. It was to meet the then perceived needs for care, control, education and training of delinquent boys committed by the courts.

Almost from its establishment it [427] became obvious that there was a need for a more secure environment for certain boys committed by the courts than could be provided by Scoil Ard Mhuire. As a temporary expedient Loughan House was opened, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, while the Department of Education were planning and bringing into commission a purpose-built unit for 30 boys at Oberstown — Trinity House school — on the same campus as Scoil Ard Mhuire. Trinity House school, a secure school for seriously disturbed young offenders, came into operation in March 1983. This development reduced by about 50 per cent the potential intake of Scoil Ard Mhuire.

In 1977 the Department of Education established, on an experimental basis, a number of youth encounter projects, two in Dublin and one each in Cork and Limerick, to provide a community-based programme of care, education and training for certain children, boys and girls, as an alternative to residential care. This development further eroded the number of teenagers who would otherwise have been referred to an open residential school such as Scoil Ard Mhuire.

The youth encounter projects were evaluated scientifically over a three year period 1980-83 and the report of that evaluation became available in the spring of 1984. While certain changes in the structure of YEPs were recommended, the report saw them as making a significant innovative approach to delinquency treatment and prevention and at considerably less cost than residential care. Other reports in recent years, for example, the National Planning Board and the National Youth Policy Committee, also commended such an approach.

In late 1983 the Oblates signified their intention of withdrawing from the management of Scoil Ard Mhuire and in May 1984 they set 1 September 1984 as the date for their departure. This afforded an opportunity of reviewing the stock of residential places in the different categories and it was noted that there was a considerable surplus of accommodation [428] available in the open centres. It was decided that a continuation of the traditional role of Scoil Ard Mhuire could no longer be justified.

It was decided initially to amalgamate Trinity House school and Scoil Ard Mhuire to form the Oberstown Youth Centre and, to this end, the separate boards of management were dissolved and a new board of management for the Oberstown Youth Centre were appointed. The amalgamation was envisaged with a view to facilitating a continuum of care, education and training for all the boys across the campus. However, insurmountable difficulties were encountered and in early 1985 the board of management informed the Department that amalgamation was not possible.

Since it had already been established that present day needs did not justify the retention of a separate open centre at Oberstown it was decided to close Scoil Ard Mhuire and withdraw its certificate as a reformatory school.

Traditionally in Ireland residential placement was the only option in juvenile delinquency management and treatment. Over the years many reports and commentators have been critical of this policy. The Department consider that residential care still remains an important component in this work, but the other community-based initiatives must inevitably lead to a reduction in the demand for open residential places. The Department are satisfied that the remaining stock of residential places is sufficient to meet any anticipated demand for open accommodation.

This development towards community-based initiatives is to be seen as a recognition of the importance of community services for socially disadvantaged young people. This is also the basic philosophy underpinning the Children Bill which has just been circulated. The Bill provides for a positive transfer of resources away from residential institutions to community-based projects. The thrust now, not only in Ireland, but elsewhere as well, is towards small, community-based interventions. This is to be [429] seen as a logical development following the experience of the youth encounter projects and other community-based initiatives funded by various Government Departments, such as community hostels, workshops and special youth projects.

The Government are strongly committed to create new and supportive programmes on behalf of disadvantaged young people within the local community. To give an example, the youth encounter projects have been found to be highly successful in areas of extreme disadvantage with high rates of delinquency and have been strongly recommended as a form of intervention that will keep significant numbers of students out of residential care. It has also been noted that past pupils of youth encounter projects are far less likely to return to delinquency than are past pupils of residential special schools.

In relation to the current spate of serious crimes, such as car stealing, the evidence is that in the vast majority of cases the young people involved are over 16 years of age and would not be the responsibility of institutions devolved from the Minister for Education. Where young people under 16 years of age are involved they would need to be referred to Trinity House school, the secure unit.

Of the 27 boys currently enrolled in Scoil Ard Mhuire, approximately 50 per cent are due to return home at the conclusion of the present school term. Other arrangements are being made for the remaining boys based on an analysis of individual need. It will be seen that the numbers involved here are very small indeed.

Finally, to sum up, I must stress that [430] the reason Scoil Ard Mhuire is being closed is the low number of referrals of the type of child involved here, the fact that ample accommodation is available elsewhere for the number of such children that have to be catered for, and the shift in emphasis away from residential care to more profitable community based initiatives.

I was interested in Senator Higgins's contribution which was, in many ways, commendable. I do not altogether agree with some of the points he raised. I want to mention one in particular. There was no question of the philosophy of Trinity House school being extended to Scoil Ard Mhuire. The schools cater for two different kinds of children completely. Two different types of individual care and education programmes are provided for in the two schools. There was no question of the school being extended into a closed centre. I had discussions before with the Oblate Fathers on this matter. I sincerely hope that the children, they are my primary concern, will be catered for in the other institutions we have and that the whole philosophy will be towards community based interventions or schemes of that sort that will keep the children in touch with home and with the community.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  We are agreed on the community based intervention but are we not closing an open regime and extending a closed one?

Mr. Creed: Information on Donal Creed  Zoom on Donal Creed  No, I do not accept that.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.50 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 15 May 1985.

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