Wednesday, 12 May 1993
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Neville: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this motion which is important to us in Limerick West. It concerns one of the key education establishments at Mount Trenchard in Foynes. It is important for the future of second level education in the Foynes, Glin, Shanagolden, Kilcolman area. I call on the Minister and on the Government to secure the future of this school as the excellent establishment it has been since 1958. It has contributed enormously to education in the area and now the school is under threat.
The school has been run by the Sisters of Mercy and in January 1991 the sisters indicated to the parents that they were obliged to re-examine their position and withdraw from teaching at the school. They gave as their reasons the shortage of religious personnel to man the school, the financial drain on the order and the inadequate grants from the Department.
This school was established in 1958 as a boarding school and subsequently became both a boarding and a day school. Mount Trenchard, adjacent to Foynes, is an ideal location for an education establishment. It is a rural area and is not affected by traffic or urbanisation. It is also an area of development. There are 300 people working in Foynes. Some weeks ago we discussed a £20 million development programme for the area which will increase employment by another 400. Therefore it is important that adequate educational facilities are maintained.
About 230 pupils attend the school at present. The Department is anxious to rationalise schools in the area and to achieve that, the parents have proposed amalgamation with the Shanagolden vocational school. The local vocational education committee has welcomed this and is prepared to establish a community college in Mount Trenchard, Foynes. The problems of rationalisation have been solved by the parents' decision. The vocational education committee has agreed and intends to develop the school as an adult education facility during the school holidays as it is ideal for that purpose.
The Sisters of Mercy are prepared to sell the property for £500,000. The architect engaged by the action committee considers this good value as the school is in good condition. I understand that this was discussed with the Department and it was agreed that the local architect would meet the Department of Education's architect to examine the situation. Perhaps the Minister would report on the outcome of that meeting.
Last March the Sisters of Mercy announced that the school would not accept first year students from September. That is the death knell of the school. People have lost confidence in its  future. It should be re-established as a matter of urgency to allow the school to continue its excellent work. Parents, children and teachers are uncertain about the future and that uncertainty should be resolved. When a school is in difficulties and the number of pupils decreases, confidence in the school is lost. Because the school gradually deteriorates, the Department is not obliged to close it. In this case the Sisters of Mercy have forced the issue and the Department is obliged to inform us of its decision. I urge the Minister to ensure that the decision is positive.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Mr. Hyland): I thank the Senator for raising this matter. He will be aware that the Mercy Order in the diocese of Limerick announced, in 1991, its intention of withdrawing from the management of its post-primary school at Mount Trenchard, Foynes, in 1995. As the Stella Maris school is a voluntary secondary school, this decision was a matter solely for the Mercy Order.
The Stella Maris school at Mount Trenchard, Foynes, is located in the west Limerick catchment area which is unique in that it has four post-primary schools located in four different centres. The three other schools are: Scoil Mhuire secondary school, Askeaton; the Salesian college, Pallaskenry and the vocational school, Shanagolden. For many years the Department of Education has considered that some measure of rationalisation at post-primary level should be implemented in this catchment area. Since the late 1960s the matter has been discussed periodically with the four managements involved.
The Senator will be aware that a school action committee was formed in Foynes with the aim of keeping the Stella Maris school in operation after June 1995 under a new management, the County Limerick vocational education committee. The  Department carefully considered a submission made by the action committee and the question of the school continuing in operation beyond 1995 has been under consideration. One option, that of leasing the school property from the Mercy Order, has been explored but found to be unacceptable to the Sisters.
The Minister for Education and departmental officials met a deputation representing the action committee, on 1 April last. The Minister listened carefully to the points put forward by the deputation in support of their case. However, she informed the deputation that the technical advice available to her suggested that the development costs in question were likely to entail a large financial liability which would be difficult to justify. As the deputation disputed the scale and scope of the development costs involved, it was agreed that a meeting would be held between the Department's professional staff and the architect advising the action committee. At this meeting, which took place on 20 April, there was an exchange of information on likely development costs, with the Department's professional staff providing details of how its costings had been arrived at.
The meeting concluded on the basis that the architect advising the action committee would report back to the committee and would contact the Department again when more details in relation to mechancial and electrical costs, structural requirements and dry rot possibilities had been clarified. This response is awaited.
Mr. Neville: Parents who are at present deciding what school their children will attend next September will be influenced by this issue. Even if it was decided to keep the school open, this year's first year students would be in difficulties. It is urgent that a decision be made immediately before people commit themselves to other schools. Would the Minister not agree that the delay in making the decision spells the death knell for this school?
Mr. Hyland: I will convey the Senator's strong views on this matter and the concern of parents, as outlined by him, to the Minister for Education. I reiterate what I said earlier: the Department awaits additional information and when that information is available, a decision will be made.
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