The case for a stand-alone secondary school in Newcastle
This update 17th November, 2023
Newcastle is a rapidly-growing area that has gone from being a rural village in South West Dublin to a small town over the last 25 years. For many years land has been zoned for housing in the area and there have been successive attempts in the last number of Development Plans to rezone more land for housing despite a considerable area of zoned land not yet being built on.
As a TD and more recently as a Councillor, I have been involved in several campaigns to ensure proper planning in Newcastle and the other Four Districts areas of Saggart, Rathcoole and Brittas and to oppose piecemeal housing development. However despite this, Newcastle has suffered from being too small to be designated a Strategic Development Zone, like Adamstown, which would tie in some developments with amenity delivery. Instead it has a Local Area Plan, which is not binding in terms of timelines and which I would describe as not being fit for purpose. So it has developed quite fast but without the infrastructure required.
This is the current Development Plan Map for Newcastle, showing all the residentially-zoned areas:
As you can see, there's lots more to go beyond what has already been built on. Now, in recent years there have been some developments, including the larger St Finian's NS building and very recently the Super Valu shopping centre. However residents have suffered from a second rate bus service, which the current Bus Connects won't help much, traffic gridlock once they reach the N7, Clondalkin or Lucan, no movement on a distributor road to the west and also an increasing problem with school places at second level.
This latter problem has been proving hugely frustrating and I've been contacted by an increasing number of parents both directly and on Facebook posts, especially over the last 12 months.
As I said in a reply to one parent, the Department of Education appears to be deluding itself as to the problems facing parents in Newcastle. It seems to think that providing new schools outside the area are meeting the challenge adequately. But this does not appear to be the case for the following reasons.
Because of the historical farming out of education in Ireland to religious congregations, all school boards of management retain autonomy in relation to admissions policies, once they are in line with national equality legislation. And most will choose feeder schools closest to where they are located. As a result, Newcastle is already behind other areas and barely on the current boundary of one school in Rathcoole.
Elected reps have no say in these admissions policies, unless a Councillor or TD is actually on the BOM concerned. In any event, once a legal admission policy is decided for a given year it cannot be changed, or else it would be successfully challenged in the courts. So any politician who says writing a letter for someone who missed the cut can help is either naive or misleading. There are very specific cases that can be appealed but most who do not get offered places for their children have no recourse. This article is helpful in terms of what can and can't be done: https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/education/the-irish-education-system/admissions-policies-in-primary-and-secondary-schools/#dd86cf
The system is not fair to people living in certain areas or attending certain schools, so some children end up with far more options than others. Unfortunately, once it meets national equality legislation, it doesn't have to be fair; I would prefer a national geography-based common enrolment system, but that would require constituional change, while a local one would require cooperation and agreement and hasn't been implemented except in a handful of cases.
So what can be done for Newcastle? There is certainly an argument that it needs its own school and this something I am raising as a Councillor, but equally it's something that current local TDs need to raise directly as they can request adjournment debates with the Minister for Education. I know many have, but in addition to all this, elected reps and the people of Newcastle will all need to be more strategic going forward.
There are a number of challenges in getting movement from the Department. First, it is very conservative in terms of opening new schools. It thinks any new school is doing a favour for outlying areas. For example, on paper the new school in Citywest/Saggart, Coláiste Pobail Fóla, could be seen as reducing pressure for Newcastle, even if its admissions policy does not include that area, but as the population is growing in Rathcoole and Newcastle itself too, it actually makes no difference in practical terms. So, while students who attend St Finian's are Priority 1 at Holy Family CC Rathcoole, and most but not all students living in Newcastle itself are in Priority 2, this does not guarantee a place, because they have other local schools to contend with also. As well as being outside the admissions criteria for Saggart/Citywest, Newcastle is even further down the list for Celbridge, Clondalkin and Lucan schools, so it's a real challenge for parents and many don't know where a place has been offered until the last minute.
I posted the following link on the Newcastle Community page a while back: https://www.citypopulation.de/en/ireland/towns/south_dublin/03363__newcastle/?fbclid=IwAR0rA80XnHrIsSvVUATALE2RHMZo1VovS375br9vWEVGQI9Gojfnd-wxuZw . It shows how the younger population is rapidly expanding in Newcastle and that at least one class in a second level school would be justified for now and successive years, gradually expanding as more children are born in existing and new areas. This graph below also indicates.
Now, having looked at the above numbers, it is likely that, for the foreseeable future, even with this relatively fast population growth, Newcastle will not be able to sustain a smaller Dublin school of 500 pupils on its own without some overspill admissions from elsewhere. It's also the case that in recent years, for reasons of modular design and cost efficiency, the Department has been looking instead at 1,000 pupil schools meaning that Newcastle's specific needs are not being considered, as Newcastle continues to be lumped in with Rathcoole in terms of education areas under the Department's geographic maps.
But while the solutions are complex and may potentially lead to over-capacity for a period, the case for the Department to plan for a second level school in Newcastle - and open on a temporary site pending a longer term solution - is in my view compelling. There are approximately 60-70 children leaving St Finian's each year, and an unknown number attending other schools elsewhere, so there's a viable population and at the very least a conversation needs to be had with and within the community as to what a future school might look like in terms of its potential and its subject range and also whether parental choice for single sex or religious ethos schools might enhance or dilute the demand for having a local school in a local area that for viability purposes would likely need to be a mixed community school. Such a project would need near-unanimous support to be a credible proposition.
We need meaningful data and in this respect, without trying to step on anyone's toes, I would suggest for example that the current Parents Association or BOM of St Finian's could do a survey of parents asking them about interest in a local secondary school and whether a community college (which would cover most bases) would win out in terms of local access, less travel etc, or whether some parents would look at other schools in terms of ethos or single sex, thus reducing the overall cohort that might attend. Such evidence would be strong if it was overwhelmingly in favour of a local school over other considerations and would probably not be up to date information the Department would already have.
The school, if amenable, would be able to contact parents already on its list directly and thus assist in doing the most comprehensive yet anonymous survey that would not breach GDPR requirements (as although it would be sent out to all parents, the responses would not identify anyone). Maybe this has been done already? If so, please contact me and I will amend this article and hopefully make use of the results in any future correspondence with the Minister.
If it hasn't been done, it's worth suggesting, and if nobody wants to run with this within the school I could definitely circulate a survey in Newcastle myself, but it would not be as accurate as it would be difficult to get as many to respond or to screen those who do not currently have children attending St Finian's or other primary schools elsewhere, but who nevertheless want to express their opinion on the matter. But it's an option if there's no other.
I've posted the information above to respond to calls by parents for movement on this issue but also to go beyond merely raising the matter and to look at whether we can get credible evidence that will lead to movement by the Minister for Education and her department. Otherwise the same answers will continue to be given. I'm open to engaging constructively with any stakeholders on this matter.