Lessons to be learned as pupils still looking for places in September

East Cork schools can’t keep up with the rise in demand, writes Jess Casey.

Pupils and their parents looking for places in East Cork schools. Pictures: Eddie O’Hare
Pupils and their parents looking for places in East Cork schools. Pictures: Eddie O’Hare

THE transition to secondary school is an exciting time for students but making the move also brings with it its own set of new challenges. For many, it can be the first major change they encounter in life.

And while it’s something that most look forward to, it can also be a daunting time. Which makes it all the more stressful when they don’t know where they are going this September — or if they’ll even have place.

This year, demand for school places in East Cork, in particular the areas between Midleton and Carrigtwohill, exploded, leaving more than 100 children without a school place up until last week.

Despite the promise of two extra classes to be created to help alleviate long waiting lists at the five non-fee paying secondary schools in the area, many of the families the Irish Examiner spoke to believed these additional spaces won’t resolve the problem.

“A lot of us who still don’t have a school place didn’t even apply to those two schools in the first place because we knew the demand to get in was so high,” explained Nicole Reardon, a mother from Midleton.

Some of the children still without a place are the only ones in their friend groups who have yet to receive an offer. As a result, they feel anxious and isolated.

“I have a 12-year-old with pains in her stomach from pure stress and anxiety,” said Eileen Burns.

The Department of Education has told parents a school place will be found for each child, but parents are worried about where these places will be.

One mother, who found out her child received a place for September late last week, said the process had been very stressful, and completely avoidable with some forward planning.

Another parent was told that if she didn’t get a place in a suitable school, her daughter would instead be given nine hours of home tuition a week.

While demand for enrolments in the area has been building in recent years, a number of factors seem to have combined this year to create what one parent described as a “ticking time bomb”.

East Cork, and especially the areas surrounding its two major urban centres Carrigtwohill and Midleton, is one of the fastest developing regions in the country. As its population rapidly expanded, its primary schools saw increased investment that allowed them to open their doors to more students.

Midleton Educate Together primary school, which took in its first cohort of students in 2008, now educates close to 600 children. Gaelscoil Mhainistir Na Corann, which opened in 1999 with 17 students, has also grown to more than 500 students.

“There are a lot of children across East Cork that don’t have a secondary school placement,” said Rhodri Mears, principal of Midleton Educate Together primary school.

“Even though the secondary schools seem to have put their entrance exams on the same day to try and whittle waiting lists down, I don’t think it had the impact that it needed to have to reduce those lists greatly.

“They have put a lot of money into national schools in East Cork and we’re very grateful for that. But I suppose there has to be that consistency and continuity in ensuring that the same respect is given to the secondary schools, to ensure those national school places are honoured as the children progress and evolve into secondary school pupils.”

MEANWHILE, building projects aimed at expanding the capacity of two of the five non-fee-paying secondary schools in Carrigtwohill and Midleton have been hit by setback after setback.

Carrigtwohill Community College opened its doors in 2016 and is still looking for a permanent building.
Carrigtwohill Community College opened its doors in 2016 and is still looking for a permanent building.

In 2012, Carrigtwohill was selected by the Department of Education for a new three-school campus. When it is complete, the state-of-the-art campus is to be shared between two primary schools, Scoil Cliodhna CNS and Scoil Mhuire Naofa, and Carrigtwohill Community College (CCC), a secondary school that opened its doors in 2016.

The development was scheduled under the Department of Education’s “rapid build programme”. Eight years later, the campus has yet to materialise.

CCC currently is housed in a former office block in a nearby business park. Once the school secures a permanent building, it will take in up to 1,000 students.

In the neighbouring town of Midleton, another co-ed secondary school has also encountered its own set of problems. The planned extension to St Colman’s stalled in 2018 with the collapse of the Sammon group.

Despite the setbacks, Cork Education and Training Board (Cork ETB), the patron of both CCC and St Colman’s, claims plans for the extension are on schedule.

However, educators, parents, and local politicians believe there is an urgent need to start planning another secondary school in the area.

“The understanding that we have is that even when the extension is complete, it won’t solve the issue,” said Mr Mears.

Midleton College also has quite an extensive waiting list this year. That is a fee-paying school, therefore it limits some — or many, I suppose — parents as a genuine option for them.

The primary school is planning to undertake a major piece of research on the demographics of the area that will show the Department of Education the demand for a secondary school, he added.

“We have 559 children, and I suppose children come to us [from a broad area], our catchment area would nearly be 25sq km. People drive to Educate Together because of the ethos they want for their children.

“There is a hope that they could have a natural progression to a similar type of ethos in secondary school.”

Last week, Cork ETB committed to creating an additional 54 enrolments for September, to spread between St Colman’s and CCC. An extra 30 places will be created at CCC, and a further 24 will be created at St Colman’s, a spokesman for the patron confirmed.

“The three-year plan to deliver temporary accommodation for CCC is progressing on schedule,” he said.

The decision to increase enrolments was made with the schools’ principals and Cork ETB is committed to providing them with the appropriate resources, he added.

The Department of Education is in discussions with another post-primary school to enrol an additional class for this September, a spokesman confirmed.

A planned extension to St Colman’s stalled in 2018 with the collapse of the Sammon group.
A planned extension to St Colman’s stalled in 2018 with the collapse of the Sammon group.

WHEN the department is made aware of capacity issues, it considers if students have applied to a number of schools in the area, or if pupils can’t get a place in their preferred school while there are places in other schools in the area.

The department also considers if some towns or areas have single-sex schools and while places are available, they are not available to all pupils, or if pupils from outside the local area are applying for places, the spokesman added.

“This process is currently ongoing at the moment with the principals of a number of schools in East Cork with a view to ensuring every pupil has a school place for September 2020.”

The department also works with local authorities to obtain up-to-date information on significant new residential development, he added.

“This is necessary to ensure that schools infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes.”

Fine Gael TD for East Cork David Stanton said as the area develops, more school places will be needed.

“Everyone is working very hard, the department is very engaged on this as well. The department and the ETB are very engaged to make sure that everything that can be done will be done to ensure that children have places.

“There’s a very successful, brand new Educate Together school, so [people in the area] are looking at developing an Educate Together secondary school and that is something I’d support, possibly even another secondary school again.

“The area is growing. When the CCC is finished, it’ll be for a thousand students and I know other schools are looking at further expansions, but yes, the area is growing, it’s developing, it’s expanding, and we need to include schools in that.”

Local Sinn Féin councillor Danielle Twomey said planning for an additional secondary school for the area needs to begin now.

“We can’t keep doing this every year. It’s now, more than ever before, that we need an additional secondary school in East Cork, we need a long-term solution.

There is probably a breakdown in communication between the Department of Education and the additional government departments that don’t seem to be aware that this issue has been building for many years.

Primary schools in the area are nearly full to capacity, she added.

“I know myself that the schools communicate this information to the Department of Education, they do tell the department how many students they have. They need to start recognising that East Cork has a huge deficit when it comes to post-primary spaces and they need to do something. Not just short-term but long-term.

“I don’t want to be here again in a worse situation with more parents next year.”

Liam Quaide, a Green Party councillor, said East Cork is the victim of bad planning, which has manifested itself in a chronic shortage of school places.

“It peaked this year, but there were issues last year with secondary school places as well. It’s a function of really bad planning for the region. We need to be planning for population growth all the time.

“I wouldn’t care to throw out a solution that wouldn’t be well-thought out, or informed by the necessary expertise. But there is no doubt that we need, basically, an emergency measure for this year, because it has caused so much stress and anxiety for families.

“And then also a more medium-term solution, which is Coleman’s to be completed and for Carrigtwohill to get off the ground. Long term, we need to be looking at building another school.

“It’s a challenging transition in the best of circumstances. When there is so much uncertainty then, and just so many practicalities to consider. It’s a huge burden for families, even if in the end, it works out. To have that uncertainty for months leading up to school, it’s just crazy.”

As pointed out by principal Rhodri Mears, there are more houses being planned and built in the Midleton area, and there are more plans for development in the surrounding areas in the pipeline.

Last May, Cork County Council rubberstamped plans to open up land at Water Rock to develop a new-town. The first stage of the project will initially provide the infrastructure to create 525 new homes.

The land, between Carrigtwhohill and Midleton, is on the Cork Commuter Rail Corridor which is designated by the local authority for major housing projects. The land is currently zoned to eventually facilitate an extra three schools.

“You’d like to believe that forward planning will ensure that there is not going to be that big, big bottleneck year after year,” said Mr Mears.

“That there will be reasonable space for students to have a choice and to transition seamlessly and without as little stress as possible into a secondary school placement.”

“Transitioning to secondary is a very stressful time for many. We’ll all try and do what we can to assist those families and those children and ultimately, it’s for children. The families are making the noise, but it’s the children that are being dealt with behind closed doors who are stressed or upset or anxious about where they’re going.

“The bottom line is that September is not far away and decisions need to be made.”

School’s out for kids who can’t find a place

Lessons to be learned as pupils still looking for places in September

Both parents and children are under stress trying to find a school place, writes Jess Casey

KEITH Griffin is the father of three girls. Living in Castleredmond, Midleton, Co Cork. His eldest daughter is in sixth class in Togher, Cork.

Without an offer of a place for September, she is on multiple waiting lists. The lowest she is placed on any of these lists is 100.

“My daughter goes to Togher Girls School because it’s my sister in law who minds her and her sisters after school,” says Keith.

“I’m originally from Midleton, and I went to school all my life there. The thing is, we live in the same address as the schools. I live in Castleredmond, which is a five- minute walk from St Mary’s Girls School, or St Colmans in Midleton.

“We applied to St Mary’s and my daughter is number 100 on the waiting list. We also applied to St Aloysius and Carrigtwohill Community College. She was number 135, and the same in Carrigtwohill, number 135 on the waiting list. We applied to those schools as backups.”

While there is always a race to secure a school place, it has come to a head this year, said Keith.

“The waiting list for the tech, which is St Colmans, is crazy. The waiting list was something like 175-odd; it’s just manic.

“We live in the shadow of the schools. We live in the town, we’re from the town and we are heavily involved in the town. My girls play camogie for Midleton. I coach camogie in Midleton, and we’re not being looked after. It’s crazy.

“Here is the problem. When I was going to school, all that was available was St Brigid’s National School, which is a girls primary school, or you went to the boys, the Christian Brothers. They were the two primary schools, feeding into the secondary schools.

“The secondary schools at the time were St Mary’s, the girls school, St Colmans, which is co-ed, and Christian Brothers. So there was lots of capacity, you could even choose.

“There was loads of capacity for all the kids coming in from Killea, Cloyne and further afield. But then as Midleton grew, and it’s growing exponentially, you had the Educate Together built and you had the Gaelscoil, so lots of primary schools but the number of secondary schools has stayed the same. That was a ticking time bomb, basically.”

He said the stress is taking its toll on parents.

Every year for the past three, four years, it’s been getting really stressful for parents, especially people that move in. The people who have moved here haven’t a chance to get a place because they never have had a sibling there.

“Like, I have neighbours that are from West Cork. I have neighbours that have moved to Midleton from Belfast.”

The news that an additional 54 places are to be created at Carrigtwohill Community College and St Colmans for this September doesn’t improve his daughter’s situation, Keith believes.

“It doesn’t address the issues coming down the line, and it doesn’t really address the current waitlists really”.

What’s needed now, he said, is a forensic examination of school waiting lists in case there’s students still on the lists who have accepted a place elsewhere, he said.

“The Department of Education knew this was coming down the line and the extra classes don’t help my daughter, who still has no letter in her hand, offering her a place.”

NICOLE Reardon relocated from Cork City to Midleton a number of years ago. Under section 29 of the Education Act, parents have the right to appeal a school’s decision to refuse to enrol their child. Three years ago, Nicole went through that process with her son. Now, her daughter is without a school place.

Nicole Reardon and her daughter Clara at home in Saleen looking for a place in an East Cork school. Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Nicole Reardon and her daughter Clara at home in Saleen looking for a place in an East Cork school. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

“We live about 6km from the school. At the time, I found out that there are students from Little Island who got a place over my son. My argument was that Little Island is a suburb of Cork City, it is so close to Cork City.

“There are 22 feeder schools [for the five secondary schools in Midleton and Carrigtwohill], the catchment area is too large. It needs to be smaller because children who are living locally are not getting places.

“My son got a place in the end just 10 days before he went back to school and he was only 25 on that waiting list. When I went through this three years ago, the waiting list for CBS was 52. This year it was about 170. The list has more than trebled.”

She said there is a growing frustration because the department has been aware of these issues for years, but no one is taking ownership of the problem.

Like other parents, Nicole feels like the additional class to be added at Carrigtwohill Community College and St Colmans for this September won’t improve her family’s situation.

“The numbers that Carrigtwohill Community College are taking in this year are so little that a lot of us didn’t even apply. A lot of us knew we would have no hope in hell of getting our kids in there.

“I applied to my three local schools. I have done nothing wrong and neither has my daughter. Neither have any of these other parents. I won’t send my daughter off on a bus to go to school in Cork City. It’s over 30 miles away on a bus, she is 12.

“I don’t have anymore plan Bs. I applied to three schools, those were my three plans.”

Eileen Burns and her family have been living in Castlemarytor, which is less than a 10-minute drive from Midleton, for the last 20 years.

Her son is a student at CBS, the boys secondary school in Midleton. Her daughter is the only child in her class who has not secured a school placement for next year.

“I applied for three schools: St Aloysius in Carrigtwohill, St Colman’s in Midleton and St Mary’s in Midleton. St Colmans was always my first choice. The way it is now I would put a school trousers on her and send her up to CBS with her brother if it meant we could just get her a place.

It is the most traumatic thing that has happened to the child to date. She is 54 on the waiting list in St Aloysius, she is 104 on the waiting list in St Mary’s and she is 106 on the list in St Colmans.

“We’re living down here for 20 years. We’ve been living and working and paying taxes in East Cork for the last 20 years. We bought a house down here when all the housing estates went up, secure in the knowledge that the infrastructure was there for the schools.

“We were promised that this would be a good place, and it has been. I love East Cork but this just turned into such a nightmare. The lack of information is staggering. We have been pushed from Billy to Jack, from pillar to post. From the Department of Education back to politicians, from politicians back to the Ombudsman [for Children], back to the Department of Education.”

She said it is also very stressful for the children who as of now have no place.

“We are the ones who have to come home to face children. In this day and age, with all the work being done to promote mental health and wellbeing for young children, we have 12-year-olds crying themselves to sleep at night.

“I have a 12-year-old with pains in her stomach from pure stress and anxiety. She is the only child in her class that didn’t secure a school place. It is desperate. Everybody is saying that we’re trying to help, we’re trying to help but we still have no answers.

“The first thing she asks me when she gets home is ‘any post, did any school ring?’ That’s what she says to me, ‘did any school ring?’”

Last November, Eileen took a section 29 appeal because she felt it was the only option open to her.

“I felt I had to do something, that I couldn’t just sit at home and let this happen to my daughter. I said to them ‘please, you’ve all been through this before, what could happen?’

“I was told she will be offered the next available place, which could be the city, or they will look at a home tuition package, and I said ‘what will that involve?’

“They told me it means nine hours approximately a week where someone would come in. You know, and I know, that there is more to school than just an education. We work. Am I meant to leave some total stranger into my house to tutor my child alone for nine hours a week? What about her social skills and her friends? That would just destroy a 12-year-old girl.

“People are really trying to help but we are coming up against a brick wall because we have no bloody government even at the moment. We’re now into March. April, May, June, July, August, the kids go back in August. We have no uniforms. We have no booklists, we have to get school bus passes — to where?”

SARAH Hegarty is from Rochestown but has been living in Midleton for 11 years. She put down both of her daughters’ names on waiting lists for schools in Carrigtwohill a number of years ago.

I was under the impression that was how it worked. If you have their names down long enough, they are guaranteed a place.

She found out enrolments actually operated on a lottery basis when she attended open nights last year.

“Having their names down meant nothing. We put my eldest daughter’s name down for St Aloysius in Carrigtwohill and in St Mary’s in Midleton. We got a letter in October, saying that she was on a waiting list for both. She was number 96 for St Aloysius and around 74 for St Mary’s.

“I was a little concerned about it at the time so I rang the schools and they said not to worry, that this tends to happen and that it always sorts itself out. After Christmas we got a letter from St Marys and she had only moved six places.”

At this point, she started to reach out for help by contacting her local TDs and county councillors.

“I was told all the schools in the area were sitting the entrance exam on the same date and that that would basically solve the issue. I held off then in the hopes that it would help. Obviously, children can only go to one entrance exam so if they have places in numerous schools, they can only pick one. But that didn’t actually do anything at all, nothing happened afterwards.”

Even more classes are added to the current secondary schools, she believes demand for school places will increase again next year.

“Adding more classes this year definitely wouldn’t be fixing the problem. I have another daughter, will I be facing the same problem again next year? And I can see where the schools are coming from, from a health and safety point of view. They physically cannot take anymore children, that is understandable. But this should have been pre-empted.

“The catchment area is just so big. There isn’t another secondary school until Youghal so all of Killea, all of Castlemartyr, all of White Gate. There’s another primary school in Saleen? They have to come in to Midleton, or to Carrigtwohill. Realistically, there just needs to be another secondary school.”

TRISHA Bamber’s son attends Saleen National School. He is one of nine students who at the time of going to print had not been offered a place.

Trisha and Luke Bamber are looking for a place in an East Cork school: Luke goes to Saleen National School and is one of nine who have not been offered a place in a secondary school. Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Trisha and Luke Bamber are looking for a place in an East Cork school: Luke goes to Saleen National School and is one of nine who have not been offered a place in a secondary school. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

“All of the primary schools are feeder schools. There are 22 of them. All the way from Killea, Whitegate, and then all the way in. They are all feeder schools, and the numbers are after growing significantly in recent years in all of those regions.

“His school when he started eight years ago was about 150 kids. Now it is almost 500. Brand new primary schools all over the constituency and I am not sure where they thought all of those students would go. All the big schools in Midleton, plus all the other feeder schools, have all had big developments and huge increases in numbers. Everywhere you go there’s signs for more housing developments.

“They have hit problem after problem with St Colmans. These things happen and we understand that but that’s been rumbling on for years. It’s not something that happened this time last year. It’s been delayed for years.”

She admits there have always been waiting lists, but nothing like this year.

“There were lists last year and the year before but nothing like this year. He’s moved slightly to number 80 on the waiting list in CBS now and he’s somewhere in the 50s for St Colmans.

“The numbers on the waiting lists aren’t quite real.We know its 100 children, all the principals have had meetings. A lot of them are leaning 60 girls and 40 boys, the principal I spoke to felt it was slightly more even. Even if it was a 50:50 split, that’s 50 boys. He’s number 80 on an all-boys waiting list.

There are a couple of issues. People are not coming off the waiting lists. There are still 100 without a place but it’s even more frustrating because you don’t have a real place in the line because there are people dotted in there who already have a place.

“I’ve sent several emails to the Department of Education myself. I’ve said you need an emergency solution, which is for September but I also said we want to know what the medium- and long-term solution is. For the next five years, the numbers are very large.

“The significant delays on the St Colman’s redevelopment, it should have been opened several years ago, that has had a massive impact. Carrigtwohill Community College, there’s no sign of that. That has all compounded issues but these are all problems they knew of. None of these issues showed up this year.

“It’s very frustrating that they just let this slide, and would have left this keep sliding until the summer had we not as a group of parents got together. We still have no real answers.”

AUDREY Barrett’s son has no place for September. She feels like a lack of communication from the department means she can’t sit down and discuss what is happening with her child.

“He’s obviously very upset, I try and keep him informed as much as I can but it is very stressful. We’re not getting updates regularly enough to be able to sit down and talk to our kids about it. It’s supposed to be an exciting time for children but he doesn’t know where he will be. It’s ruining sixth class for him, as he is so anxious and upset.

“We have been told by the Department of Education and by the TDs no child will be left without a school place but where will that school be? No one has been able to tell us.”

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