Picture postcard school ‘lied to’ by Government

WITH Mount Brandon in the background to the west and the famous Blennerville windmill behind it on the Tralee side, St Brendan’s National School looks like a postcard picture.

But step inside the door of the 76-year-old building, two miles outside Tralee on the Dingle road, and the image is more like something from a Dickens novel or — closer to home — Angela’s Ashes.

Michael O’Connor started teaching here in 1975 when 72 pupils were housed in four tiny classrooms. But three decades on, he is principal of the school, with 157 children and eight teachers.

“I’m teaching children whose parents I taught here in the same conditions. All that has changed in that time is the prefabs but there are also a lot more children,” he said.

A site behind the school was bought by the Department of Education in 2005. A month before last year’s election, officials assured the school a design team would be appointed shortly.

But 13 months later, that has not happened and staff are getting increasingly angry about the conditions they and their pupils must endure.

“The classrooms are completely out of date, one of them is 17 feet squared and shouldn’t have more than 20 children, but there are 26 pupils in it,” he said.

“If you had to evacuate people in a hurry, they’d have to be climbing on top of each other to get out. Even in normal circumstances, there isn’t room for teachers to get around.”

Helen Sugrue teaches 27 third and fourth class pupils in a classroom no bigger than a large living room.

“I can’t even walk down around them to correct their copies and next year I’ll have a pupil with a special needs assistant.

“There will be even less space here because I’ll have to get another table to put in the room. The children are supposed to be able to move around in the classroom but it’s impossible.

“I have to get them to do their science project at home instead of in class and we can’t bring in water or materials for art because the space is so tight,” she said.

This is one of four classes taught in the old school building. Two prefabs at the back accommodate the infant classes, another two to the side are used by the resource and learning support teacher, and a fifth houses the secretary and principal’s office as well as doubling as a staff room.

The school’s original windows were only replaced a few years ago, but only with the assistance of a generous past pupil who footed half the €8,000 bill, with the rest covered by the parents’ council and the school board.

“We couldn’t even get that from the Department of Education, even though the windows were dangerous. We’re near the edge of the Atlantic, there are times this place would be shaking in the wind and I was afraid the glass would be broken in on top of the children,” Mr O’Connor said.

He said the board has spent an huge amount of money keeping the building safe over the years.

“We’re always trying to keep the roof in good condition, we’re going to make sure as much as we can that the school board is not a factor in the building ever being unsafe,” he said.

That is not always easy, however, as the building’s age makes some aspects impossible to keep vigilant on.

The toilets are in a 30-year-old flat-roof extension — which blew off two years ago — and are often damp. The tiles in the entrance hall and toilets become slippy and dangerous, particularly in the winter.

“It nearly costs more to maintain the school than it would to replace it.

“If we’re putting on a play or concert, we have to contact one of the schools in Tralee to use their hall and bring all the kids in there,” said Mr O’Connor.

The school is only separated from the busy N86 Dingle road by two strides across a footpath. Closing times are a nightmare for parents and other motorists, but the new school would have a set-down and parking area where the existing building stands.

In September, the department advertised for a design team. Applications were received by the October deadline. “But nothing has happened since and the plug appears to have been pulled, which is heartbreaking for parents, teachers, and of course the pupils because everyone was looking forward to it so much,” said Mr O’Connor.

“The department has sacrificed schools like us because of their own mistakes planning for new communities in Dublin.”

The school board is grateful for the endless work of the parents association, which raised €3,000 last summer to equip classrooms for two new teachers. This was just the latest contribution, gathered by the local community through a Christmas raffle, quiz nights and bag-packing in supermarkets.

His appeal to Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe is simple: “We want the design team to be appointed and let our project progress. We’re awaiting a meeting between the minister and local representatives, but if we don’t get some reasonable satisfaction from that meeting we will have to escalate it. We were promised by [former minister] Mary Hanafin that the school would be done as part of the 2005-2009 building programme. We have been lied to by the Government, and what we were promised hasn’t been delivered.”

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