Testing times for Education Minister

Monday 11 August 2014 14.47

jan-osullivan-blog

In three weeks time Jan O’Sullivan will engage in one of the first of many high profile media appearances as Minister for Education.

As thousands of nervous students tear their Leaving Certificate envelopes open, O’Sullivan, like her predecessors, will be in their midst.

The next day’s newspapers will carry her picture, surrounded no doubt by smiling young faces. The TV bulletins will carry those same images on the day. The minister’s comments on the results and trends, her wishes for the class of 2014, will be reported extensively.

It’s a high profile engagement, but where will all this take place? Which school will form the backdrop? Department of Education press officers have confirmed that the minister will visit a Limerick school.

That’s to be expected. Limerick is her home town, the heart of her constituency. But the press office tells me that the precise school in Limerick has yet to be decided.

Among the many tough choices and decisions that now face O’Sullivan this one may seem insignificant. But the minister’s choice of school will be interesting, and perhaps telling.

For more than a decade the Limerick second level sector has been in a state of upheaval. Dramatic shifts in enrolment have led to cries of educational “ghettoisation”.

Every year, through a centralised application system unique to Limerick, parents scramble for places in the most sought after schools, and shun others. Primary school principals admit privately to coaching parents in how to maximise their chances. One has told me that children with Polish or Eastern European surnames seem to fall mysteriously to the bottom of some application lists.

As enrolment patterns shift, some city schools with long histories say falling numbers leave them with no option but to close, while schools miles away from the city are among those that reap the benefit.

Earlier this year Scoil Carmel Girls’ Secondary School on O’Connell Avenue was the latest to announce its closure. Before that, it was the Salesian girl’s school at Fernbank. It will amalgamate with a nearby community college, St Nessan’s. Two years ago another community school, St Enda’s in Southill, announced its phased closure. All because of a dramatic fall in numbers enrolling.

The latest Department of Education figures show that in the ten years between 2002/03 and 2012/13 enrolment at Scoil Carmel fell by 53% to 263 students. By last year its numbers had dropped further, and all the indications were that this trend was set to continue.

In the same ten years Salesians Secondary saw a 60% fall in its enrolment. St Enda’s likewise. Other schools are suffering too. It seems to many that the fault line that is social class is leaving an ever deeper crack across the city’s education system, and some schools are being sucked down entirely.

I have to declare an interest. I’m a Salesian’s girl, educated at Fernbank from the age of four to 17. It was my local school. My cousins went to Nessan’s, their local school. Back then, by and large, you went to your local school, and mixed there with all comers.

Of course demographics play a role; some neighbourhoods grow old; new suburbs emerge, and those suburbs need schools. Some parents want a different kind of school. All this is recognised.

But some connected to schools like Scoil Carmel and Salesians also argue, with justification, that they’ve become victims of their own success. Truly inclusive schools, they turned no one away, no matter what their address, or their country of origin. But this openness can upset the balance; it can drive middle class students away.

The Limerick schools are not alone in experiencing this. It happens everywhere. But Limerick overall stands out as an extreme example.

Many Limerick parents are now busing their children to schools in towns kilometres away from the city. On weekday mornings private buses that ferry teenagers from almost every corner of the city’s suburbs to a school 22km away in the town of Croom, are a familiar sight.

The pattern is reversed in the evening as the children come home. In the past decade Croom’s Coláiste Chiaráin has seen its enrolment jump by a massive 145%. Around half of its 800 or so students now come from Limerick city.

Not all city schools are suffering. Limerick’s new Gaelcholáiste for instance, located in the heart of the city, has seen strong growth since it opened eight years ago – from 31 students starting out, to 462 by 2012/13.

But community workers and others say the flight of so many youngsters out of their own neighbourhoods is harming the social fabric of those areas.

Minister O’Sullivan is no doubt all too aware of the controversy; one now former local Labour party councillor has been to the fore in calling for better educational planning policies for the city, and soon a report commissioned by the Department of Education into Limerick second level provision will land on her desk.

But right now she must choose a school for 13 August. A minister’s visit, and on such a high profile day, is a coveted thing. The lucky school, whichever one it is, will bask in the media limelight for a day.

Will this controversy inform her choice? It’s difficult to imagine that it won’t.

UPDATE 11 AUGUST: Today, the Department of Education announced that Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan would be visiting St Nessan’s Community College to congratulate Leaving Certificate students on their results.

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