Galway is in urgent need of a new secondary school to accommodate the year on year increase in the numbers of primary school pupils, and a case can be made that such a new school should come under the patronage of Educate Together, as increasing numbers of parents demanding such an option for their children.
The Galway Educate Together 2nd Level School Start-Up Group is calling on the Department of Education to sanction the development of a new secondary school for the city, arguing that within the next two years there will be a shortfall in the available number of places in the city's secondary schools. Despite this, the Department's most recent school building programme, announced in November 2015, did not include Galway as a location for a new post-primary school, saying there was no demographic need for such.
This attitude is surprising given that numbers attending the 11 secondary schools in the Department of Education's Galway City Planning Area - which includes schools in the city as well as Claregalway - have increased by c300 each year over the last four years and currently stand at 6,168 pupils. Works to increase capacity across city schools are taking place, to allow it to expand to 6,711.
However these expansion works means Galway's secondary schools can only accommodate current levels of growth for the next two terms, and that by September 2018, there will be a shortage of places for pupils about to enter second level. As a result, Galway is in urgent need of a new post-primary school simply to meet an rising demographic and future needs of the city. This is borne out by an independent academic study by NUI Galway's Geography Department, which also identified 2018 as the year when post-primary places in Galway would exceed available capacity.
The Galway Educate Together 2nd Level School Start-Up Group is calling on the Department to sanction the new school in order to allow it to proceed to planning and construction, and the decision for the award of patronage, ie, which body will run the school. Educate Together would have to argue its case along with other interested bodies, and would not be entitled to automatic patronage. However, there are compelling statistics in its favour as to why any new school should be an Educate Together one.
Four of the city's schools are Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board while the other seven are under the patronage of religious bodies. Currently there are no Educate Together secondary schools. However there are five ET primaries in Galway - Newcastle with 365 pupils; Knocknacarra with 74 pupils; Claregalway, which is to get a new school premisis; Kilcolgan, where the school is moving to a new location; and Tuam, which opened in 2015. The combined total of pupils in these schools is 510.
Many of the students from the Newcastle, Knocknacarra, and Claregalway primaries are likely to want to opt for an Educate Together secondary if one is available. This is made clear by the fact that the ET start-up group has collected Expressions of Interest for 1,500 children whose parents want them to have the choice of an ET secondary education. It is worth noting that the Expressions of Interest did not come solely from parents whose children are already in an ET school, but are for children in more than 50 primary schools throughout the Galway area.
A further indication of the level of demand, is a recent online petition to the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, conducted by the group, which resulted in more than 1,300 signatures in a four week period at the beginning of 2017.
Over the last 20 years, Galway has become increasingly diverse in terms of religion and ethnicity. The gradual secularisation of Irish society and the increasing concerns over baptism requirements and church patronage of schools, have made Educate Together - which keenly stresses that its schools are multi-denominational, welcoming "all faiths and none". As a result, a new secondary school is needed to reflect and accommodate these factors, which could be provided by an Educate Together ethos.
Independent Galway West TD Catherine Connolly has recently spoken in the Dáil on the need for an Educate Together secondary school; while Independent Galway West TD Noel Grealish, last year facilitated a meeting for the ET group with TDs and councillors, which resulted in unanimous expressions of support for such a school.
The demand is there from parents; the numbers attending ET primaries show the potential; there is support from across the local political spectrum. The ball is now in the Department of Education's court. It is an issue it will have to grapple with in the next two years, as the demographics become increasingly undeniable.