Location, location, location – why it’s important where a new school is built

The school run could be minimised and childhood obesity reduced if schools weren’t built in the wrong places

A computer generated perspective view of a winning school design by Gilroy McMahon Architects

A computer generated perspective view of a winning school design by Gilroy McMahon Architects

Tue, Mar 25, 2014, 17:22

Given his training as an architect, the Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn was bound to raise the profile of school design, as indeed he has done with architectural competitions for both primary and post-primary schools. But what if some of these fine new schools end up being built in the wrong places?

Far too often, sites are chosen for new schools with only scant consideration for how pupils are going to travel to and from these inspiring centres of learning. Will it be possible for them to walk or cycle – getting some useful exercise on the way – or will they have to be dropped off and collected by car?

A key underlying issue in all of this is the rise in obesity among children and the importance of having well-located schools to help reverse this trend. All the research shows that factoring in the opportunity to walk or cycle to and from school is the best way to ensure a “floor level” of daily exercise.

But An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, has found that a “significant proportion” of the school projects that cross its desk are not addressing the official guidance on school travel issued by the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Transport and the National Transport Authority (NTA).

The Department of Education’s technical guidance document on site selection for new schools stresses the need for “safe access for all” and says “all traffic management and mobility issues should be considered during site identification and assessment” – in other words before a school site is chosen.

“This will include appropriate provision for school buses, pedestrian and bicycle access, staff and visitor parking, car set-down and pick-up provision. The site should accommodate, where possible, approaches from a number of directions to facilitate and promote diversity of modes of transport,” it says.

The Department of Transport’s Smarter Travel programme pledges that schools and other community facilities would be accessible primarily by walking, cycling and publc transport. And the NTA’s Toolkit for School Travel seeks to reduce the number of children being chauffeured to school by car.

Given that the “school run” aggravates traffic congestion, many local authorities have similar policies. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Co Council says: “School provision should be an integral part of the evolution of compact sustainable urban development where the opportunities to walk or cycle to school are maximised.”

Yet the same council approved plans for a new Gaelscoil for the Ballinteer-Stepaside area, to be built on a relatively remote site that actually lies outside the catchment area it’s intended to serve. According to two parents of prospective pupils, this would result in children having to be driven to and from school every day.

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