Baby boom placing pressure on education resources in Fingal
Celtic Tiger saw thousands buy homes in commuter belt north of Dublin city
The unprecedented population surge during the boom years created a need for more childcare places in north Co Dublin. Photograph: Getty
Nicola Lynch, a mother of three from Malahide, is very worried. Her second child, Hugo, is due to start school in September but has yet to secure a place in St Sylvester’s, the local primary. “Because of the demand . . . he doesn’t have a place,” the 37-year-old marketing executive says.
She and her husband, Paul, moved to Fingal, an administrative county since 1994, from Artane in Dublin city nine years ago when she was pregnant with her first child.
They are among thousands who moved there during the boom years. The influx of young professionals, labourers and migrant workers during the Celtic Tiger years made Fingal one of the fastest growing counties in Ireland and resulted in a sustained baby boom.
“Back in 1981 the population in Fingal was way lower; it was probably only between 30 and 40 per cent of what it is today [273,000],” says Ciarán Staunton, an administrative officer at Fingal County Council who specialises in data and demographics.
According to CSO figures, year-on-year the county returns annual birth rates of more than 20 per 1,000 head of population, the criterion for a baby boom. In this regard it surpasses every other county in the State, recording a birth rate of 20.8 per 1,000 (that’s 5,691 babies) in 2011, compared to a national average of 16.3.
As the economy began to grow in the mid-1990s, Dublin went through a period of rapid expansion, north and south of the Liffey. However, residential development in the south eventually ran up against the Wickow Mountains, rendering large-scale construction too costly.
For Fingal the turning point was “somewhere around 2000 where south Dublin stopped growing at the rate that we were growing”, Staunton says. Fingal’s rolling rural land attracted developers, who went about building on the outskirts of the larger towns: Swords, Balbriggan, and Blanchardstown.
At the moment, Staunton says, there are about 90,000 houses in the county, which experienced housing stock increments of about 9,000 between each census.
“The peripheral areas of the towns are where the children come from,” he continues. New estates, north of the city, were attractive to first-time buyers – young professionals able to afford mortgages on outlying properties from which they would commute into the city. “When you have youngish people coming in high numbers and they have their own house, the children follow.”
Louise Curran (36), originally from Castleknock but now living in Malahide, is dropping her children off at her local creche. She has three boys, the oldest of whom is five, the youngest one and a half. She used to sell cars before taking maternity leave on the arrival of her first baby. “By the time I went back there was just no point, the business was so bad,” she says.
So she decided to stay at home while her husband, a financial trader, commutes to Ballsbridge. She says these days professional women tend to wait longer before starting a family, so it’s more common now for mothers to have two or three children over a short period of time. “Most of my friends now have a minimum of three kids,” she says. “We’re older having them, so we tend to have them closer together.”
The unprecedented population surge created the need for more childcare places. Deirdre Kelly, managing director of Links creche and Montessori, opened her first childcare centre in 2004 in Portmarnock, when there was a dearth of purpose-built facilities.
“A lot of them were just house creches and things,” she recalls, arguing that purpose-built facilities, where toddlers participate in classroom-like educational games and activities, prepare children much better for school.
Business has been brisk since she and her husband set up the company nine years ago. They’ve opened 10 creches and aim to hit 15 in the near future.
Schools in Fingal have also had to catch up. While the council has attempted to keep pace, working with the Department of Education to expand and open new schools, certain areas still feel the strain. Blanchardstown has struggled to meet demand. So too has Balbriggan, where parents complain of a lack of places.
Down the road, in Skerries, the Educate Together primary school is about to undergo a significant expansion. “It opened in 2008 with 34 pupils,” says principal Tomás Hickey. “Now we’re in the fifth year this year, and enrolment is at 206. Next year it will be up around 250, so the overall capacity of the school in the longer term will be for about 440 pupils.”
He says the bulk of enrolment comes from new residents, which reflects an issue symptomatic of the Fingal population increase: the growing gap between established residents and the newcomers.
“It’s known,” admits Staunton, who says membership of town committee groups and other organisations is often drawn exclusively from one group or the other. “From a local government point of view we’re not sure how we’re meant to shape or control that.”
Time will tell how both groups will integrate. But with time new concerns will also arise. “The fact is, having a large number of people in a particular age cohort means that they are a challenge all the time that they live because there’s so many of them at that one age,” Staunton says. “In 19 years’ time, in the census in 2031, the elderly population is going to treble in size, so we have to now take our focus off the Department of Education and start looking at the HSE.”
For the Fingal baby boomers though, that’s a long way down the line. The most recent CSO quarterly vital statistics, published last month, show the county still commands the highest birth rates in the country. And as for Nicola Lynch, she’ll be happy if Hugo has a place in school come September.