Not level playing field when it comes to new Gaelscoil


The struggle over the siting of a Gaelscoil raises serious questions about segregation in education, writes ELAINE BYRNE

‘SAVE THE Tank Field” is the rallying call of the posters on the telephone polls and hedgerows dotted in the Cork housing estates north of the river Lee, from Patrick’s Bridge up to St Luke’s into Dillons Cross, Mayfield and finally to Montenotte. So called because a large water tank serviced the immediate vicinity when houses were first built in the 1930s, the struggle for the Tank Field merits comparison with a John B Keane play.

The 2.5-acre field is the only open public green space in northeast Cork city and lies on the boundary between affluent Montenotte and working-class Mayfield. It seemed like any other field to me when I visited last week. Local primary schools were playing a football match and elderly people were walking their dogs. But a white line painted on the wall, denoting the proposed site for Gaelscoil Ghórt Álainn, makes this no ordinary field.

In November 2006, the local residents’ association was shocked to discover that Cork City Council had used its statutory powers in 2001 to acquire this field at a nominal cost without any prior consultation with the community.

The council then proposed to sell the land for €750,000 to the Department of Education for a new 16-classroom school for the Gaelscoil, which directly adjoins the Tank Field and has operated from temporary prefabs in the overflow car park of the local Brian Dillion’s GAA club since 1998.

In response, the 10 roads around the Tank Field each elected a representative to the Save our Tank Field campaign in 2006. Some three years later, this local campaign to save a community resource has found itself caught up in questionable decision-making processes by the Department of Education, An Bord Pleanála and Cork City Council.

In a joint letter to the Department of Education, five local school principals wrote of their “serious concern” about the €5 million proposal to build the Gaelscoil. The principals asked why the department was building a school in an area with a declining population (6.3 per cent fall between 1996 and 2006, according to Central Statistics Office figures). They also noted that the area was already serviced by nine primary schools within a 3km radius. In fact, a new school, Gaelscoil Uí Drisceoil, was established nearby in the past year.

The five principals starkly wrote that “a large Gaelscoil with attendant up-to-date resources will polarise the education community in an already deeply stratified community”. Their schools, they noted, were in band one of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (Deis) programme.

Deis is a designated disadvantage-status programme for schools, which provides additional resources such as a school meals, a books grant scheme, reduced class sizes and other supports.

Gaelscoil Ghórt Álainn is not a designated disadvantage status school, which suggests that students currently enrolled in the Montenotte/Mayfield-located prefabs do not, in the main, come from households below the poverty threshold. The five principals were not consulted about this decision, nor was a meeting granted by the Department of Education to discuss their concerns.

Documentation received under the Freedom of Information Act also shows the department has not responded to a proposal by the nearby Mayfield GAA club to sell its excess land as a school site. And the department rejected a possible site on the grounds of Mayfield Community School, just 400m from the Tank Field, which incidentally has incredible resources of a kind that any school would be envious of, including a swimming pool, five basketball courts and a sports complex.

When I visited Roy Keane’s former school last week, substantial land attached to the school was underused. The school, designed for more than 800 students, has now fewer than 300 and could clearly accommodate the Gaelscoil at a much reduced cost, on an existing educational complex, without having to continue to pay rental for the prefabs.

But the Department of Education, it seems, is determined not to build the Gaelscoil in Mayfield. Instead, its decision to allocate €5 million of scare resources to build additional classrooms in an area with an already healthy supply of educational infrastructure will deprive residents of their only communal green space. Daft? It gets better. The department has paid rent to Brian Dillon’s GAA club since 1998 for the car-park space which the Gaelscoil prefabs lease. This land is not owned by the GAA club but the city council, which leases the land to the club at a nominal value. It is not known how much the department has paid the GAA club over the past 11 years. It is extraordinary, however, that a GAA club can profit by unknown sums of money through renting land to the State which is actually owned by the State.

During the course of their campaign, the local community discovered serious shortcomings in the planning process.

An Bord Pleanála overturned a decision by its own inspector to refuse planning permission because the board decided a Gaelscoil in Montenotte/Mayfield was of “strategic importance”. Although the residents successfully lobbied local politicians not to amend the Cork City Development Plan, which originally zoned the field for sports use, they remain unconvinced because the city manager has refused to meet them.

This might have started out about a field but it ends up asking serious questions about Department of Education’s policy on Gaelscoileanna and the incremental segregation of our education system.