The Minister for Education Norma Foley talking to the media at the Holy Family School in Cootehill last Thursday afternoon as Deputy Niamh Smyth listens.

‘Every voice is at the table and every voice is heard’

The Minister for Education says she will keep an open mind in relation to a proposal to amalgamate two west Cavan schools and build a new €15M secondary school in Ballyconnell.

Norma Foley was in Cavan last Thursday to announce funding for a major new extension at Colaiste Dún an Rí in Kingscourt and view facilities at the new €12M extension in the Holy Family School in Cootehill (see pages 10 & 14 of this week's print edition).

Minister Foley stopped short of backing the plan by the Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board (CMETB) to merge the school populations of St Bricin’s in Belturbet and St Mogue’s in Bawnboy despite being pressed on the issue by this newspaper.

Asked if the decision was a ‘fait accompli’, Minister Foley said: “I think there was a determination or a decision made by a previous Minister on foot of a proposal that came from the ETB. I know there are a variety of views in relation to that and I am happy to listen to the views.

“Indeed if another proposal comes from the ETB, we will look at that. Again I will emphasise to you that our determination is to provide the best of facilities to meet the needs of students, whereever those needs arise. We are determined to do that and we will do that.”

The controversial school merger proposal was formally approved by the CMETB and sanctioned by the Department back in September 2019. The decision sparked outrage and resulted in the formation of Save Our Schools (SOS) committees in both communities affected by the proposed merger and over a thousand letters of protest sent to the then Minister for Education.

Asked if the Minister has a role in determining where schools will be located or retained, Minister Foley said such decision are made in collaboration and following consultation: “As I have said, it is important and I want to acknowledge the role of the ETB. I have met them on an ongoing basis in this area. I want to acknowledge their contribution to education. We work in a collaborative process and indeed that is not just unique to this area. We listen to all views and we make the informed decision at the end of the day.”

The Minister rejected the contention that some parents in the Belturbet and Bawnboy felt they were not consulted in advance of this decision by the education and training board.

“That is actually not true – in so far as any system in the education system in terms of whatever determinations that we might make about future needs and all of that – there is a very wide consultative process. Indeed, everything that we have achieved in education in this past year, has been on the back of the widest consultation,” stated Minister Foley.

“That most certainly includes parents and guardians and particularly, I want to acknowledge through Covid, the involvement of parent representatives, the involvement of student representatives, the teaching representatives and the joint managerial bodies is very important. I have endeavoured since I became Minister for Education that every voice is at the table and every voice is heard,” she stressed.

When again asked if the decision was already made in respect of the new school in Ballyconnell, Minister Foley reiterated: “As I have said to you, a proposal was made by the ETB. It is my job to listen and hear – I will listen to all views. There are a variety of views in relation to this issue. Should a different proposal come my way, I will look at that also. So everything is being considered.”

Earlier this year, as reported by this newspaper, the Department of Education enlisted a professional acquisition management firm to secure, as a matter or “priority”, a site to develop a new secondary school in the Ballyconnell area.

Department officials are also using a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), to lean on Cavan County Council for help in identifying a location for the proposed new school.

A spokesperson for CMETB at that time said: “The amalgamation project for St Bricin’s College and St Mogue’s College that the Department of Education sanctioned in September 2019 is due to commence in the second half of the National Development Plan.”

“This sanction remains in place with no upgrades, apart from essential works, being considered by the Department for both [existing] schools.”