Cllr John Paul Feeley (FF).

ETB asked to scrap closures

The executive of the Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board (CMETB) is to be asked to formally scrap its controversial plan to shut two west Cavan secondary schools and amalgamate them as one into a new school in neighbouring Ballyconnell.

At last Monday’s monthly meeting of Cavan County Council, Fianna Fáil’s John Paul Feeley tabled a motion asking that the council call on the CMETB “to reverse their decision to close” St Bricin’s in Belturbet and St Mogue’s in Bawnboy.

As patron of both secondary schools, the ETB still has the final say, subject to approval from the Department of Education, on the proposal.

The controversial plans were met with opposition when first sanctioned in 2018 and little progress has been made since.

The Department previously enlisted a professional acquisition management firm, Duff & Phelps, to secure, as a matter of “priority”, a site for the proposed €15 million project.

But the proposal has sat on the back burner since a meeting between CMETB and the Minister for Education in late 2021.

As of late last year there were “no further updates” regarding the proposed amalgamation. The ETB has also sanctioned significant further investment at both locations following a welcome spike in enrolment numbers and forecasts.

In Belturbet, six new general classrooms, two Special Education Needs (SEN) classrooms and a general purpose facility have been added as part of a new modular build. A similar approach is being proposed for Bawnboy where planning permission has just been attained for eight new classrooms including four specialist classrooms, two SEN rooms, two general classrooms and ancillary accommodation.

In bringing the motion to the floor of the council chamber Cllr Feeley said he did not wish to “rehash old ground”, yet he described the date in November 2018 when a “special meeting” took place at the Slieve Russell Hotel to announce the amalgamation as a “strange day” that sparked unprecedented levels of uproar in a bid to have the “bizarre decision” reversed.

He welcomed recent investment in the schools, and credited the role of Fianna Fáil TD Brendan Smith and others in lobbying Minister for Education Norma Foley in that regard.

With both schools now thriving, he went onto say that it was important the ETB “remove” the decision once taken.

“The policy remains in place,” said Cllr Feeley, who said it was only right that ETB executive listen to the “will of the people”.

Party colleague Áine Smith, who took up the mantle of fighting for the future of both schools from her late father agreed, and she acknowledged the willingness of the ETB to support the St Bricin’s and St Mogue’s schools at present.

Independent Brendan Fay, who campaigned in the 2019 local elections to save the schools, accepted that Minister Foley “hasn’t been found wanting” in terms of support once both St Bricin’s and St Mogue’s could prove they were on a sustainable footing.

He cited a lack of investment over a period of “20 years” as a reason for student drop off in the past.

However, this had since changed and Cllr Fay said had held discussions “internally” about having the policy for amalgamation “taken off the table” once and for all.

Sinn Féin’s Paddy McDonald put the furore that occurred down to a lack of “consultation” with the communities affected, but he still asked why there were so many children from the west of the county travelling to school in Cavan Town or neighbouring counties.

The remark received a swift rebuke from Cllr Fay who said “you couldn’t blame” families for not sending their children to a school using “buckets to catch water leaking from the roof”.

He also alluded to the fact that St Bricin’s was still being “given the run around” in applying for DEIS status, stating cases where teachers were buying lunch for impoverished pupils.

There was support for Cllr Feeley’s motion too from Patricia Walsh (FF) and from Aontú Sarah O’Reilly who, at all times, had sought for full engagement on the matter. To the council she described what occurred as “wrong”, and lambasted what she said was “a lot of political interference from day one”.

Fine Gael’s Peter McVitty said he personally got a “lot of abuse” for supporting the building of a new school in Ballyconnell, but still congratulated the communities of both St Bricin’s and St Mogue’s for their efforts to save both.

He said as a local representative it was impossible to “turn your back” on the promise of a €15 million investment in his local community, and cited the quality builds in Kingscourt and elsewhere as what he hoped the new school would provide.

Like Clifford Kelly (FF) and current Chair of the ETB, Cllr McVitty said he did not want the message to go out that no money had been spent on the two schools down through the years, though he voiced his disapproval at using “temporary” modular accommodation.

“If that’s where the money is being invested now, best of luck.”