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Fine Gael is proposing the use of school buildings and associated facilities outside of normal school hours for the benefit of local community groups and youth organisations.

Cork East Fine Gael TD David Stanton successfully got a motion on the subject passed by the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party last week.

Deputy Stanton, along with Chair of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party, Richard Bruton, and Galway East TD Ciarán Cannon, have tabled a Topical Issue in the Dáil on the matter. Fine Gael Seanad Education spokesperson Senator Aisling Dolan is also raising the matter in the Seanad.

Deputy Stanton said, “Recognising the central role of primary and second level schools in their local communities, Fine Gael wants to strongly encourage and support the use of school buildings outside of school hours by community and youth clubs and organisations. This would be of great benefit to a wide range of community groups, especially in areas where there are no community halls, community rooms and sports facilities available to the community.

“We want to encourage community activities as restrictions ease, and there is a readymade network of school buildings and associated infrastructure currently not being used once the school day is finished.”

Deputy Richard Bruton said, “More flexible use of publicly funded infrastructure such as schools could release enormous potential in our community. Many really valuable activities are underdeveloped, while the buildings that could harness that energy lie idle. There is particular potential in our schools’ infrastructure which close later in the day and over the school holidays. It is vital that immediate action be taken to tap into this potential.”

Deputy Ciarán Cannon said, “Early childhood services are particularly underdeveloped in Ireland, and as the Fine Gael Policy Lab has demonstrated, parents need joined up thinking from policy makers to reduce the enormous stress which many parents suffer as they try to juggle their responsibilities.

“Private patronage models have served the country well in the past, but they must adapt as new needs in our communities evolve. It’s time to open up our schools for use by the local community after school hours.”

According to the Fine Gael representatives, there are three possible ways in which this can be achieved:

  1. Education Training Boards should be asked to develop best practice models of how this can be done, which could be shared with schools which have private patrons.
  2. All School Patrons should be invited to outline how they will seek to accommodate wider community activities: for early childhood; for youth work; for sport; and for other suitable community activities. These plans should become an integral part of, and a condition of any application by the school for improvement works.
  3. The Department of Education and the Department of Children should develop a shared strategy as to how a Campus Concept could be developed, where early childhood needs and after school could be integrated as the optimal model, and developed over time.

Fine Gael Seanad Spokesperson for Education, Senator Aisling Dolan stated, “School buildings and sports areas are a wonderful resource in every town and village, and we really see the benefit when local communities can also use these facilities after school hours. I welcome Minister Heather Humphreys’ commitment to more access through the CLÁR funding programme.”

Deputy Stanton continued, “I want to acknowledge that there are schools that do open their doors and make their facilities available, but there are also quite a number of them that don’t and won’t.

“Department of Education guidelines on the use of school buildings outside of school hours issued in 2017 encourage the use of local schools, but in many instances theses school buildings are not available.  The doors are locked at 3 or 3.30pm and fantastic sports halls and community rooms are locked up all evening and night, making them inaccessible to the community.” 

“I raised this issue with my colleague, Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys, in the Dáil last week and I welcome the fact that she has made it a prerequisite of her Department’s CLÁR Programme that projects located on school grounds such as playgrounds, astro-turfs and basketball courts must be open to the general public outside of school hours. Applications that do not fulfil this requirement will not be considered for funding. Perhaps the Department of Education could take a similar approach when considering applications from schools for upgrade of PE Halls and other facilities that could be used by the wider community?

“Local community groups are crying out for activities, and many parents are worried about their children hanging around the streets at night with nowhere to go, and we know where that can lead.

“Let’s see what can be done to encourage and support the schools to make their facilities available. Perhaps Government can now take proactive measures to reach out and engage with these schools and communities, to call on them publicly to make their facilities available. We could assist them in accessing funding to help with the insurance and caretaker costs that are very often used as a reason why schools won’t be made available.

“These facilities are taxpayer funded and I want to see boards of management of schools engaging with local groups to see how they can benefit everyone in the community.”