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School without a home shocked by smears claiming new site plan poses risk to children

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Shocked: Jonathan Browner, principal of North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School, on the campus the school must vacate by the summer. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Shocked: Jonathan Browner, principal of North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School, on the campus the school must vacate by the summer. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Shocked: Jonathan Browner, principal of North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School, on the campus the school must vacate by the summer. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A school told to leave its temporary accommodation and cut its enrolment has suffered a triple blow after being hit with a smear campaign centring on child protection concerns.

North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School (NWETSS) in Bray is pinning its hopes of a permanent home on a Department of Education plan to co-locate the school with a local third-level college.

But an anonymous campaign against the plan has claimed children would have to share showers and sports facilities with adults attending Post-Leaving Cert and further education courses.

The Department of Education firmly dismissed the claim. "The school design will ensure that children will not be mixing with adults," it said.

However, school principal Jonathan Browner said staff and parents were shocked and disgusted at what was being suggested.

"It suggests that we would put our children at risk and that there are people in the institute of education we need to worry about, so I don't know what it aims to achieve apart from to cause upset," he said.

The claim is made in a leaflet delivered to homes near the campus of the Bray Institute of Further Education (BIFE), which BIFE previously shared with a secondary school until that school closed in 2015.

A distorted image claiming to show the proposed new buildings towering over neighbouring homes is also in circulation despite no such designs being complete.

Co-location is the only solution currently on the table for NWETSS's accommodation crisis. The school opened in 2016 in the town's former Presentation College while awaiting a permanent site.

That building is now privately owned, and the owner had expected vacant possession in April of last year, but agreed to a Department of Education request for an extension to June this year after the co-location plan failed to progress.

Almost a year later, a design has yet to materialise for the BIFE campus which would provide both a new premises for BIFE and permanent accommodation for NWETSS.

NWETSS has now been told it must move to a small disused former primary school building in the town for an indefinite period until the situation is resolved. That will mean capping enrolment to about 360 students when its plan was to expand its intake to 1,000.

"We'll honour the places we have offered for this September but we will have to cut the numbers after that," Mr Browner said. He had expected to take in 150 students a year by 2023. "If there was ever an example of bad planning, this is it," he said.

Students at BIFE are running a petition, signed by several election candidates, against co-location, citing fears for BIFE's future expansion, loss of amenities and increased traffic congestion.

BIFE principal Ray Tedders said he wished NWETSS well but the co-location plan was "ill-conceived".

He said the leaflet in circulation did not come from BIFE but added: "The child safety issue would be a concern in any co-location plan."

The Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB), which has responsibility for BIFE, said it was aware of campaigns for and against the co-location proposal but would not comment on any aspect of them.

"KWETB is fully cooperating with the master planning process of the BIFE campus as directed by the Minister of Education and Skills," it said.

Parent Samantha Holman said she was worried about the impact of the continued uncertainty on her son and other students using the school's autism unit.

"The lack of proper facilities has made things very challenging," she said.

Irish Independent