The Department of Education are understood to be looking at at least three Wexford town sites to accommodate a brand new 1,000 pupil co-educational post-primary community school.
An agreement was reached between Wexford and Waterford Education and Training Board (WWETB) and Educate Together last week for the provision of the school under the designated Community College model.
Under the agreement, the Department of Education is to acquire a site for the new school, which will replace Selskar College, and will also accommodate a new Educate Together Primary School. As reported in this newspaper back in January, it appears a site at Killeens is among those being considered and would certainly have the space to accommodate a primary and secondary school. However, Chairperson of WWETB Cllr Barbara Anne Murphy has said that there's no guarantee that both schools will be on the same site.
'The new post-primary school and Educate Together don't necessarily have to be on the same site,' she said. 'Hypothetically speaking, they could be two separate sites. As far as I'm aware the Department have some sites in their head and they've had some suggestions. Killeens is one of those that's been mentioned. The decision on the site ultimately will be completely up to the Department though. I just hope it goes ahead quickly.'
The WWETB has agreed to take on the responsibility for the construction of both school buildings and Killeens is fast becoming the destination of choice for this type of project. The Loreto Secondary School opened there in September of 2018 and the new Min Ryan Park was finally opened in the area in recent weeks. Killeens is also understood to be among the locations being considered by IT Carlow for their long awaited new Wexford campus.
In terms of how the school will work, both organisations say they 'share a common vision of providing high quality, multi-denominational, equality based education' and it will follow a similar platform to Gorey Community College and Creagh College in the north of the county.
Cllr Murphy says that the school has the potential to be a real game-changer for Wexford town and district and is the culmination of a lot of campaigning and work behind the scenes.
'I think this new school will become the school of choice in Wexford, I really do,' she said. 'I think the quality of education in Selskar College has improved vastly in the past 20 years and the new community school will build on that. This is really, really good news for Wexford town and I know that the people there have been fighting for something like this for a long time.
Former Chairperson of WWETB from 2014 to 2019 and Director of the National Parents Council post primary from 2005 to 2014 Cllr Jim Moore confirmed that Killeens would be the favoured site for the school.
'This has been looked at seriously for the past five or six years,' he said. 'A lot of work has gone in. I would say that Killeens would be the frontrunner in terms of a site. I know a few years back we looked at Carcur, but for a variety of reasons it was deemed unsuitable. I suppose in terms of the expansion of Wexford town, you're quite confined as you're blocked in by the river, so you can really only go one way.'
Cllr Moore stressed the importance of being able to provide a co-educational school where boys and girls can receive and education together.
'I think it's very unusual that in Wexford town you have five post-primary schools and only one of them is co-ed,' he said. 'In my experience that wouldn't be the norm. I think in this day and age, it doesn't meet the need of society. The notion of single-sex schools seems largely based on tradition.'
Cllr Moore added his hopes that the new school would build on the solid work done at Selskar College in recent years and said that it would go a long way towards addressing the 'frantic' need for school places in town.
While noting that speculation of a chosen site for the school was just that - speculation - Mayor of Wexford Leonard Kelly said that Killeens would certainly be a good fit.
'In my opinion, I would like to see it in the Killeens or Clonard area,' he said. 'It's an ever growing and young area and it would be really beneficial in terms of access for kids. I think the council has a big part to play in terms of providing infrastructure like roads and paths, but this is real progress. It's badly needed too because Selskar College hasn't had the opportunity to expand on its current site. I think if the new post-primary and the new Educate Together can be located together it has obvious benefits such as the use of sports fields and facilities etc.'
Having long pursued the issue of school places in Wexford town, Cllr George Lawlor says that the creation of the new 1,000 pupil post-primary school is not before time and is of the utmost urgency.
'This really is our last chance to resolve the school places issue in Wexford town once and for all,' he said. 'A 1,000 pupil school would certainly go a long way towards future proofing us against any difficulties we may encounter. This is an issue that causes upset and anxiety every single year and it's an urgent issue that needs to be dealt with with the utmost urgency.'
Also having been outspoken on the school places issue in the past, Fianna Fáil councillor Lisa McDonald said that while it's a hugely positive development for Wexford town and surrounding areas, she would've liked to see the new school incorporate more strands.
'I suppose I would maybe have liked to have seen more than just the two strands - Educate Together and the ETB - collaborating on this,' she said.
'But having said that, it's obviously a hugely positive development. We're told the pinch point of this crisis is going to hit in 2021, so while announcements are good, we need a shovel in the ground ASAP.'
With the country facing a period of financial uncertainty post-Covid, Cllr McDonald is also keen that we avoid mistakes of the past.
'The big thing is to get it built as quickly as possible and in a manner that the Loreto Secondary School wasn't,' she said.
'We need this to be quick and efficient and we need to really look at the contractors who get the job and make sure that they are beyond scruple, especially with the financial landscape being a bit fraught at the moment. We need to make sure that this school is built and built properly and that those who start will finish the job.'
While the announcement of a new 1,000 student post primary school for Wexford has generated much discussion, there was also wonderful news for Wexford Educate Together as the new agreement signed last week allows for WWETB to provide a long awaited, brand new primary school for the staff and pupils there.
Buildings Officer at the Educate Together National Office, Enniscorthy native Niall Wall, said that the new agreement was an exciting prospect, both in terms of co-operating on the post-primary school and getting a long awaited new build for the primary school.
'A new school building is well overdue at this stage,' he said. 'We opened (in Whitemill) in 2008 and while it was a good building, we need a permanent building. Also with the growth in ASD provision, that's something that we want to play our part in as well.'
Wexford Educate Together is currently a single stream school, which allows for 8 classrooms and an ASD unit, however, Mr Wall says that the Department of Education may well look at this and seek to increase capacity in the new build.
'They may well ask us to go up to 16 classes,' he said. 'It's a longer process. Basically, they look at census information and child benefit data and see where the children are to determine what the requirements will be. I suppose it's different than secondary schools because, with children starting school at four or five, there's a much shorter timeframe to make a decision. At the moment though, it's all about providing the best education possible and our current building is nearly at capacity.'
While not necessarily a direct requirement, having the new post-primary and Educate Together primary school situated on the same campus in Wexford town seems to be the preferred option. 'We'd hope to be on the same campus as the new 1,000 pupil post primary school,' Mr Wall said. 'We share a campus with secondary schools across the country and even a third level campus in Dublin. The more synergies we can find the better.'
Mr Wall is also excited about Educate Together's involvement in the new Community College. 'I've no doubt it will be a fabulous building, kitted out to the highest standard,' he said. 'It'll be a real gem and a great opportunity for Wexford. This will be our first involvement with a second level school in the county. It's very exciting.'