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‘We’ve been failed by the Government’: Families left without school places

Some children in receipt of home tutoring due to enrolment pressures in places such as Kildare, north Wicklow, Dublin and Cork

Nikolai, a 12-year-old boy from Clane, Co Kildare, should be well settled into the first year of secondary school by now, surrounded by friends and classmates.

Instead, he spends each school day in his grandmother’s home. He is at his desk at 9am each morning where she tries to help him keep up with his subjects and put a structure on his day.

“I feel isolated with a low mood sometimes,” Nikolai says. “It’s hard to motivate myself to study. There’s not much interaction with friends. I feel it is unfair. How long do I have to wait?”

Nikolai is still waiting for a school place in the north Kildare area, which has some of the most oversubscribed schools in the country.


It is one of five areas in the State where school places have not kept up with a surge in population growth and house building. Enrolment pressures in Kildare, north Wicklow and parts of Dublin, Cork and Galway are forcing many parents to travel long distances to find available schools; others have had to avail of home tutoring as a measure of last resort.

The Department of Education has confirmed it is aware of enrolment pressures and has asked secondary schools in these areas to share application data to determine if there are enough places or source extra accommodation.

It says while it is still analysing the figures, preliminary assessments indicate that duplication of applications as well as students from outside local areas are contributing to enrolment pressures. It says it expects this will significantly reduce the requirement for additional places.

However, campaigners insist many children have been left without places and are desperately trying to find schools well beyond their catchment areas.

Olga Farrell, Nikolai’s grandmother, was “99 per cent” sure he would get a first year place at his local secondary school last September, a short distance from home.

But by last August he was 20th on the waiting list for first-year enrolments at Scoil Mhuire Community School in Clane; 12th on the waiting list at St Farnan’s Post Primary School in the next town of Prosperous; and 76th on the waiting list for Naas CBS.

“When we approached the education and welfare office in Naas about it, we were shown some forms and told there was no other option except nine hours of home tutoring,” she says.

Looking further afield for a school wasn’t an option given that Nikolai’s father – a lone parent – had work commitments. Olga, who had left her job at Dunnes Stores after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, offered to help. She was given a list of approved home tutors and, eventually, sourced two tutors who provided six hours of tuition a week.

Olga says she contacted local politicians without success, while Nikolai’s father wrote a letter to Minister for Education Norma Foley which stated: “If I failed to send my child to school I would be prosecuted by the State, and rightly so. Why does the State not hold itself as accountable for its own failures?”

In the meantime, the family has tried to keep Nikolai busy with soccer, kick-boxing and tennis to keep up his social contacts.

“The toughest part is the isolation,” says Olga. “He needs to be in a school setting. Social development is such as important part of the education process. It is having an effect on him. He’s low on a Monday morning.

“It seems the Minister and her department do not realise how difficult homeschooling is for families. We did not choose this. Families have to sacrifice so much ... It is a huge financial burden as well as a big emotional shock to a child. It seems the politicians don’t get it. They don’t feel our pain.”

Gary O’Sullivan couldn’t believe the turnout for the meeting. He organised a “secondary-school crisis action group” gathering at the parish hall in Prosperous, Co Kildare, after realising that his family wasn’t alone: his son, and many other children, were on waiting lists for all secondary schools in the Newbridge, Naas, Clane, Celbridge and Maynooth areas of north Kildare.

“In the case of my son, it ranged from 31st place for our local school, St Farnan’s, to 325th place in Naas Comunity College,” he says. “What followed were similar stories with children facing a situation next September of no school place and no education.”

He estimates that 150-200 were present in the hall. O’Sullivan was recently offered a place for his son, but says the campaign will continue to support other families still without school places, including those who had to make agonising choices after being left without places last year.

Caroline Ryan Carpenter is one of them. Her daughter Caoimhe had been looking forward to attending her local secondary school in Prosperous with the friends she grew up with.

Caoimhe’s primary school, Scoil an Linbh Iosa in Prosperous, Co Kildare, is a feeder school for St Farnan’s Post-Primary School across the road.

She ended up 34th on the waiting list. It was the same for other schools further afield in Celbridge and Clane, where she was 36th and 89th respectively.

“She’s quite introverted and has a very close circle of friends,” says Caroline. “She was very much part of the community; in the tennis club, the youth club; scouts was one of her favourite things.

“I clung to hope that we’d get a place. Then, in May last year, the principal rang to say it was highly unlikely. We were advised to contact Tusla, who offered nine hours of home tutoring.”

This wasn’t possible, she says, as she works as a midwife in the National Maternity Hospital, while her husband is an electrical engineer with the ESB.

“It was just so frustrating. The stress really hit us. It broke my heart ... You just feel guilty that you’ve let her down. I’d wake up first thing in the morning worrying: how do I tell her she can’t go to school without her friends?”

Caroline says she looked into moving house to Dublin, but was told by schools in Portmarnock and Malahide that they were heavily oversubscribed. She even considered emigrating to Australia at one point.

“I thought we’d get work there. I emailed a school [in Australia] at random and they said they’d take her. Yet, my country couldn’t offer me a place. It made me so cross. You pay your taxes, you do everything right, and now this.”

A final option was boarding school in Co Tipperary at a cost of close to €10,000 a year.

“When I told her, she broke down. She was devastated, asking ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why do I have to go away?’,” Caroline says.

Several months on, she says Caoimhe hasn’t settled in her new school. She wants to move home. The school has suggested that she commute as a day pupil, but this would involve a four-hour round trip by train with a 6am start.

“She should be having the time of her time, but I feel it has broken her. She hasn’t coped well. I also feel the Government has let us down. We were the ‘heroes’ during Covid, going out to work. We prioritised work over home schooling,” she says.

She feels the Department of Education’s advance planning unit should have known there would be a shortage, based on data such as house building, primary school numbers and child benefit data.

“There are more families affected, but it is hidden. They’re travelling long distances or being tutored at home ... I have never been as stressed about anything in my life. I have three other children – aged one, nine and 10: will it be the same for them?”

The department says it has invested heavily in the school capital projects on the counties of Kildare, Meath and Wicklow in recent years in response to the increase in demand for school places in order to ensure “there is a school place for every child”.

It says the level of investment in Kildare alone has been in region of €250 million over the past five years, including new secondary school buildings, with further extensions due at St Farnan’s in Prosperous as well as Scoil Dara and Scoil Uí Riada in Kilcock and Celbridge Community School.

It says data on applications for admission has been received by the department from post-primary schools across areas of enrolment pressure in Kildare, Wicklow and other areas, and “updated data on offers and acceptances continues to be received as admissions processes transact”.

“The sharing of this data has been very effective in the identification of school place requirements across the areas. Arising from the analysis of this data, a clear requirement for additional first-year places in Naas has been identified and the department is working with the relevant patrons to make the requisite places available,” the department said in a statement.

It said while some applicants may not yet have received an offer of a school place for 2024-2025, families “can be assured that all children in an area who require a school place will be provided with one”.

It said there would be greater clarity over the coming weeks as admissions processes continue to work through and required additional places come on stream.

Fine Gael councillor Brendan Weld, chair of the board of management of several schools in the area, says progress is being made in whittling down waiting lists by eliminating duplicate applications and adding temporary accommodation.

At St Farnan’s, one of the schools which has expanded its intake, principal Andrew Purcell describes the situation as “challenging”. The school is at full capacity and has to accommodate classes in the canteen.

“It’s not ideal, but to be fair to our fantastic kids and staff, they get on with it,” he says.

Last year it had 17 children left on its waiting list after it completed enrolment; this year it has 19 left – 10 for mainstream, nine for special classes – but that number may fall.

Nonetheless, he says things have improved this year compared with last, with more forward planning and supports available at an earlier stage.

He is also cheered that planning for a larger 1,000-pupil school building has progressed and is scheduled to open in for the 2027-2028 school year.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

It is of little consolation to Gráinne Plaxton. Her son, Alex (12), still has no school place in the Kildare area for this coming September, despite applying to nine schools.

Alex, who was diagnosed with autism at age three, needs a special class, which is typically six students to one teacher and two special-needs assistants.

“Every so often he asks where he’ll be going to school,” she says. “I’ve friends whose children have secondary school places. They’re doing entrance exams, choosing subjects. It’s hard to listen to. For children with autism, you need even more preparation. The uncertainty is hard; it’s trying to keep calm about it for him.”

The only offer of a place has been in Edenderry, Co Offaly, about 35km away, which would require a two-hour round trip by bus. His primary teachers agree it would be too much for him.

There has been talk that a post-primary school in Clane might be able to set up a second class with temporary accommodation, but nothing official yet.

In the meantime, the family is waiting and hoping something will work out

“I feel uncertain, anxious, disappointed and let down by the system,” says Gráinne. “We need a better system. We need more schools, we need better planning. There are loads of new houses – I don’t have any problem with that – but there is no consideration for amenities.”