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Location, location, location

March 25, 2014

The school run could be minimised and fitness improved if new schools weren’t built in the wrong places.

Given his training as an architect, the Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn was bound to raise the profile of school design, as indeed he has done with architectural competitions for both primary and post-primary schools. But what if some of these fine new schools end up being built in the wrong places?

Far too often, sites are chosen for new schools with only scant consideration for how pupils are going to travel to and from these inspiring centres of learning. Will it be possible for them to walk or cycle – getting some useful exercise on the way – or will they have to be dropped off and collected by car? A key underlying issue in all of this is the rise in obesity among children and the importance of having well-located schools to help reverse this trend. All the research shows that factoring in the opportunity to walk or cycle to and from school is the best way to ensure a “floor level” of daily exercise.

But An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, has found that a “significant proportion” of the school projects that cross its desk are not addressing the official guidance on school travel issued by the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Transport and the National Transport Authority (NTA). The Department of Education’s technical guidance document on site selection for new schools stresses the need for “safe access for all” and says “all traffic management and mobility issues should be considered during site identification and assessment” – in other words before a school site is chosen.

“This will include appropriate provision for school buses, pedestrian and bicycle access, staff and visitor parking, car set-down and pick-up provision. The site should accommodate, where possible, approaches from a number of directions to facilitate and promote diversity of modes of transport,” it says. The Department of Transport’s Smarter Travel programme pledges that schools and other community facilities would be accessible primarily by walking, cycling and publc transport. And the NTA’s Toolkit for School Travel seeks to reduce the number of children being chauffeured to school by car.

Given that the “school run” aggravates traffic congestion, many local authorities have similar policies. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Co Council says: “School provision should be an integral part of the evolution of compact sustainable urban development where the opportunities to walk or cycle to school are maximised.” Yet the same council approved plans for a new Gaelscoil for the Ballyogan-Stepaside area, to be built on a relatively remote site that actually lies outside the catchment area it’s intended to serve. According to two parents of prospective pupils, this would result in children having to be driven to and from school every day.

In an appeal to An Bord Pleanála against the council’s decision, Brian Leeson and Helen O’Leary estimated that the additional private car trip demand generated by the 16-classroom school “may well exceed 220,000 trips” per year, with some parents doing two 14km round-trips per day, or 5,600km per year.

They say this “flies in the face” of the Smarter Travel programme as well as Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s policy that new schools should be located “close to the areas of greatest residential expansion,” in this case, “clusters of high-density ‘Celtic-Tiger’ era housing developments” in Ballyogan-Stepaside.

At present, Gaelscoil Sliabh Rua is housed in pre-fab buildings in Kiltiernan, to which most pupils are driven by car. But Leeson and O’Leary say relocating it to Carrickmines contradicts the council’s policy “to reduce reliance on car-based travel and to ensure more sustainable patterns of travel, transportation and development”.

A “mobility management plan” to encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transport has been drawn up for the relocated school. But the appellants say these options wouldn’t work for most children and the plan included one bus route that “ceased operation in 2009 and another bus route that does not serve the feeder area”. However, a spokeswoman for the county council insists that the site, which the council owned and was now providing for Gaelscoil Sliabh Rua, “while not at the heart of Stepaside, has good pedestrian, cycle and public transport access. It is also adjacent to existing homes and adjoining a major proposed public recreational facility.”

She notes that the catchment area extends from Rathfarnham to Ballyogan Avenue, with the “vast bulk” of junior infants coming from an area south of the M50 corridor, centred on Ballyogan, Belarmine and Kilgobbin. “The actual school site lies only 150m outside the defined catchment but very close to these clusters”. Given that Gaelscoileanna are bound to have larger catchment areas than standard primary schools, one might expect the department to have a “sustainable travel” policy geared towards their needs. But it doesn’t. Rural children have their school buses, but urban children must depend on public transport – or their parents’ cars.

Another Gaelscoil in Co Wicklow is facing a very disruptive move that could also result in children having to be driven to school by car. Gaelscoil an Inbhir Mhóir has been operating for 15 years on a temporary site to the south of Arklow, Co Wicklow, in the midst of new suburbs built during the boom period.

The Department of Education now proposes to relocate the school to a permanent site north of the town, some 4.5km away, even though more than 86 per cent of the families with children being educated there actually live on the south side. Thus, almost none of them are likely to walk or cycle to school. Such “smarter travel” options wouldn’t be feasible because of the distance involved, the fact that the road approach to the school has no pavements or cycle paths and the only viable route from the south to the north side is congested, incorporating a busy bridge dangerous for cyclists, according to one parent, Conall O’Connor.

“Parents, teachers and the school board have overwhelmingly voted to reject this proposed move on account of the accessibility issues and intend to actively resist it,” says O’Connor. “Needless to say, there was no consultation with any of these stakeholders.” There’s another row in Co Limerick over plans to relocate Coláiste Chiaráin in Croom, with a projected 1,000 post-primary students, to an unzoned site, beyond the village’s development boundary and with “clear deficiencies in terms of footpaths, lighting, drainage and road infrastructure,” according to An Taisce.

Limerick Co Council, which is now considering the proposal, has a policy that schools should be built “in tandem with residential development [and] located where possible, in close proximity to other community services, and accessible by various modes of transport and have regard to the principles of social integration”.

The existing school on a six-acre site in Croom would be replaced by the proposed new school on a 20-acre site at Skagh. The principal, Noel Malone, has said that it “just wouldn’t work” to extend the existing premises: “For a school of 1,000, I don’t think that you could put a bottleneck [such as this] in the middle of a fairly built-up area.”

An Taisce maintains that the board of management has “not provided any evidence that the current site is not suitable” for expansion, rather than opting for a location 1.5km away in a “rural, unzoned area with no services”, based on a mobility management plan which it describes as “deficient” and warns of an appeal if it’s approved.

Niall Cussen, senior planner in the Department of the Environment, said some of these site selection problems had arisen “as we move from essentially an emergency response to a schools accommodation crisis to a more integrated plan-driven approach”.

A new manual on sustainable travel, due out soon from the Department of the Environment, should help to clarify matters.