Dáil debates

Thursday, 6 April 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Schools Building Projects.

5:00 am

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for the Adjournment and the Minister of State for replying.

Cavan No. 1 national school plays an important part in the education of young people in the busy town of Cavan. It is a Church of Ireland based school but many of its pupils are from different backgrounds and nationalities. I first got involved with this school more than ten years ago when numbers were small and the building was in an impossible situation for modern education. Money was provided for restructuring and heating but since then, as the figures will show, it has an enrolment of 61 with up to 20 on a waiting list. There are two teachers, with the principal dealing with 36 children, covering four classes in one room. There are 25 children in the other room.

They welcome the fact that they have been provided support under the devolved grant but, unfortunately, when the issue is being dealt with in a listed building, costs are very high. For example, under the regulations insisted on by An Taisce, wooden windows must be fitted all around the building even though only one wall can be seen from the road since the building is in a courtyard. They had hoped to get a summer grant scheme but that did not materialise.

It appears the voluntary sector will have to raise up to €200,000, which in a small parish is unacceptable. For the particular project the voluntary committee, led by the principal, has raised more than €30,000 and is in the process of organising a major auction in the next few weeks. Is it fair that a principal helping to organise this project, overseeing the building work and teaching full-time leaves the school at 12 midnight and is back at 6.30 a.m. to ensure everything is done and in order?

Since devolved grants were first introduced I have supported the system and believe it has delivered good value for money to the Department and to schools. The cost per pupil is only a fraction of the Department's system but in this case sufficient money has not been provided to take into account the structure of the building and the fact that it is a listed building and all that entails.

The past history of the school shows clearly that the chairperson, principal, other teachers and parents have more than met their obligations and will compare with any school in Ireland. I hope that common sense will prevail and that realistic additional funding will be made available to ensure that a usable good structure will be put in place.

It is likely that the numbers will justify a fourth teacher within the next 12 months, leading to the necessity for prefabs, which will curtail further the play area. This means the front space used for car parking will have to be drained, tarred and secured to have a decent playground.

Since this was a listed building an architect who specialises in the field had to be employed to meet An Taisce and Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regulations and added more than €60,000 to the cost. Structural engineers, quantity surveyors and archaeologists had also to be employed. The type of building and the working timescale under the devolved grant limited the number of new builders interested and increased the cost.

In a letter to the Department, the principal said there was a need to provide access to all areas and a toilet for a child with spina bifida enrolled in September. The easiest option, because of its location, was to convert the school office and relocate that office. The principal is trying to deal with all situations.

When the devolved grant was granted there were a small number of non-English speaking children but September saw a large increase for all schools in Cavan, including Cavan No. 1 national school. The school now has a full-time language teacher but no classroom. She shares a room with a language support-resource teacher who is in attendance 17.5 hours per week. If the residence were furbished, it would house two rooms suitable for language teachers, learning support and so on.

The school is growing. Within the parish numbers are increasing dramatically. I ask that the position be looked at in a compassionate and caring way. The original quote which was more than €600,000 has been brought down to €500,000 but the grant will not meet it. This group has engaged in fund-raising in the past for previous projects. This project has raised more than €30,000. It hopes to raise more at the auction but it is not possible to raise €200,000.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I reply on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. I am pleased to have the opportunity to outline the position of the Department in regard to the building project at Cavan No. 1 national school, County Cavan.

The school is accommodated in a listed building of Georgian design. It has an enrolment of 61 pupils and a staffing of a principal teacher, one assistant teacher, one shared learning support-resource teacher and one language support teacher. I join in Deputy Crawford's tribute to principals of schools. The work they do is extraordinary. In a smaller school of this type the principal must perform teaching duties and the entire burden of administration falls on her shoulders. All that is done diligently and without complaint by the principals who serve the Department so well in that regard. In the larger schools the principal does not have to engage in intensive teaching duties. In those cases there is a large staff and pupil enrolment to manage.

The school was offered a devolved grant of €345,000 under the small schools scheme in 2005 to extend and refurbish the school. The board of management accepted the grant offered and proceeded with the architectural planning of the project. Generally, the Department of Education and Science is moving towards a model of devolving funding, responsibility and authority as appropriate for building projects directly to school management authorities. I agree with Deputy Crawford that, in general, the system has worked well. Devolving of funding to school management authorities allows them to have control of their projects, assists in moving projects more quickly to tender and construction and can also deliver better value for money. The assistance of the principals, the chairs and members of boards of management are invaluable with their local knowledge and their willingness to give of their time to forward these projects.

The small schools scheme was originally introduced on a pilot basis for 20 schools in the 2003 schools building programme. Owing to the positive response from schools the scheme was extended in the schools building programmes of 2004, 2005 and 2006. While appropriate for many schools, the Department is aware that the scheme is not necessarily suitable for all national schools seeking to refurbish their school building or to build new accommodation. It is not the intention of the scheme to leave schools with massive fundraising requirements. Rather, the level of funding should determine the scope of works undertaken. However, in some cases the school site or building can be problematic and this appears to be the case in the school in question. In other cases, the extent of the required work is too great for the funding available under the scheme. In such circumstances, schools have a number of choices. They can reduce the scope of intended works, fundraise to cover the shortfall or withdraw from the scheme and be considered for inclusion in the mainstream school building programme in line with the project's priority band rating.

As I stated, the board of management of Cavan No. 1 national school accepted the grant offered and proceeded with the architectural planning of the project. The extent of the building which the board of management can construct is determined by the sensitive location and nature of the site. The school subsequently applied for and received planning permission for the construction of two new classrooms, ancillary accommodation and external works subject to a number of conditions, including the requirement that all works be supervised by a suitably qualified archaeologist. Construction work commenced in December 2005 and is ongoing.

The board of management has submitted an application for additional funding which was considered by the appeals board which requested that further inquiries be made regarding the application. When the inquires are completed the application will be re-examined by the appeals board. The Department will continue to work with the school management to ensure an appropriate solution is found for the school and departmental officials will be in contact with the school shortly. I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position to the House.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 25 April 2006.