Tuesday, 24 October 2006
Question 94: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the action she proposes to take to address the failure to progress the proposed amalgamation of four secondary schools in Tuam; the reason the amalgamation has not progressed; the position on site selection and acquisition; the position on a schedule of accommodation; the timetable for the implementation of the amalgamation; and if she will take the action necessary to ensure this amalgamation and building project progresses. [34677/06]
Decisions on amalgamations are, in the first instance, a matter for the respective patron and trustees of the schools concerned. An agreement was reached by the respective patrons in late 2000 to rationalise provision of post-primary provision in the Tuam area to establish a single boys' and single girls' school. The amalgamation in each case is dependent on the availability of suitable accommodation.
On the girls' school it is proposed to provide a new school on a new site. The Office of Public Works, which acts on behalf of my Department with regard to site acquisitions generally, is considering a number of site proposals with the intention of acquiring a suitable site to facilitate the development of a new school building. Due to the commercial sensitivities of the site acquisition process, the Deputy will appreciate I am not in a position to comment further. On the boys' school the patron has offered to provide a site to accommodate the new school and is in discussions with the county council regarding the provision of services for the site.
I fully appreciate the sense of urgency felt by the schools and all those involved with them. In this regard it should be noted that the projects have been assigned a band 1 rating by my Department, which will positively influence the timescale for delivery of the project. As soon as the site issue is finalised, the building projects required to deliver the appropriate accommodation will be considered in the context of the School Building and Modernisation Programme 2006-2010.
Does the Minister recall a meeting she had with all Members of the Oireachtas from the Galway East constituency in 2004 to discuss this project? During the meeting, Members noted the seriousness of this issue and called for it to be addressed with urgency. Although the Minister expressed considerable interest at the time, no action has been taken in the intervening two years. She continually informs me that her officials are in discussion with the patron of the school and representatives of the local authority or that the property management section of the Office of Public Works is doing this, that or the other. Will she tell them to stop talking and do something practical in order that progress can be made on this project? The time for talking is over. Who is to blame for the lack of movement? Is it the Minister or her officials, because it is certainly not the school's board of management or its patron or staff?
I am delighted to learn there is a site and that all the difficulties identified by the Office of Public Works and the local council have been addressed, but that is not the information available to the Department.
The Office of Public Works, which has worked on this matter for several years, identified various sites but technical problems arose with all of them to the extent that it had to place further advertisements seeking suitable sites for the girls' school.
The closing date for receipt of site proposals was 8 August 2006 and technical assessments of these sites are being carried out, all other sites having been proven to be unsuitable. It is not possible to progress with construction of the school unless a site is approved.
The patron has identified a site for the boys' school but servicing provisions must be agreed with the council before progress can be made. I understand both parties are discussing the issue and as soon as they reach agreement, I will be more than happy to progress with the building project. I cannot sort the technical problems which appear to exist with regard to the proposed sites.
The Minister can sort out the matter if she instructs those concerned to stop talking and start doing practical work. The time for talking is over. A health and safety problem has arisen in one of the schools. In the event that this results in the injury or death of a member of staff or pupil, the Minister may not argue that she did not realise the gravity of the position. I have told her how serious the matter is and I ask her to allow both projects to proceed. If there is a difficulty regarding the girls' school, will she allow the boys' school to proceed separately?
A larger health and safety issue would arise if an unsuitable site was used for a school building. The patron and council are in discussions regarding the boys' school. The Department wrote to the patron on 25 September, almost a month ago, seeking an update but has not received a reply. Perhaps the Deputy will contact the patron to ascertain the latest position.
The Department will be pleased to progress with the girls' school as soon as a suitable site is found. The closing date for receipt of proposed sites was 8 August. A second advertisement was placed because sites proposed following the previous one failed technical assessments. Further technical assessments are being carried out on the proposed sites received by the latest deadline.
I recognise that difficulties have arisen with the project and have indicated this to the schools and their patrons and boards of management. For this reason, the project has received a band 1 priority rating. The problem of site selection is not of the Department's making. As soon as it is resolved, I will be more than happy to progress the school project.