Thursday, 23 November 2006
Schools Building Projects.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the provision of a new community school in Ballinamore, County Leitrim. As the Minister of State is aware, this is a long-running saga. A new community school was promised in 2001. Five years later, parents, teachers and students are still waiting for it. The Minister of State will be aware of the particular difficulties faced by the pupils and teachers at Ballinamore. The post-primary school operates between three different sites and students are obliged to travel up to 1 km between classes. This is totally unacceptable and the community in Ballinamore is becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress. There are also serious health and safety concerns involved. Surely the pupils and teachers should not be obliged to put up with this situation any longer.
As already stated, the provision of a new school was sanctioned in 2001 prior to the last general election. In the interim, a full-year group of students have completed their entire secondary education in the unacceptable conditions to which I refer. Despite the fact that the Department of Education and Science predicted that a new school would open in 2003, the Ballinamore community school action group was this week obliged to launch a letter-writing campaign to highlight the delays in providing a new secondary school. One can imagine the frustration of the members of this group who, following a long campaign, are still in the position where they must write letters to the Minister for Education and Science. I am aware of the announcement last week that a possible site for a new school has been selected and that negotiations are under way. However, this has happened on several previous occasions. The community in Ballinamore needs a new school now and I ask that the Minister of State give a commitment that it will be provided within a specific timeframe.
I am also pleased to have the opportunity to raise the urgent need to provide a primary school at Dromore West, County Sligo. Parents of children who attend Dromore West central national school are extremely frustrated by the continuing delays. Plan after plan for their new school has been submitted and then rejected. The parents are also concerned about the terrible conditions that obtain in the school. These conditions continue to deteriorate. The Health and Safety Authority has already expressed a real concern regarding the hopelessly overcrowded conditions that the teachers and pupils must endure every day. Those conditions read like something from a Dickensian novel.
One teacher operates solo in the old church classroom. Staff members must boil a kettle to make a cup of tea in the classroom and, having finished their tea, they must wash the cup in the same hand basin in which they wash their hands. The so-called office of the school secretary is in a tiny girls' cloakroom and she has the pleasure of sharing this cubbyhole with the principal when she is involved in administrative duties. Recently a male teacher taught in the school and he did not even have the luxury of a toilet to use. How can any teacher or student be expected to spend his or her days in these conditions?
It is difficult to believe that, according to the statistics, Ireland is the second richest country in Europe. Many of my colleagues in the European Parliament look to Ireland as an example of economic success. There is not much sign of such success in Dromore West primary school. I am sure the Minister of State believes no teacher or student should have to endure these conditions. The parents, teachers and students need a new school, large enough to accommodate the expanding population of the village, for which 100 new houses are proposed. While the process is under way, the community wants a guarantee from the Minister that there will be no further delays or hold ups.
I thank the Deputy for affording me the opportunity to outline the proposals of the Department of Education and Science regarding the provision of a new community school in Ballinamore, County Leitrim, and also the need for a new school in Dromore. Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task, given the legacy of decades of under investment in this area, as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office, the Government has shown a focused determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. As evidence of this commitment, approximately 1,300 building and modernisation projects will be active in our primary and post-primary schools during 2006. More than €500 million is being spent on primary and post-primary projects throughout the country. This unprecedented capital investment is testament to the importance this Government places to improving the quality of accommodation in our schools.
I refer to the specific matters raised. In 1994 two second level schools, Our Lady of Fatima convent secondary school and St. Feilim's College, amalgamated in Ballinamore. The newly amalgamated school continued to operate from two separate buildings situated half a mile apart. In 2001, a further amalgamation was agreed involving the local vocational school and a common enrolment policy was put in place. The management model for the proposed school was referred to the then Minister for Education who, in May 2001, decided in favour of a community school. The long-term projected enrolment for the new community school is expected to be approximately 400 pupils. The need for a new school building to house the amalgamated schools is acknowledged by the Department and, as an amalgamation project, the building project for the new community school has a band rating of 1.4 in line with the revised prioritisation criteria.
A suitable site for the new school building is required before architectural planning can commence. The property management section of the Office of Public Works, which acts on behalf of the Department of Education and Science in site acquisitions generally, has been exploring the possibility of acquiring a site for Ballinamore community school. A number of options have been considered, including the site of one of the existing schools as the site of amalgamation. The preferred option, however, is the location of the new school on a greenfield site. Over the past few years a number of sites have been identified as a location for the proposed new school but their acquisition met with difficulties. Following a re-advertisement for sites, new proposals were received. All site options were examined by the OPW, which has identified what it considers to be the most suitable site available. The Department has conveyed its approval to the OPW to pursue the acquisition of this site as soon as possible. Due to the commercial sensitivities of site acquisitions, it is not proposed at this stage to identify specific sites under consideration. When a suitable site has been secured, the building project for Ballinamore will be considered in the context of the School Building and Modernisation Programme 2006-2010.
The building project for Dromore West national school was one of a number approved by the Department announced 2005 to progress to architectural planning. This project is at stage 3 — developed sketch scheme. The brief is to provide adequate accommodation for a principal and four classroom teachers, with the possibility of future expansion. A letter issued to the board of management in May 2006 requesting additional stage 3 information, which was submitted by the board in August 2006. The stage 3 submission received in the Department deviated from the agreed brief for the building project and, consequently, the Department wrote to the board of management seeking a revised stage 3, in accordance with the agreed brief. When the revised stage 3 submission is received in the Department, a meeting will be convened, which will involve the board of management representative and the design team presenting the submission, outlining key aspects of same. Any issues or commentary by the Department will be addressed at the meeting and the minutes of the meeting will issue to the school afterwards as a formal record of the meeting.
It is envisaged that, unless there are very exceptional circumstances involved, the meeting will be sufficient to authorise the project to progress to the next stage of architectural planning, subject, if necessary, to formal confirmation by the school and the design team that issues raised by the Department have been addressed. In the case of all large capital projects on hand within the school building section, progression of projects to construction will be considered in the context of the school building programme.