Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Priority Questions

Schools Building Projects.

3:00 pm

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the number of applications submitted to her Department for extensions, additional classrooms, and new school buildings; when all of these will be fully delivered; the number of building projects given the go-ahead to proceed during the past 12 months; the number of these projects which have actually started construction work; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10994/07]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The Government is determined to ensure that every child is educated in a suitable and comfortable environment. Since 1997, great advances have been made in transforming school accommodation throughout the country through an investment of €3 billion. This has funded more than 7,800 individual school projects in the past seven years alone. The National Development Plan 2007-13 will involve an investment of more than €4.5 billion in school accommodation. The first roll-out of the new NDP will be in the current year with a budget for 2007 of €542 million-€306 million at primary and €236 million at post-primary level.

While the challenge before us in reversing decades of under-investment in school buildings and in responding to emerging needs in new population areas is great, we are making huge progress. Currently, my Department has in the region of 1,300 applications for building works on the main building programme. Applications range from small-scale projects in existing schools to new schools. A number of schools would have applications for more than one project.

The level of work being done under the school building programme is at an all-time high. The number of projects approved under all the different schemes last year was over 1,300. A further 1,500 projects are expected to be delivered in 2007. The 1,300 projects approved last year include 109 large-scale projects, 778 schools benefiting from the summer works scheme and 210 schools approved under the small schools and permanent accommodation schemes.

Of the 109 large-scale projects announced last year, 55 were approved in February and April 2006 and 54 in November 2006 to proceed to tender and construction over the subsequent 12 to 15 month periods. The Department's main focus is on setting the initial parameters for these projects. Thereafter, responsibility for progression to detailed design, planning permission, tendering and construction is devolved to local school management authorities and their design teams. This approach facilitates a steady stream of these projects proceeding to construction during the course of 2007 and into early 2008.

To date, school authorities have already commenced construction on 17 of these projects and it is intended most of the remainder will commence construction during 2007. Given the timeframe for moving to construction was 12 to 15 months, and the earliest of these projects were announced 13 months ago, I am satisfied they are on schedule. As I said, 778 schools were given approval to proceed with refurbishment projects as part of the 2006 summer works scheme. More than 95% of these projects have been undertaken, with the remainder due to be delivered later in 2007.

During 2006, approval was also given to 210 schools under the small schools and permanent accommodation schemes. These schemes enable schools to address their accommodation needs on a devolved basis without the need for major interaction with my Department. Projects announced in 2006 typically commence construction in 2007.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

To date, 68 of these projects are under construction and it is expected the remainder will have commenced construction during 2007.

To conclude, there has been an unprecedented level of activity under the school building programme in recent years. While increased investment has been a central reason for this, the introduction of new schemes and changes in how projects are managed have also made a major difference.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I accept the figures that have been announced for approval but, in terms of the number actually progressing, the pace of delivery once a project has been announced is quite slow. Is the Minister satisfied that when projects are announced the technicians arrive on site in time, which is another issue on which I have received several complaints?

Will the Minister outline how much prefabricated accommodation has cost in the past year and the expected lifetime of a prefab? I had occasion to visit a school recently where the prefabs arrived the same year I was born and are still being used — that is a significant period. In the same school, a bicycle shed was converted to a classroom decades ago and is still in use. That school is still awaiting word of approval from the Department.

On 25 October the Minister claimed on "Morning Ireland" that the problem in Laytown had been sorted out in two weeks. Five months on, will she clarify the position in regard to the school in Laytown, where I understand planning permission had been sought on a site the Department did not own or had not signed contracts for ownership of? Is this the responsibility of the Department or the Office of Public Works?

What number of new classrooms will be provided specifically to deal with the reduction in class size which is promised from September? Why the lack of transparency with regard to the building programme? Will the Minister allow the position to return to one where schools could see in what position they were on the Department's website?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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We are committed to delivering the two new schools for Laytown on schedule. Two portions of land were needed for this. I announced in October that a deal had been done for the purchase of the larger portion of land. The owner of that portion of land, which is needed for the development of the new school, has indicated he is very happy with the deal.

A second, smaller portion of land was desirable for the temporary accommodation which would be needed pending the building of the new school and for access. Difficulties have arisen with this site, which is why, with the written permission of the owner, we applied last week for planning permission for the temporary school on the larger portion of land. Meath County Council has indicated to us it will allow this to progress as quickly as possible through its planning procedures, so I am hopeful, providing there are no major delays in the planning process, we will be on site in May to ensure the temporary building will be provided in September for the students who need it.

The indication given in October referred to the larger portion of land. There seems to be confusion among people who thought we were referring to a different portion of land.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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It was not sorted either way.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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There were two portions of land in question.

With regard to the number of classrooms needed due to class size, every new teacher will obviously need a new class. Some 5,000 extra teachers have been provided in the past five years, which adds pressure, given there is a direct link between the reduction in class size and the provision of classrooms.

Of those classrooms provided last year and being provided this year, a number are resource rooms for the special needs teachers who have been appointed. We are very conscious of the fact not every school had the space for the special needs teachers but we appointed the teachers anyway because it is better to have the teacher who could support the child rather than waiting for the classroom.

Through the permanent initiative scheme and the small schools scheme, where schools have been extended, in most cases the classrooms and in particular the resource rooms are required for extra teachers, be that due to reductions in class size or the development of schools.