Dáil debates

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Adjournment Debate

Schools Refurbishment.

4:00 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to see that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is also dealing with education matters. On Monday night, in St. Angela's school in Cork, I attended one of the most aggressive and frustrated public meetings I have encountered in my nine years of public life. This school is not in my constituency but many of its pupils come from the south of the city. I know the principal well and am aware of the standing the school has in Cork city, despite the fact that its infrastructure is almost collapsing. There are 524 students in the school and a waiting list of more than 90 applicants because of the reputation it has attained as a consequence of its ethos, tradition and academic success.

The school was promised refurbishment funding eight years ago by the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin. There were some complications because the site is located on the side of St. Patrick's Hill in Cork. In addition, there was a requirement to extend the site into a convent next door to facilitate the refurbishment. Nevertheless, a delay of eight years is unacceptable.

Last April, a public meeting was called out of utter frustration that nothing was happening. Following that meeting, in the build up to the election, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, met the individuals concerned and gave a clear commitment that so long as the school management could iron out some technicalities, which it has now done comprehensively, the funding would be made available. Last Monday night, however, in the presence of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State at that Department, Deputy Kelleher, the impression was given that funding may well be a problem in the short to medium term, despite the wait of more than eight years for basic refurbishment work. This is unacceptable.

Physical education classes in the school are held in a room that is 9% of the regulation size for a new school. It is not even as large as the floor area at the centre of this Chamber. Pupils and teachers are forced to use makeshift laboratories for science lessons. These are merely adjusted classrooms in which students are not allowed even to light bunsen burners because of the risk of fire in rooms that have not been equipped for that type of activity.

It is a school with a fantastic reputation but a hopeless infrastructure. Students, parents, teachers and the school management have been patient until now, but their anger was evident last Monday night, directed primarily at Government Deputies but also at Opposition politicians. They believe they have been led up the garden path on this issue and their anger was stronger than I have seen at any public meeting in recent times. I ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and National Resources to do what he can to encourage the Minister for Education and Science to prioritise this project.

Schools are developed and funded in Ireland if the Minister decides to prioritise a particular project. The bureaucracy and frustration experienced since the summer by the school management and parents' association in dealing with the Department has been extraordinary. Attempting to get basic agreement on a valuation of the site, for example, which the nuns in the convent are willing to sell to the Department, has been ongoing despite an independent valuation having taken place.

I am endeavouring to kick-start and push this project along so the next time there is an allocation of funds, this project may be moved from second to third stage in the eight-stage process of refurbishing or building a new school. We should see some progress in that effort the next time there is an allocation of funding for design and build programmes within secondary schools. I hope the Minister has some good news to take back to the school.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South, Green Party)
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At the outset I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and also the position of St. Angela's College, Patrick's Hill, Cork city.

Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of underinvestment in this area, as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office this Government has demonstrated a focused determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and ensure appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

As evidence of this commitment, over €540 million will be spent on school building and modernisation projects in the current year on primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. Since 1997, a total of €3 billion has been invested in school buildings and this has delivered more than 7,800 school building projects. This further investment of over €540 million is building on these achievements and is focused in particular on the provision of school accommodation in areas where the population is growing at a rapid rate.

As further evidence of our commitment, NDP funding of €4.5 billion will be invested in schools over the coming years. The Deputy will agree this record level of investment is a positive testament to the high priority the Government attaches——

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Minister is sounding more like the Taoiseach every day.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South, Green Party)
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——to ensuring school accommodation is of the highest standard possible.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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One never knows.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South, Green Party)
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Turning to the specific matter in hand, which I am sure will interest Deputy Coveney, St. Angela's College is an all girls' post-primary school which had an enrolment of 521 pupils in 2006 and 2007. Enrolments at the school have remained stable over the past five years.

An extension and refurbishment project proposed for the school is at the early stages of architectural planning. The existing school site is restricted. The trustees have advised the Department that the Ursuline Order is willing to sell the convent building and gardens to the Department and that they are prepared to cede to them the current school building and site. The Department requested the projects design team to complete a schedule of accommodation based on 500 pupils giving consideration to the utilisation of the existing school building and site only; and utilisation of the existing school building and site and the St. Angela's convent building and grounds.

The design team quantity surveyor was requested to update the estimated costs for the proposed project, taking into account decanting costs and the implications of the potential options. It is understood, following consideration by the design team, that to provide accommodation for a 500 pupil school, the convent building and gardens will be required. The convent building and grounds have been independently valued and this information is currently being considered by the Department.

Progression of this project is predicated on the acquisition of the convent building and gardens and the extension and refurbishment of the existing buildings, which will include the need to decant the existing cohort of students. The proposed building project for St. Angela's will be considered for progression in the context of the multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

I thank the Deputy once again for raising the matter and allowing me to outline the position regarding St. Angela's School, Patrick's Hill, Cork city.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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I appreciate the opportunity to raise the matter of another school in a different part of the country on the Adjournment this evening. My contribution deals with the national school in Creeslough, which is probably one of the most picturesque little villages in my constituency. It is situated on the N56 between Letterkenny and Dunfanaghy. On one side of the village is the majestic mountain of Creeslough, which the Minister is probably familiar with as it is in a part of the country he frequents. On the other side of the village is the broad Atlantic.

This nice little town is the birthplace of "The Girl from Donegal", who is probably a past pupil of the school, the well-known and much-loved Bridie Gallagher. It has also been immortalised in verse and song by the great Percy French, and I am sure some present are familiar with the beautiful melody "They are Cutting the Corn around Creeslough Today". I am here to deal with the matter of Scoil Mhuire in Creeslough.

The school was built in 1959 as a three-teacher school. In 1976 a further two classrooms were added to the building and since then, little or no work has been carried out on the fabric of the school. This leaves the existing building completely inadequate for present day curriculum demands.

The school now has to accommodate seven staff, including five regular teachers, a learning support teacher and a home-school liaison officer. All the classes are being taken in five old-fashioned and dated classrooms. The board of management, staff and parents are very concerned at the lack of basic facilities for the pupils of Scoil Mhuire. They urgently want to have the existing classrooms modernised to concur with present day standards and requirements.

A general purpose room, a necessity for all such schools, is required, along with extra standard facilities such as an office, a staff room, secretarial accommodation and a sports hall. The Creeslough community has already raised a local contribution in excess of €60,000 for the project, an indication of its commitment to the project.

An application for these absolutely necessary facilities has been with the Department for some time. Meanwhile, the pupils and teachers of Scoil Mhuire are endeavouring to do their best in conditions that do not meet modern standards of accommodation for national schools.

This evening I am appealing to the Minister to give their application her immediate attention and grant this project the highest priority. We simply cannot afford to wait year after year with the young pupils of Creeslough being deprived of these basic requirements. The people of Creeslough have done their bit and it is now up to the Minister for Education and Science to respond positively to their just demands.

I trust the Minister for Communications, Energy and National Resources, who is deputising for the Minister for Education and Science, will contact his Cabinet colleague and impress upon her the urgency of dealing with this school, which has been waiting for funding for so long. I know when the Minister visits Donegal in the near future, he will certainly earn some credit if the project is complete.

5:00 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South, Green Party)
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I will certainly impress upon the Minister for Education and Science the importance of the project. I look forward to returning to Donegal this winter and again in future years, and I hope to see a brand new shiny school there.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the position regarding the provision of additional accommodation at Scoil Mhuire, Creeslough, County Donegal.

Modernising facilities in our schools presents major challenges given the legacy of underinvestment as well as the need to respond to emerging challenges in areas of rapid population growth. Bearing this in mind, this Government has demonstrated a commitment to improve the conditions of our school buildings and ensure accommodation supports are available for a broad and balanced curriculum.

This year, over €540 million will be spent on school building and modernisation projects. Since 1997, a total of €3 billion has been invested in school buildings and this has delivered more than 7,800 school building projects. Building on past achievements, this investment will focus in particular on the provision of school accommodation in areas where the population is growing at a rapid rate. As further evidence of our commitment, NDP funding of approximately €4.5 billion will be invested in schools in the coming years.

In addition to the record levels of investment, the programme for Government contains a wide range of commitments to build on and maintain the momentum of the school building programme. Taken together with the committed funding in the coming years, this is evidence of the priority accorded to school building by the Government.

On top of this, to reduce red tape and allow projects to move faster, responsibility for smaller projects has been devolved to school level. Standard designs have also been developed for eight and 16-classroom schools to facilitate speedier delivery of projects and save on design fees. The design and build method is also used to expedite delivery where the use of standard designs is not possible. Taken with the unprecedented level of funding available, these initiatives ensure that building projects are delivered in the fastest timeframe possible.

Scoil Mhuire, Creeslough, is a co-educational primary school with a September 2007 enrolment of 119 pupils. Enrolments at this school have decreased in recent years from 125 pupils in 2001 to 119 pupils in 2007. The school has a current staffing of principal, four mainstream assistants, two learning support-resource teachers and one Breaking the Cycle post.

The school has submitted an application to the Department for capital funding towards the provision of additional accommodation and the long-term staffing figure on which accommodation needs will be based has been determined and notified to the school authority. It has been agreed that appropriate accommodation should be provided to cater for a long-term projected staffing of principal, eight mainstream assistants and appropriate ancillary accommodation. The building project required will be considered in the context of the multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter and allowing me to outline the progress being made under the school building and modernisation programme and the position for the provision for a new school building at Scoil Mhuire, Creeslough, County Donegal.