Dáil debates

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Adjournment Debate

Schools Building Projects.

7:00 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to speak on this important matter, namely, the need for the Minister for Education and Science to give an update on the application by St. Joseph's national school, Rathwire, Killucan, County Westmeath, for a new school building in light of increased enrolment and the rapid growth of the local population. I have already received a reply to a parliamentary question on this issue and, while I appreciate the Minister's agreement that additional accommodation will be required at the school to cater for the increase in enrolments due to the current and planned housing developments in the area, her overall response has not been satisfactory.

Outlining the investments due under the new national development plan is rather like telling children about Christmas and the presents Santa Claus is going to bring but then saying it does not apply to them. Promises about school building programmes in the past ten years have brought little in the way of results for many of our schools. I want to see a firm commitment to St. Joseph's school, which is bursting at the seams of its substandard buildings.

This fine school is a victim of its own success and the rapid expansion of the area. The population of the county has increased by 20% in the past ten years. The official enrolment at the end of September was 164 pupils and this is expected to increase to 175 by Christmas, with 19 more already enrolled for next September. By 2010 an enrolment of 400 or more is expected. Staff numbers at the school have increased from four to six teachers, in addition to the principal. The school is a valuable community asset but its future rests on the improvement of the built environment, which cannot be ignored by the Government. The school has been given a four acre site by the Bishop of Meath and all that is needed now is Government funding for the new building. Westmeath County Council will give all the assistance necessary to facilitate the advancement of the project.

The school's current classrooms are too small, with 32 pupils accommodated in 40 square meters. Three pre-fabs are being utilised to ease the pressure on space. Many pupils throughout the country have spent their school days in pre-fab accommodation but I do not want to see that happen to the children of Rathwire. Since 2000, the Government has spent €111 million on temporary accommodation instead of permanent classrooms despite warnings from the State financial watchdog that it would be cheaper to build new buildings.

We should not make the same mistake in this instance. St. Joseph's is surrounded by new housing developments and is anxious to accept all children who wish to enrol. I compliment the teachers, pupils, parents, the principal and the board of management for all the hard work they have put into making their dreams for the school a reality. I ask the Minister to give a firm commitment to helping this school in the interest of educational progression and health and safety. It is unfair to force children and teachers into accommodation when capacity is already maximised. The only blockage to progress at present is the Minister.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am replying to this motion on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the current position on St. Joseph's national school, Rathwire, Killucan, County Westmeath.

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 demands in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, the Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of school buildings and ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

The Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme from just over €90 million to €540 million this year. Under the lifetime of the national development plan, almost €4.5 billion will be invested in schools. This unprecedented level of capital investment reflects the commitment of the Government to continuing its programme of sustained investment in primary and post primary schools. This year over €300 million will be invested in large scale building projects concentrated mainly in the provision of school accommodation in rapidly developing areas.

The funding will facilitate construction work on over 150 large scale projects which will deliver over 15,000 additional permanent places in new schools and the extension and modernisation of facilities in existing schools for over 45,000 pupils. It will also enable the purchase of sites to facilitate the smooth delivery of the school building programme with a focus on site requirements in rapidly developing areas. The balance will be used to fund the other elements of the school building programme such as the summer works scheme, the small schools scheme and the permanent accommodation scheme. In total over 1,500 school building projects will be delivered in 2007.

St. Joseph's national school has a current staffing of one principal, five mainstream teachers and one learning support and resource teacher. The school has a current enrolment of 147 pupils and has experienced a 15% increase in enrolments over the past five years.

The school management authority made an application to the Department in February 2006 for capital investment in additional classroom accommodation. The application was assessed in accordance with the Department's published prioritisation criteria. As the Deputy will be aware, all applications for large scale capital funding are assessed against published prioritisation criteria. Progress on individual projects, such as the one in question, will be considered in the context of the multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

In common with all applications for major capital investment, the Department carries out a detailed examination of the demographic profile of an area, together with planned housing developments and other matters to ensure that any planned capital investment will meet the needs of the area as a whole for the foreseeable future. A recent submission on developments in the area has been received from the school authorities and is being examined by the Department. All schools are required as an interim measure to maximize the use of existing accommodation until the Department is in a position to make extra accommodation available.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise the issue of Dromclough national school, County Kerry. I attended the school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It has always had a high level of academic achievement. Enrolment is approximately 203 and the school has 11 teachers, three special needs assistants and a secretary. An application was made in April 2002 for new accommodation and a further application was submitted in January 2003. The school authorities received a letter from the Department of Education and Science in January 2006 confirming that approval had been granted for an eight classroom school. The school authorities, board of management, principal and teachers have been waiting for a site visit from the Department's technical team for almost two years. They believe that other schools, which received approval for building projects after January 2006, have made considerable progress and they are asking why their school has been ignored.

The school was placed on band 2.2 in the Department's banding system. The board of management believes the school should have been placed in a higher priority band on the basis that cognisance was not taken of the structural condition of the school building. Three classrooms built in 1964 are basically glass boxes measuring 49 sq. m., whereas the current regulation classroom size is 70 sq. m. The classrooms in question are a safety hazard in every sense and limited space is also bad for health. They are not linked by a corridor which means pupils must walk through working classrooms to reach the other part of the school building. Such conditions are unacceptable in this day and age.

A further section of the building was completed in 1981. Unfortunately, due to cutbacks at that time, proper materials were not used in construction. As a result, there are major structural defects with the entire section, in which I have seen subsidence. Floors have dropped, creating ledges and the roof leaks. When the heating system broke down in 2004 the school was informed by a plumber that the pipes in the section had been broken and had been leaking hot water into the ground for as many as 20 years. Water drainage pipes under the building were also broken and there were sewerage problems. Cracks have had to be filled in various parts of the section over the years.

The doors of the in-class toilet areas have to be planed regularly. A prefabricated building provided by the Department in 1991 is falling into serious disrepair. Accommodation was never provided for the resource teachers despite many applications being submitted. A sense of complete frustration led the school to buy a portakabin measuring 52 ft. by 12 ft. This is divided by a single partition into three spaces for the three resource teachers. Moneys for this purpose were primarily secured through fundraising.

The school does not have a staff room, principal's office or storage facilities in corridors or classrooms, nor does it have facilities for disabled people. The building's flat roof has outlived its lifespan. A site of 4.5 acres is available for a new building adjacent to the school grounds.

I am disappointed the Minister is not present for this debate. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, a fellow Kerry person and former teacher, to convey to the Minister the need to assemble a technical group to visit Dromclough national school. Other schools in County Kerry could be visited at the same time. Is the county so peripheral that the Department cannot get officials to visit us?

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin. The Minister thanks the Deputy for raising the matter as it affords her an opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and the position regarding the application for an extension to Dromclough national school, Listowel, County Kerry.

Modernising facilities in our schools presents major challenges given the legacy of underinvestment and the need to respond to emerging issues in areas of rapid population growth. The Government has demonstrated a commitment to improving the condition of our school buildings and ensuring accommodation facilities are made available to support a broad and balanced curriculum. This year alone, more than €540 million is being spent on school building and modernisation projects. Since 1997, a total of €3 billion has been invested in school buildings and this has delivered in excess of 7,800 projects.

While continuing to build on past achievements, investment this year has focused in particular on the provision of school accommodation in areas where the population is growing at a rapid rate. As further evidence of the Government's commitment, funding under the national development plan of approximately €4.5 billion will be invested in schools in the coming years.

In addition to the record levels of investment I have outlined, the programme for Government contains a wide range of commitments which will maintain momentum in the school building programme. I am sure Deputies will agree that, taken together with the committed funding in the coming years, there is clear evidence of the priority accorded to school building by the Government.

Furthermore, to reduce red tape and allow projects to progress at a faster pace, 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 together with the unprecedented level of funding available, these initiatives ensure building projects are delivered in the fastest timeframe possible.

Turning to the school in question, Dromclough national school is a co-educational primary school with a current enrolment of 194 pupils. Enrolments at this school have increased in recent years from 164 pupils in 2001. The school has a current staffing of a principal, seven mainstream assistants and three learning support-resource teachers.

The school has submitted an application to the Department for an extension 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 a principal, eight mainstream assistants and appropriate ancillary accommodation. The next step is to carry out a technical investigation of the existing building and site to determine its suitability. When this inspection has been completed the project will be progressed in the context of the school building and modernisation programme. I will convey to the Minister the Deputy's concern that the project be progressed as quickly as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and allowing me to outline the progress being made under the school building and modernisation programme and the position regarding the application for an extension to Dromclough national school, Listowel, County Kerry.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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The school has made no progress.