Wednesday, 21 May 2008
Question 88: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the steps he is taking to ensure adequate capacity for all primary school pupils from 1 September 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19730/08]
Under the programme for Government, my Department has established a developing areas unit to provide sufficient school accommodation in those areas experiencing the greatest population growth. The function of this unit is to liaise with local authorities, to identify where new schools are needed and to ensure that these schools are delivered in the fastest possible timeframe.
As part of a fast-track programme of construction for September 2008, my Department is building five 16 classroom primary schools and 25 eight classroom primary schools in those areas where school accommodation is under greatest pressure. More school places will be needed in many other places as well. This year, €586 million has been provided for the schools building programme. In addition to the fast-track programme, construction work is expected to be completed on about 48 large-scale primary school projects and 19 large scale post-primary school projects throughout the country. Additional projects will continue construction into 2009.
This programme will ease the pressure in the short to medium term. However, I am aware that the latest publication by the Central Statistics Office on population and labour force projections indicates that the population aged five to 12 years is projected to increase by at least 10% in the next decade. This will happen even with zero net migration and falling fertility rates. Depending on the extent of inward migration, the increase could be even greater. Meeting the demand for school places arising from these increases will in be a major challenge for my Department and for the State.
In general terms, population growth leading to pressure on primary and post-primary school accommodation is likely to be strongest in the areas along the east coast commuter belt, the greater Dublin area and in the areas surrounding other major cities. However, many other areas will also experience pressure.
At the moment, my Department is identifying the areas where significant additional accommodation will be needed for 2009 and onwards. This work will be done in consultation with local authorities. The findings of this process will be the basis of a further programme of construction for 2009 and 2010.
Future school accommodation needs are established by looking at overall population growth, recent and planned housing developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet demand for school places. My Department is satisfied that the approach it is now taking to the identification and delivery of extra school places, particularly in rapidly developing areas, will ensure that school places will be provided when and where they are needed.
Is there is a contingency fund for urgently needed replacement school buildings in his Department? Would this fund be used in a situation involving health and safety risks? I gave the Minister information relating to a school that is 109 years old, is physically crumbling and infested by rats and so on. An offer has been made, although it has not been accepted by the Department, to provide a school between now and September at a cost lower than that applying to the rental of prefabs, as was indicated by Deputy Quinn. This can be done at local level and I ask the Minister to take up this offer.
The Minister has been in his Department for two weeks and I genuinely wish him well. We will work with him on this side of the House but we must start from a basis of honesty. The honest position is there is chaos and crisis in the provision of primary classroom spaces for our children.
The Minister referred to the CSO projections. There will be a minimum of an extra 100,000 pupils in addition to the 450,000 primary school pupils we currently have. As we speak, the Minister's Department cannot inform Deputy Hayes or I how many of those children will be taught in prefabs.
I thought I was being honest in that I indicated to Deputy Quinn that I would write to him personally outlining all of the data he sought relating to prefabricated buildings.
I do not think the picture is as bad as the Deputy paints it. During my term as Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with for responsibility developing areas, I had many meetings with representatives of the planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Science. I met local authority managers in developing areas and we sat around the table to work out a series of protocols. An excellent programme is being put in place. For the first time local authorities in developing areas, or what we call hubs or gateways, are feeding information to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to give an accurate picture of what is happening, how much progress has been made, the number of houses and the anticipated population growth. This is something that was not done previously but is now in the remit of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
We in the Department of Education and Science will continue to liaise with local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure we get exact figures that will allow us to measure requirements precisely. We are satisfied we can meet the accommodation needs of pupils.