Dáil debates

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Adjournment Debate

Schools Building Projects.

8:00 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. It is an important issue in my area given the urgent need for the Minister for Education and Science to provide funding for a new school building for St. Mary's national school, Edgeworthstown, County Longford. I seek an update on the loss of essential teaching staff at the school despite rising roll numbers.

The reality for St. Mary's is that it needs a new 16-classroom school at the cost of €3.6 million, as compared to the shameful waste of €1.1 million from 2002 to date on temporary accommodation. Just in case basic maths is a problem for the Minister, the new school has already reached a cost of €4.7 million and that is without including fees of €120,000 paid to consultants or the €40,000 for ESB for the temporary prefabs and the rising cost associated with the delay in the commencement of works.

If the new school building were to be deferred for another few years, which is beyond contemplation, the cost of building it would have been totally thrown away on temporary accommodation, which would still be temporary and by then in urgent need of replacement or restoration. That is madness. As I have continually said, the Government is penny wise and pound foolish. It makes no economic sense to continue to throw away money on temporary accommodation that would be better utilised on permanent buildings, particularly as one third of the final cost has already been spent on temporary structures.

St. Mary's currently has 20 teachers and their pupils in prefabs. The school which is expecting to have 120 plus EAL pupils in September 2009, is losing three language support teachers. It currently has five language teachers for 99 EAL pupils, which again if you will forgive me for drawing attention to the basic maths, does not add up, and the children will suffer as a result. The general allocation for learning support will have to absorb the balance, encroaching on the already overburdened learning support teachers. The school is also to lose one class teacher. In September 2008, enrolment was five pupils above the appointment-retention figure of 367 and with the increase in class size it is now three short of the 375 appointment-retention figure. To retain the teacher, enrolment will have to increase by 25 pupils to achieve developing school status. St Mary's is a vibrant school which serves the community under the excellent care of the principal, Ms Helen O'Gorman. It provides a first class education for a rapidly increasing primary school-going population in Edgeworthstown and surrounding areas. It does so despite the limitations imposed by the Government, but the built environment is becoming more and more of an issue for teachers, pupils and parents. The population has grown by 68.4% in the five years from 2001-06 and enrolment has grown accordingly, but EAL has remained static. The school should be included in the Department of Education and Science's development area units.

I am asking the Minister to stop throwing good money after bad. Instead of ploughing more money on top of the third of the cost of the new building already spent into temporary accommodation which is totally unsuited for the purpose and facing rising costs, building must be permitted to go ahead at this school. I hope that in the Minister's reply, there will be a Christmas box for students, teachers and parents in the Edgeworthstown area. I should very much appreciate a favourable response to this important motion for this area of my constituency.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the House the position with regard to the proposed building project for St. Mary's national school in Edgeworthstown, County Longford and the position in relation to the allocation of teaching resources for the new school year.

St. Mary's national school was formed as a result of an amalgamation of St. Mary's boys' and St. Elizabeth's girls' national schools in September 2001. The St. Mary's boys' national school building was deemed suitable to act as a host for the school and it is operating from these premises at present. However, in the intervening years, enrolments have increased by over 60% at the school and the Department of Education and Science has provided temporary accommodation to meet this growing need for pupil places, including three new prefabs for the current school year. It accepts, however, that a new building is needed to provide adequately for the school.

A project to provide this new building is currently at stage 2 of the Department's architectural planning process, which is the initial sketch scheme stage. A revised stage 2 submission in this regard has been received from the school authority and this is currently being examined by the Department's professional and technical staff. While the Department is not in a position to say when the project will be allowed to proceed further after the stage 2 submission has been approved due to the level of demand on its capital budget, the Minister for Education and Science is committed to delivering the project as soon as the necessary funding is available. With regard to teaching resources, when the country was able to afford it, the Government reduced the basis on which primary teachers are allocated to schools from being based on an average number of pupils per teacher from 35 down to the current level of 27.

The change to a new average of 28 pupils per teacher has to be viewed in that context. Significant additional support went into schools, particularly in the area of special education. The Government also reduced class sizes for the most disadvantaged in our DEIS schools to an average of one teacher for every 20 pupils in junior classes and an average of one for every 24 pupils in senior classes and these will not be changing in 2009. When all the teachers in the system are added up, there is one for every 16 pupils in our primary schools.

It will be necessary in the more testing economic climate ahead for us to continue to target and prioritise our resources to maximum effect for everyone. While teacher numbers are important, numerous influential reports have highlighted the fact that teacher quality is the single most important factor, far above anything else, in improving educational outcomes for children. Ensuring high quality teaching and learning is a challenge and dealing with factors that inhibit this represents a challenge for the Government, the Department, school management and indeed the teacher unions.

The Department will be advising individual schools in the normal way in relation to staffing allocations. The preparatory work for this has commenced with the processing of enrolment data that has been received from schools. The staffing allocation processes, including notification to schools, will commence early in the new year. The allocation process includes appellate mechanisms under which schools can appeal against the allocation due to them under the staffing schedules. In addition to the mainstream classroom teachers the Department also allocates teaching resources to schools for special needs and language support. The final allocation to a school is also a function of the operation of the redeployment panels which provide for the retention of a teacher in an existing school if a new post is not available within the agreed terms of the scheme.

The Minister for Education and Science has no difficulty in setting out for this House or for the public generally the overall changes on aggregate teacher numbers to schools for the 2009-10 school year. The Minister will do this when the allocation processes have been completed. Furthermore, the staffing schedule will be published and it is a transparent and clear way of ensuring that schools are treated consistently and fairly and know where they stand.

At this time the priority for the Department within the resources available to it is to carry out those processes in a timely manner. Diverting resources in order to create staffing profiles for the school requested by the Deputy, information which at this time would only be speculative, could not be justified and would in fact impede the process.

The Minister for Education and Science is confident that as the global economy improves, it will be possible to build again on the significant achievements of recent years and do so in a manner consistent with overall prudent management of the economy. As the full extent of the global crisis seeps into public consciousness, the Minister believes there will be general acceptance that taking difficult decisions now in order to secure future economic prosperity and secure employment is the first imperative of Government.

Again, I thank the Deputy for raising the issue.