Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Schools Building Projects.
It is with a certain level of regret that I raise this matter on the Adjournment this evening. In February, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, gave a commitment that construction of a new primary school at Star of the Sea in Passage West would go ahead. We are now three months from the end of the year and given a number of factors it seems a sod will not be turned in the Passage West area and that it will be business as usual for teachers, school staff, pupils and parents over the next school year.
It is unfortunate that the Minister has not come to the Chamber given his familiarity with the issue having represented the Cork South Central area in the past, and particularly so given that a series of promises were made relating to the school, which coincided with every general election and local election over the past ten years; if one was to track the dates of press statements from the Government and the dates of general elections one would see they are almost placed on top of one another. It is unfortunate that the Minister has not come to the Chamber this evening. However, I hope that some comfort for the local community in Passage West can be drawn from what the Minister of State has to say in his response.
I would not like to hear the Government hiding behind some current economic situation given that it is ten years since the first promise was made that a new school would be built in the Passage West area. Given that the local community has been waiting very patiently for this, it would be unfair for the Minister to push the patience of the local community any further.
On the first day of school this September, we witnessed 400 children being dropped off at a school built for 150 pupils - more than twice the capacity for which it was originally designed. The car park and play area no longer exist because they are full of prefabs. The over-congestion in the school makes day-to-day services and extracurricular activities, which operate outside the classroom, impossible for the school to provide.
Will the Minister give a commitment that the school will commence this year? Seven weeks ago, Cork County Council asked for further information in regard to the design brought forward by the Minister and his Department. I cannot figure out why it has taken almost two months for the Department to respond. I hope the Minister will indicate that the architect will be given a deadline to ensure the drawings are issued to Cork County Council, that the planning process will continue and that a decision will be made on the application in the coming weeks.
Will the Minister acknowledge the local community, which deserves any credit on this issue? It took its campaign to the streets of Cork city and the national and local media which eventually resulted in progress. It belies the notion that Fianna Fáil in government is not good for one's community. The local community was told by Ministers for Education and Science to leave the issue with them and that they would get back to it but it was only when the community stopped playing that game and went public that real action was taken and the Department started to issue it with meaningful responses.
I would like to know if the Department has issued the further information and drawings to Cork County Council. I would also like the Minister to give an assurance that construction will begin on Star of the Sea primary school before the end of the year and that funding for the school will not be lost as the Department prepares for the Estimates for the 2010 school year.
Dara Calleary (Minister of State with special responsibility for Public Service Transformation and Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Lynch for raising the issue and sympathise with him on last weekend's all-Ireland result. I share his pain. The Minister for Education and Science could not come to the House and asked me to take this matter for him.
Modernising facilities in existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth such as that referred to by the Deputy is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.
All applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity, etc., leading to an appropriate accommodation solution.
As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners. The original criteria were revised and refined in 2004.
Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project - in other words, a proposed building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it.
There are four band ratings overall, of which band one is the highest and band four the lowest. Band one projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists but there is a high demand for pupil places while a band four project makes provision of desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities such as a library or new sports hall.
The proposed new school building for Star of the Sea primary school has been assigned a band one rating. As the Deputy will be aware, in February, the Minister for Education and Science announced details of 43 major building projects to proceed to tender and construction in which the Star of the Sea primary school was included.
All major projects on the Department's capital programme progress through the same structured process of architectural planning which is divided into clearly defined stages. The stages of architectural planning are set out in the Department's design team procedures and are necessary to comply with Department of Finance guidelines which require that capital projects be fully designed prior to going to tender. They also ensure proper cost management of capital projects and facilitate compliance with statutory and public procurement requirements.
At present, there are five stages involved in the progression of major school projects through architectural planning. This project is currently at an advanced stage of architectural planning and a stage 2b submission is expected shortly from the design team.
The brief for this project is to provide a new 16 classroom generic repeat design, GRD, school building, including a general purpose hall and ancillary accommodation, on a greenfield site. An application has been made for planning permission and a decision is awaited. An application for a fire safety certificate has also been made. I will ask the Minister to respond directly to the delay in providing extra information.
The allocation for school buildings in 2009 is almost €614 million which represents a significant investment in the school building and modernisation programme. This level of funding for the building programme at a time of huge pressure on public finances is a sign of the very real commitment of this Government to investing in school infrastructure and will permit the continuation of progress in the overall improvement of school accommodation.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and will revert to him with specific details on the current situation.