Dáil debates

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Adjournment Debate

Schools Building Projects.

10:00 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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It is not with any great pleasure that I rise here tonight to state some facts about the ongoing unsatisfactory situation regarding the proposed amalgamation of Cahir boys' national school and Our Lady of Mercy national school in my town, Cahir. This has been continuing for more than ten years. In 2002 a technical report was put forward for the amalgamation of these schools. In April 2004 all parties approved a further technical report and amalgamation process. I pay tribute to the Sisters of Mercy in Our Lady of Mercy primary school and Cahir boys' national school for the education they have given to many generations in Cahir.

The amalgamation schedule was approved and agreed and the boards of management of both schools agreed to put a special needs unit on the site. Everybody was pleased with this and hoped for progress. Since then two principals have retired and I wish them a happy retirement and the very best to their replacements. The least I can do for the people of south Tipperary, who elected me is to be honest, and I expect the same from the officials whom I meet here in Dublin.

I received a letter on 26 August 2009 in reply to my letter about the amalgamation of the sites of the two schools. The letter referred to a letter of June 2007 from the Department of Education and Science to the Sisters of Mercy and stated that the Department was still awaiting a reply. It also states that the Department sent a reminder to the Sisters of Mercy on 25 August 2009. I took this information seriously and on behalf of the boards of management contacted the Sisters of Mercy in Cahir who referred me to their Reverend Mother in Cork. I received a response from the recruitment manager stating that she had sent a reply to the Department's letter on 11 July 2007 saying the sisters would be disposed in principle to the sale of the current school site, etc. In reply to a further letter from the Department's planning and building unit dated 24 October 2007 she wrote on 10 December 2007 giving a map and the value of the land provided by a property consultant. Since that date, despite contacting the school division at the Department and being referred to the site acquisitions division, the Sisters of Mercy have received no reply from the Department. The ongoing resolution of this matter rests with the Department, not with the Sisters of Mercy.

I am asking the Minister of State for clarity, openness and honesty. It is unfair to blame anybody. I accept there are budgetary problems and constraints but it is unfair and morally wrong to say that sites were not available and letters not replied to. I appreciate the Minister's efforts and those of many officials in the Department but the people who write these letters should be rooted out because they do not deserve a place in the public service.

We should deal with the matter honestly and openly, try to agree a value and make a deal to purchase the land between the two schools. It would be a splendid amalgamation, and although many adjustments need to be made, everybody is ready for that work. The pupils, the staff, parents' councils, boards of management and ancillary staff in Cahir deserve better treatment and to have their case heard with honesty and fairness. This is not good enough.

This is not the first occasion during my short time in the Dáil that I have received such letters blaming another person. The blame should not lie with anybody. We all work together to try to resolve these problems and to be honest with ourselves and our constituents. We know where we are going and the right pecking order. I appeal to the Minister for Education and Science, through the Minister of State, to deal with this matter and bring it to fruition by sitting down with the sisters who are willing, able and ready. They have offered a site, not free, but as land values have come down recently I am sure that having given long service to the community in Cahir, the sisters would not be averse to bringing the price down in line with everything else. In that way we can at least get the site and go through the various stages with all the public representatives, regardless of who is in Government and who is Minister, to progress this in a fair and equitable way. This will allow us to proceed in an orderly manner. That is all I ask. I am not happy with the present situation and could not be expected to be, no more than the boards of management, the school staff, or my other constituents in Cahir could because it is clearly unfair.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I am happy to reply on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who cannot be present, unfortunately. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Dáil the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the current position of the proposed amalgamation of Cahir boys' national school and Our Lady of Mercy national school.

Modernising facilities in our existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. The Department's planning and building unit assesses all applications for capital funding. 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 ultimately 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 staffing level of Cahir boys' national school comprises a principal, seven mainstream assistants, one permanent learning support, one release time post, one permanent resource and two temporary language support. It had an enrolment of 169 pupils in September 2009.

Our Lady of Mercy national school has a current staffing level of a principal, 11 mainstream assistants, one permanent shared resource for Travellers, one permanent resource, one learning support-resource and three temporary language support. It had an enrolment of 282 pupils in September 2009.

In 2004, agreement was reached to amalgamate the two primary schools in Cahir. The application was assessed and the project was assigned a band rating of 1.4. The long-term projected staffing for the proposed amalgamated school was determined as administrative principal, 24 mainstream assistants and four learning support-resource. An autism unit will also be provided as part of the accommodation.

A technical inspection was carried out in 2006 on the existing school buildings to determine which would be suitable to act as a host for the amalgamated school. The report concluded the most suitable building to facilitate the amalgamation would be the girl's school due to its relatively large floor area, good condition of the general building fabric, reasonable development potential and relatively good access to a public roadway. The report also recommended an additional portion of land be acquired from the Sisters of Mercy to the north east of the Our Lady of Mercy national school to facilitate the development. The Sisters of Mercy indicated it would, in principle, be disposed to the selling of the current school site, the playing pitch to the rear of the site and an additional 1.5 acres adjacent to the site to facilitate the proposed works.

The progression of the building project required to facilitate the amalgamation from initial design stage through to construction is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available under the Department's capital budget. The amalgamation school building project for the primary schools in Cahir, County Tipperary, will be considered in the context of the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

I again thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Dáil the current position regarding the school building project for the primary schools in Cahir, County Tipperary.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 18 November 2009.