Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Adjournment Debate

School Accommodation.

5:00 pm

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. It is appropriate that he is here as he has children who attended and some of whom still attend this august institution. I am sure he will agree the parents of children at this school have been extraordinarily patient. They have sought an extension to the school since 1988. They were promised the extension and it was approved in 1998 and they were told the building would start in the year 2000. Now, as we enter the second decade of the third millennium, they are still without their school. Their patience has rightly snapped.

St. Oliver Plunkett national school is the third largest national school in the country with more than 900 students. It depends on ten portakabins for classes for approximately 300 of its children and a further three portakabins for learning support. The problem is these portakabins are old and poorly sealed. They are very draughty and the badly hung doors cannot be shut properly. The portakabins are poorly insulated and are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. If the doors and windows are left open, the noise from the road and surroundings is too great and interferes with pupils' ability to concentrate and learn. Children in the portakabins have an increased number of complaints of aches and pains as a result of sitting in draughts. Owing to the fact the portakabins are poorly ventilated, air becomes stagnant very quickly and children find it difficult to focus and concentrate. Low ceilings do not help the situation. There is no sound-proofing in the portakabins which means that noise levels from neighbouring classes are distracting and frustrating. There is poor lighting due to the position of some portakabins and fluorescent lights are on all day all year around and cause headaches and eyestrain for some. Windows have no blinds or covers and children are easily distracted by outside activity, especially when pupils are moving from classes for PE and other activities.

Basic services for the portakabins, such as water, light and heat, are unreliable. In winter it is a common occurrence to suffer a power failure due to over-reliance on electrical heaters in portakabins. Valuable time is lost from the timetable each day at junior yard time or when PE classes take place. At infant dismissal time, noise levels make it impossible for those in classrooms near the road to work as parents gathering at the gate for the 2.30 p.m. early dismissal cause distraction for children. Time is also lost when going to PE, the library or computer room as the portakabins are a good distance from the rest of the building. In inclement weather the children get wet when moving and suffer health problems as a result. The health and safety of children and teachers are compromised every day, and because of tight space and poor ventilation, sickness spreads quickly from one child to another. It has also been asserted that children in portakabins have a higher absentee rate than those in proper classrooms.

Portakabins are a poor environment for children who suffer from asthma, bronchitis or compromised immune systems. Their health is not being helped by an environment where mould and fungus grow on the walls and ceilings. There is a lack of space for hanging coats and in inclement weather wet coats must hang on the backs of children's chairs, causing their health to suffer. Dust and condensation increase in such conditions and this has obvious health implications. Special needs children cannot be accommodated owing to steps, limited space in bathrooms and insufficient room for special needs assistants. The list goes on. To cut to the quick, on account of the appalling toilet facilities, many children will not use them, leading to urinary and faecal retention. There have been many admissions to Temple Street Hospital for non-specific abdominal pain and increased attendance at local general practitioners who say there is a much higher incidence of respiratory tract infections and medical problems among these children. One child was admitted to Temple Street Hospital recently with pneumonia.

The Minister of State cannot be happy with this situation. These people have waited patiently. We are supposed to be a modern society. When we had very little in the 1950s, we could afford stone and brick to house and educate our children. Today we are stuck with portakabins. I urge the Minister of State to expedite the building of this school and to alleviate the shock it has suffered in finding it has slipped back to band 2.2 when it should be in the 1.1 band, having waited so long. The parents cannot take much more of this. I expect there will be serious disruption in the area. I must offer them 100% support because their children's welfare is at stake, from the point of view of both health and education. I appeal to the Minister of State to use his undoubted influence to progress this matter.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I declare a vested interest in this matter. Two of my children attended this school and two are still being educated there. Therefore, I am familiar with the issue. I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I thank Deputy Reilly 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 the current position regarding St. Oliver Plunkett national school, Malahide, County Dublin, roll No. 17914S.

Modernising facilities in the existing building stock and responding to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth present significant challenges. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable 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 based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings and site capacity. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects which were devised following consultation with the education partners. The original criteria were revised and refined in 2004. Projects are selected for inclusion in the schools building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need, as 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. The building project for St. Oliver Plunkett national school has been assigned a band 2.2 rating. The project is at an early stage of architectural planning.

With regard to the Deputy's concerns regarding the temporary accommodation units at the school, these have been reviewed recently as part of a strategy adopted by the Department to achieve best value for money and to reduce overall rental costs for schools in general. One aspect of the review involves negotiations with prefab suppliers to buy out existing rental contracts or to negotiate reductions in annual rent, as appropriate. An initial group of 46 schools with rented prefabricated accommodation has been identified for priority negotiations with suppliers to buy out existing rental contracts. A number of these prefabs have now been bought out, including the prefabs at St. Oliver Plunkett's, and negotiations are ongoing with a view to ending rental contracts for as many schools as possible in 2010. The chartered surveyors engaged by the Department to assist in this process carried out a site visit at St. Oliver Plunkett's on 26 June 2009 and provided the Department with a report confirming that the units are in good condition and well maintained.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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That is a disgraceful allegation.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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On 9 December 2009, the school authorities were informed that the Department had decided to purchase the 13 temporary accommodation units at the school and that this initiative was undertaken to achieve better value for money.

The school authority was advised that this change in the funding arrangement for its temporary accommodation would not affect any application the school may have for permanent accommodation under the schools building and modernisation programme. The brief for the current project is to provide accommodation on the current school site for long-term projected staffing of a principal, 32 mainstream teachers plus ancillary staff. Representatives from the board of management have been invited to meet Department officials to discuss the current school building project and their current proposals in this regard. That meeting will take place next week.

The progression of all large-scale building projects, including this project, 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 proposed building project will be considered in the context of the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme for 2010 and subsequent years. However, in light of current competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the delivery of the project at this time.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position on the school building project for St. Oliver Plunkett national school, Malahide, County Dublin.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his response. I sympathise with him on his discomfiture over the nature of the replies he must give.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 2 February 2010.