Dáil debates

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

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 affording me time to discuss this very important matter, namely, the urgent need for the Minister for Education and Science to provide the essential funding for Melview national school, Melview, County Longford, which has been sought since the mid-1980s. Despite an unacceptable deterioration in the built environment, this school has not received permission to proceed with essential works which are necessary as a health and safety measure and to accommodate pupil numbers.

As I noted, this school has been seeking sanction for improvements since the mid-1980s. Despite permission for similar works being granted to other schools in the area, Melview has failed to receive a similar go ahead. This issue of the inadequacy of the built environment at Melview is one of space and, most importantly, of health and safety. The non-provision of necessary additional classroom space is leading to an ongoing health hazard.

Three of the existing classrooms do not conform to the recommended size and this results in pupils being accommodated in an unhygienic atmosphere. Two of these rooms were never intended or suitable for classrooms but shortage of space means that they have been pressed into service. The general purpose room has been divided into two even smaller classrooms. Costly prefab accommodation and three resource rooms are leaking and unhygienic, with sub-standard toilet and washing facilities for the children. The board of management has received a letter outlining the unsuitability and health risks associated with this prefab. Since January of this year, burst pipes mean the prefab can no longer be used as a classroom. In addition, in what is a major outrage, a class of 26 eight and nine year olds is being accommodated in a staffroom cum kitchen which measures 9 m by 4 m.

As if this were not bad enough, the resource teacher also has to share this limited space. Pupils in this room have to use adult toilet facilities which do not meet the required standards for children of this age. How can the Minister expect children to be safe in these cramped, unhygienic and inadequate-for-purpose conditions? In fact, there are only three toilets in the school for 60 pupils.

As I told the previous Minister on a number of occasions, if children who are forced to receive an education in totally inadequate accommodation due to lack of Government funding should have an accident, the buck stops with the Minister, who is responsible for the safety of children under the care of her Department.

Given that the general purpose room is being utilised as two classrooms, the pupils of Melview have no proper play time or exercise during the major part of the school year. The PE curriculum is curtailed and extra-curricular activities such as a Christmas play and other drama productions are non-existent. Car and bus parking to the front of the school is little more than a standard hard shoulder and is extremely dangerous for pupils being dropped off at or collected from the school. Will it take and accident or even a fatality at this school for the Minister to provide the improvements needed to make Melview a safe and student-friendly environment for the pupils?

The very hard working principal and staff have contacted me on several occasions with regard to the conditions. Parents of children at this school need the reassurance of knowing that funding will be made available and that their children will be safe. I plead with the Minister to provide funding for the safety of the children at this school. It is critical she responds to this Adjournment matter in the interests of public safety. If an accident happens at this school, I will hold the Government and the Minister accountable.

9:00 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me an opportunity of outlining to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and, in particular, the Department's position regarding the upgrading of facilities in Melview national school, County Longford.

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 that the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. The 2010 capital allocation for the primary and post primary sectors is €579 million and this sum will facilitate the delivery of the school building programme through a range of projects and schemes.

On 16 February, the then Minister announced the 2010 large scale school building programme. Some 52 school projects - 37 primary and 15 post primary - are to advance to tender and construction later this year and in 2011. Some 51 school building projects - 44 primary and seven post primary - are expected to appoint design teams this year. Approval was given for seven new primary schools to open in September in rapidly developing areas. Arising from earlier school building programme announcements, 30 large-scale projects, 23 primary and seven post-primary, are under construction at present. A further 27 large-scale projects, 19 primary and eight post-primary, are due to commence construction during the first half of the year, with a further 14 projects, 10 primary and four post-primary, due to go on site as soon as possible. Payments will issue on fees for other projects already in architectural planning.

Depending on the rate of progress of the various projects in the programme, adjustments may be made throughout 2010. These adjustments may arise in the context of the ongoing monitoring of the programme undertaken by the Department in the normal course of events.

As the Deputy may be aware, the Tánaiste yesterday announced the successful applicants for the 2010 summer works scheme. A total of €122 million will see major improvements works carried out in 1,490 primary and post-primary schools across the country. The summer works scheme covers projects in school buildings such as gas, electrical and mechanical works, roof replacements and repairs, window replacement, toilet upgrades, structural improvements and access works. This record level of investment through the summer works scheme has the potential to generate work for more than 4,400 construction workers across the country during the summer period. The projects approved under the summer works scheme had been assessed as being priority projects by the individual schools themselves and the capacity of schools to take responsibility for delivering small and medium-scale projects is a key component of the summer works scheme.

Major capital 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. 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.

In July 2008, the Department introduced a new devolved scheme which allows those schools to avail of the option of using approved funding for the provision of additional accommodation to either purchase prefabs or to construct permanent classrooms for the same amount. The Department has also introduced a new scheme aimed at replacing rented prefabs with permanent modular buildings. This project will be targeted at schools that have older rented prefabs and need long-term additional accommodation.

In 2008 Melview national school received grant aid in excess of €127,000 to fund electrical and sewerage improvements works at the school. The school also received a grant of €12,500 under the 2005 summer works scheme for roof repairs. The management authority of this school applied for additional accommodation in January 2010 under the Department's additional accommodation scheme. The school had an enrolment of 216 pupils at September 2009 and a staffing of principal, eight assistant teachers, two learning support teachers and two resource teachers for Travellers.

Following an assessment of the application, the school was informed in March 2010 that a grant of €200,000 has been sanctioned for the provision of an extension consisting of two mainstream classrooms. The school also sought approval for funding toward the provision of additional resources rooms and the Department will be in contact with the school authority shortly regarding this request.

I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position for Melview national school, County Longford.