Tuesday, 10 July 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his staff for the opportunity to raise this very important issue. Last week, it was announced that the European Investment Bank, EIB, is to provide a €100 million loan to support the Department of Education and Skills capital investment programme. This programme, worth €1.5 billion, will see a number of major school building projects commence between now and 2016. It is anticipated that the €100 million loan being provided by the EIB will be used in the construction and upgrading of 35 primary and 12 second level schools around the country.
I will address the issue of the Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew, County Galway, and restate the need for this grossly overcrowded secondary school to be given the go-ahead for a new school building. It is 12 years since the project got under way and staff, students and parents connected to the school have been understandably frustrated by the significant delay in bringing this project to fruition. News that the school is not on the five-year programme has frustrated school authorities even further, given the current state of the school in terms of student numbers.
Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew was established almost half a century ago and the current school building is designed to cater for 350 students; the school currently caters for 550 students, leading to significant logistical problems for staff. Recent school building programmes were decided on the basis of projected population growth but this growth has already happened in Mountbellew and a new school building programme is urgently required. The Department has previously recognised this population growth in the local area, with the local national school - St. Mary's national school - recently extended and expected to cater for increased pupil numbers in the coming years. Crèche and Montessori facilities within the town now have waiting lists, proving that the number of young people using schools in Mountbellew is increasing, and hence the need for a new school building.
The significant overcrowding in Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew has had significant repercussions for the students attending the school. It currently has no proper gym, which is completely unacceptable for any secondary school, and especially at a time when young people are being encouraged to increase activity levels and the Government is introducing a variety of programmes aimed at tackling childhood obesity. Boosting the capacity of Irish students in the sciences is another goal of the Government and students at Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew do not have the science labs required for studying science in the 21st century. That also must be addressed as a priority.
I accept there are major budgetary concerns across all Departments but the students and staff at Holy Rosary College deserve a new school building. With that in mind, I ask the Minister that in the event of any delay being experienced with other projects in the five-year programme, Holy Rosary College would be considered the first substitute on the list. I also ask that if additional funding comes to the Department, it should be used for school building in the coming years.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it allows me to clarify the current position of the proposed building project for Holy Rosary College, Mountbellew, County Galway, in the context of the Government's strategy for capital investment in school building projects over the next five years. To ensure every child has access to a school place, the delivery of projects to meet future demographic demands nationally will be the main focus for capital investment in schools over the coming years. The five-year construction programme outlines when 275 selected major projects will progress to construction over the next five years as part of a €2 billion capital investment programme. Those projects will account for most of the capital funding available from now until 2016.
Total enrolment is expected to grow by around 70,000 students between now and 2018, which is just six years away. This will involve an increase of over 45,000 pupils at primary level and 25,000 students at post-primary level. Holy Rosary College Mountbellew is in the Castleblakeney and Mountbellew post-primary feeder area. There are also two other post-primary schools in the feeder area, namely St. Cuan's College, Castleblakeney, and Coláiste an Chreagáin, Mountbellew.
At post-primary level, the total enrolments for the area have been relatively stable over the past decade. The enrolments for 2011 and 2012 stood at 834 pupils across the three schools. Based on the current intake pattern for the schools, the Department has projected that enrolments will remain stable with a predicted total enrolment figure of 816 by 2023.
The proposed building project at Holy Rosary College is to provide accommodation for a long-term projected enrolment of 550 pupils. Enrolment in the school in September 2011 was at 547 pupils. The brief includes the provision of a PE hall, a language lab, a computer room, a music and drama area, a religion room and other ancillary accommodation. Some refurbishment of the existing school building also forms part of the brief. The building project has completed the design stages of architectural planning and remains available to be considered for progression to tender and construction should additional funding become available to the Department in future years.
The stage 2(b) submission, which includes full detailed design and tender documents, was approved by my Department on 30 November 2011. However, due to the competing demands on the Department's capital budget imposed by the need to prioritise the limited funding available for the provision of additional school accommodation to meet increasing demographic requirements, it was not possible to include the project for Holy Rosary College in the five year construction programme announced in March.
All school building projects which have not been included in the five year construction programme, but which were previously announced for inclusion in the building programme, will continue to be progressed to final planning stages in anticipation of the possibility of further funds being available to the Department in future years. The project for Holy Rosary College remains available to be considered for progression in this context. However, it is not possible at this time to progress the project to tender and construction stage. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter with me.
I thank the Minister for his reply and I understand everything he has gone through and the restrictions on the Department. However, I reiterate that the school is built to cater for only 350 students and now caters for 550 students. It is the school I and all my family attended and I am very grateful for the education I received there. Since then the numbers have increased. When the project initially began 12 years ago I was completing my leaving certificate; this is how long ago it began. At that stage the Department told the school it should seek a new school building due to the increase in numbers then. I recognise the fact that the numbers are stable at present. However, the growth has already occurred in Mountbellew and this needs to be recognised.
If another school is unable to fulfil its promise to build a school in the next five years would Holy Rosary College be considered at the top of the list? If any funding becomes available to the Department in the coming years, the parents, students and people of Mountbellew and surrounding areas would like to ensure it would mean Holy Rosary College would be at the top of the list. I extended an invitation to the Minister at any opportunity he has to visit the school to see the cramped conditions. I would be very grateful for any support the Department can give the school in the coming years.
Recent birth rate data published by the CSO shows almost 20,000 births were registered in the first quarter of 2011. This is the highest number of births registered in a quarter since the series began in 1960. It is vital the schooling system is prepared to cope with these increasing numbers. Therefore, the Government's priority over the next five years will have to be focused on major school projects to meet these increasing demographic demands. As such enrolment increases are not uniformly distributed nationally, the Department has carried out a study of the country using data from the Central Statistics Office, the General Registry Office and the Department of Social Protection in addition to recent schools enrolment data to identify areas in which there will be sufficient future enrolment increases. The information used is the most accurate and up-to-date available.
The five year programme is primarily focused on meeting increasing demographic needs. In this context it has not been possible to advance all applications for capital funding concurrently. However, it is my intention that all school building projects, including in particular the project for Holy Rosary College, will continue to be advanced incrementally over time in the context of the funding available. However, in light of current competing demands on the Department's capital budget it is not possible at this time. If additional funds become available, and the increase in demand to which Deputy Connaughton referred in his comments can be sustained and demonstrated, I will certainly examine ensuring that Holy Rosary College moves into a space that would be created if another school project does not go ahead.