Thursday, 6 April 2017
Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects Status
For considerable time I have been raising, through correspondence to the Department and parliamentary questions, the need to progress the proposed building project for the Holy Family special school in Cootehill. It is extremely important that the project to provide additional permanent accommodation should be progressed without further delay. I am privileged to be very familiar with this school, having visited the premises for different events on numerous occasions. I appreciate the work of Rachel Moynagh, the principal and all her staff, colleagues, successive boards of management and parents' associations. There is a real school community for the Holy Family. This project has the support of all Oireachtas Members and county councillors throughout Cavan-Monaghan.
For some time the Department has accepted this major building project for the Holy Family school is a priority to progress to tender and construction stage. The project was authorised to proceed to complete stage 2B of architectural planning on 31 January 2017. The initial feasibility study for this new school accommodation was carried out in 2002 and the design team was appointed in 2006. For various reasons delays have occurred. Increased enrolments and changes to the schedules of accommodation were some of the reasons cited at the time for delays occurring in the early stages of the planning process. It was back to the drawing board on a number of occasions. Very importantly, since 2002, the school population has doubled in size and school facilities are totally inadequate to meet the needs of the pupils. Currently the school is on two sites and the pupils attending the White Star complex in Market Street in the town lose considerable time when they go to the main building for lunch.
They must travel by bus. Lack of space in both buildings is a major issue. For example, one class is in the PE storeroom and includes four wheelchair users.
The board of management does not want to have to introduce waiting lists for the first time in the school's history. It is the only such school in Cavan-Monaghan. If it is not possible to accommodate all children who need to attend the Holy Family Special School, serious problems will arise for those with moderate, severe and-or profound disabilities in counties Cavan and Monaghan. Children who need to attend this school must not be deprived of that opportunity.
Over the years, successive parents associations and boards of management have been supportive of the principal and staff in fund-raising for the school and participating in numerous events and activities involving all of the school community. The board and its professional advisers are anxious that the Minister and his Department should permit it without further delay to start the pre-qualification of contractors and let construction commence during 2017.
Regarding the growth in enrolments, there were 14 school leavers in the 2015-16 year whereas there were 34 school admissions. This school was started more than 50 years ago. One of our predecessors in the House, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, was one of its founding members. It is important that the Minister gives the go ahead to ensure that construction commences during 2017. The school sought and was granted planning permission last year for temporary accommodation that would enable it to move site this summer so that construction could start on the main site before the end of the year. The board of management, the parents' association and the wider school community are frustrated by the delays. It is important that the requisite approval be issued at the earliest possible date.
I support my colleague in calling on the Minister to approve this project. It is a unique and important school for Cavan and Monaghan that caters for pupils between the ages of four and 18 years and is located in Cootehill, which we like to call the hub of education, given how it lies on the Cavan-Monaghan border and provides for that catchment area. Its pupils have severe and profound learning difficulties, moderate and multiple learning disabilities, and-or autism. On Monday, there were major protests across the country regarding access to services for parents and, more importantly, special needs students.
The project is an important infrastructural one that needs to happen. The Department has gone some way in that regard, but its approval is necessary if the project is to proceed. As Deputy Brendan Smith just outlined, teachers have to travel between various locations across Cootehill to do their normal day's work. I support his call for movement on this matter.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The school is successful and no one doubts its quality. As Deputy Brendan Smith stated, it saw a dramatic increase in enrolments.
I have examined the history of the project. To be fair, the delay has been for good reason, in that the board of management requested the addition of five permanent classrooms, increasing the school's size from 21 classrooms. This meant that the design needed to be amended and a fresh planning application had to be obtained, given that the floor area was increasing to 5,300 sq. m. A replacement consultant mechanical and electrical engineer also had to be appointed to the design team.
The school raised the issue of how the children would be decanted. The original plan would have entailed two phases and the decant would not have been on the same scale, but there will now be a total decant of the school. A design for that has been approved and will form part of the overall contract.
The Department is awaiting the stage 2B submission from the school. Moving to that detailed design stage was approved in January. The Department must receive and assess the submission. Deputy Brendan Smith suggested that contractors be pre-qualified before that point. I will ask my Department whether that is feasible, but I imagine that the design would have to be defined before pre-qualification could occur. Perhaps that is not the case, but I will check it out for the Deputy.
As soon as the school's submission is received, we will attempt to move on it as quickly as possible. The process requires departmental evaluation and its various elements have to be completed so as to ensure the design will deliver as intended, but I assure the Deputies that the Department will assign considerable priority to this project in view of the school's value and the urgency to which they have drawn my attention.
I thank the Minister for his positive response. As he rightly pointed out, one cause for the delay was the Department's understandable changing of the schedules of accommodation at schools for pupils with special needs. Subsequently, the increased enrolment meant that we had to go back to the drawing board. The situation has been frustrating for those of us who have been supporting the project over a number of years. We all believed that we were close to construction stage. This time last year, it was strongly indicated that construction would commence during the course of 2017 and Cavan County Council expeditiously approved the planning application for temporary accommodation to facilitate the total relocation while construction commenced on the new building. The board of management, the parents' association and the wider school community were planning on moving to the new temporary location this summer.
I hope the Minister will speak with the officials in his Department's building unit and give the school's professional advisers the necessary approval so the initial procurement of contractors process can commence. I understand this is necessary and would ensure that no further delays would occur.
As the Minister rightly pointed out, the school has a proud record and has experienced phenomenal growth. Like other public representatives who have visited it, I know that space there is tight, to put it mildly. The fact that its children are on two different sites is not good enough. They must return to the main building at lunch time, which costs good, valuable school time.
I thank the Minister for his positive response. It was not long ago that he was in Kingscourt visiting our new ETB school, Coláiste Dún an Rí, which we look forward to being open, so he knows that we make good use of money when it comes in our constituency's direction.
I will take up that point. My understanding is that the decant plan forms part of the main contract and is not a separate contract. It is not an option for the Department to undertake the decant piece, which I understand has planning permission in respect of two modular prefabricated single storey buildings, except as part of the entire contract. The two parts must move together. Approval for the entire piece at stage 2B will be necessary. We do not have the option of taking one piece separately. However, the school will be a priority once that approval has been granted. The situation increases the urgency of the case, but we cannot move on one piece before overall approval has been granted.