Dáil debates

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

2:00 pm

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to raise the issue of special education in Wexford, in particular, two complementary schools - St. Patrick's special school in Enniscorthy and Our Lady of Fatima School in Wexford town. St. Patrick's special school has 131 students, 46 special needs assistants and 22 teachers. It is a large special school serving all of County Wexford and many people from south Wicklow. It provides schooling for children with moderate to severe-profound learning difficulties and is currently split between two campuses in the town, which makes it a logistical nightmare for the school. The campus was built in 1968. To say it is dilapidated is an understatement. I have been in that school numerous times. It has damp and mould and water is dripping down all over the school. The children play in a tiny car park when buses are not turning in it. Parents, teachers and the community are up in arms over the state of the school. They were promised that a new school would be built for them. In the weeks before the last general election in 2016, they were told that construction would start in 2016. There has been delay after delay after delay. All they are getting are promises. The school has still not gone to tender for the build. This is why I am in here - to reflect the anger that parents, teachers and students, who are the most vulnerable students, feel. They have a day counter in the school which is up to 717 days since they were promised shovels would be stuck in the ground for this new school.

That has still not happened. The teachers in the school are doing fantastic work in an impossible situation.

The second school is Our Lady of Fatima special school in Wexford town and the two schools are complementary. Our Lady of Fatima special school has 108 students at the moment and a waiting list of more than 50, which is a five year waiting list. Students who cannot get into the school have to go to a mainstream school where they do not get the supports they need. These are children with vulnerabilities but who, with guidance, support and training and a proper focus can thrive. However, they are not getting into the school because of a lack of spaces.

The school deals with moderate general learning difficulties. It deals with Down's syndrome, autism, Prader-Willi syndrome, fragile X, cerebral palsy and numerous other learning difficulties. The teachers, parents and the community are doing fantastic work in that school. They have been told that at a very minimum it will not even be considered until 2021.

The school backs on to HSE grounds where a new primary care centre is being built. An old primary care centre backs on to the school. The distance between the two is the same as the distance between the Minister of State and me. That old primary care centre had a brand new state-of-the-art third generation extension built and opened less than ten years ago. The HSE is due to knock down that building to put in car parking spaces. I got a letter from the HSE stating it will use that area for car parking spaces and will reserve it for the Department of Education and Skills, should it ever want to build a new school on it.

What is going on there is bananas. I ask the Minister to intervene in that situation and get on to the HSE. A school is desperate for spaces and a brand new building is right beside it. The school wants the building and the HSE is going to knock it down, but reserve the space for a new building to be built on if the Department of Education and Skills wants it. I ask the Minister to intervene in both of these cases. These are the most vulnerable people in our country. They are fantastic people and are not getting the supports they need.

2:05 pm

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the status of the accommodation needs of two specials schools in Wexford, Our Lady of Fatima special school located in Wexford town and St. Patrick’s school in Enniscorthy. As the Deputy is aware, the building project for St. Patrick’s school is included in the Department’s six-year capital programme. The building project will include a new three storey building of 5,926 sq. m, containing 20 classrooms, dining area, general purpose area, library, special education tuition rooms and various ancillary spaces.

The pre-qualification process to select the shortlist of construction contractors is nearing completion. Once completed, my Department will be issuing an authorisation for this project to proceed to tender stage. The tender stage for awarding construction contracts on a school building project normally takes between four and six months to complete. My Department anticipates that this project will progress to construction as early as 2018. That is some good news.

The Deputy also referred to Our Lady of Fatima special school. This school has a current enrolment of 112 students and a staffing level of principal and 12 permanent teaching posts. The school caters for students with mild general learning disabilities and some students have additional associated learning needs. A number of students with autistic spectrum disorder also attend. The school operates under the patronage of the Bishop of Ferns, who is the owner of the school site.

Our Lady of Fatima school has submitted an application to my Department for capital funding to provide additional accommodation and my Department has been liaising directly with the school on the application. I am aware that the school site is confined and that options for providing additional accommodation on the site are being explored with the school. In this regard, the school has undertaken recently to furnish relevant maps to the Department in support of the application.

As I outlined to the Deputy in my reply to Question No. 197 on 26 January last, my Department is aware of a site adjacent to the school which I understand is in the ownership of the HSE. I understand also that these lands are associated with the development of a new primary care centre in Wexford town and are required for that purpose.

My Department is committed to providing improved accommodation for Our Lady of Fatima and St. Patrick’s special schools and will continue to liaise with the authorities of both schools to achieve this. Based on the information I have received from the Department we expect construction on the site of St. Patrick's school. I know promises were made. I cannot comment on the promises made to the Deputy a year ago or two years ago. I spoke to departmental officials just before coming in here. They expect construction to begin before the end of 2018. I know they are working diligently on it.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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The students, parents and teachers associated with St. Patrick's school are fed up with broken promises as to when construction on the new school will commence. They were promised just before the previous general election that the shovels would be in the ground in 2016. It was promised for 2017 and subsequently June 2018. We are now hearing that it will definitely be in 2018, which could be the end of 2018. The parents and teachers will not be satisfied with that answer because it looks like it will be put further back. I hope the delays are not related to the problems with Carillion which has resulted in the brand new Loreto school not opening. I am not sure the school will be satisfied with the Minister of State's answer and I implore him to drive that school on as much as possible because the conditions those children have to put up with are not acceptable.

Our Lady of Fatima special school is boxed into a very tight location. The HSE on Grogan's Road is building a brand new primary care centre. However, the old primary care centre that backs on to the school is being knocked down, including the brand new extension to put in a car park. We should knock down the old part but give the school the brand new extension. The school wants it and it is right beside the school. It solves all its problems.

Today I received a letter from the HSE stating:

We had identified space within USE Grogans Road site that would facilitate some classroom expansion of the school as per their request. This area has been excluded from the Primary Care PPP site ... and remains in the direct ownership and control of HSE. This arrangement was put in place in order to facilitate School expansion ... if required following the completion of the new PCC.

The HSE is confirming that the land is available for Our Lady of Fatima school to expand. It is now back to the Department of Education and Skills to liaise with the HSE, acquire the land and give the building to Our Lady of Fatima school so that the 50 children with nowhere to go and who need training and education can go there. Teachers are queuing up to work in the school but there is nowhere to put them or the students.

Photo of John HalliganJohn Halligan (Waterford, Independent)
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I refer back to Our Lady of Fatima school and the old primary care centre on Grogan's Road. The Department is aware of the site located there, but it believes, and the Deputy might be able to clarify this for me, that the site is required for the development of a new primary care centre in Wexford town. That is what we are being told.

The Department is engaging with Our Lady of Fatima school as we speak. We are trying to explore options to address its accommodation needs. I accept what the Deputy is saying. I have studied the school and I recognise the severe necessity to do something with the school. If the Deputy wants to engage with me later in the week, I can update him on what is happening with Our Lady of Fatima school.

The pre qualification process to select the shortlist of construction contractors for St. Patrick's school is almost complete. Once that is completed, the Department will give authorisation to proceed to tender stage. As I said earlier, I believe the tender stage takes between four and six months, sometimes shorter. It is going through the pre-qualification stage and will go through the tender stage.

The Department is determined that this construction will start in 2018. Deputy Browne could push me for a date but I cannot give him one. I will keep in contact with him over the next couple of weeks and months to let him know what is happening with both schools. I promise that.