Thursday, 24 January 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I appreciate him choosing this Topical Issue. It is an important issue that I have raised in the House previously. I particularly thank the Minister for Education and Skills for taking time to come in himself to deal with the issue.
The Minister is still relatively new to this brief and I wish him well in his challenging position. While the Minister is new to his position, the staff and students of St. Michael's House special school in Skerries are in the same position they have been in for many years. I am sure the Minister will have read in The Irish Timesthis morning that they have been in temporary accommodation for 36 years.
The school has a longstanding application in for a new school building and I have raised this on many occasions in the Chamber. In a Topical Issue reply I received in March last on this issue from the Minister's predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, stated:
No effort will be spared in trying to progress the situation. It is an important project for us.
However, there is no evidence of this.
I am disappointed by the slow development of much-needed school provision by the Government. In fact, disappointed does not even cover it. It is devastating that so little progress has been made.
I understand a site has been identified and purchased. The site was the issue for so long. When a site is identified and acquired, there are still further delays on other matters.
In the previous Government, Labour Party Ministers prioritised the provision of new schools in the worst of economic times. In 2015, I brought the then Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to St. Michael's House in Skerries to see for herself the current building and how inadequate it is to meet the needs of the pupils. Deputy O'Sullivan and the Department officials recognised the need but the prioritisation of the provision of new schools has been too slow.
When will we see works commence on site? That is key for the people. The principal, staff and pupils and their families deserve a proper answer. They deserve a timeline for this to happen and I hope that in his response the Minister will provide that.
The current building is unfit for purpose. The school has been housed there for 36 years. Unfortunately, the building is well past its use-by date. It is an old farmhouse. I have visited it several times. The mounting level of repairs needed just to keep the building in basic condition is financially onerous.
The school received prefabs in recent years due to the poor state of the building and the benefits are acknowledged by everyone involved, but these are not long-term solutions and are merely putting the finger in the dam. In the summer, it can be too hot to have classes indoors. In the winter, the school can be very cold.
Also, the school is at maximum capacity. There is no more space for any increase in the student body. Currently, pupils are only admitted when an existing pupil finishes his or her time at the school. With a maximum capacity of 30 pupils supported by 17 dedicated staff, the number of spaces that crop up is small. Many families are left on waiting lists and are living with perpetual disappointment and, of course, great concern.
With a new building, St. Michael's House could increase its service provision to 92 pupils, thus trebling its current number and giving hope to many others who are waiting for places. What a transformation that would be.
We talk about this being a time of economic recovery, and it is. Unemployment is returning to boom time levels, Exchequer receipts are up and we finally have some funds to invest back into the State. We need to look after our most vulnerable citizens.
The students in St Michael’s special school need and deserve a facility which meets a good standard. In a new school, they can thrive and fulfil their potential. They cannot do it in the current building.
The staff in St. Michael's House are a credit to the teaching profession and to the public sector generally. They are being inhibited from doing their job to the best of their ability by the inadequacy of their building but they are not the real losers. The people who lose the most are the pupils. They are not getting the facilities they deserve and which would allow them to thrive and fulfil their individual potential.
I thank the Deputy for putting down this matter. It is an important area and I join with the Deputy in acknowledging the valuable work that is carried out at St. Michael's House special school, Skerries.
I am happy to clarify the position in respect of the development of permanent accommodation for St. Michael's House special national school.
The school was established in 1982 and is currently located in a rented building with temporary accommodation in Hackettstown, Skerries. My Department is committed to providing a permanent accommodation solution and in that regard, a project to deliver a new school building for St. Michael's House special school on a greenfield site has been included in the Department's six-year capital programme. It is planned to provide a new building for St. Michael's special school to accommodate a 14 classroom school expandable to 16 classrooms, to include classes for pupils with mild general learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorder, multiple disabilities and severe-profound disabilities.
My Department is working closely with Fingal County Council in accordance with the memorandum of understanding in relation to the acquisition of a suitable site to facilitate the school building project.
The site acquisition process for this school has been ongoing for some time. Initial efforts were focussed on acquiring land in the vicinity of the school's current location which was preferred by the school authorities. However, efforts in that regard were unsuccessful and subsequently the current site option was identified. The acquisition process was subsequently paused for some time while my Department engaged with the school authorities regarding potential alternative accommodation which was available at the time. However, based on the outcome of this engagement, the site acquisition process re-started and agreement was reached with the relevant landowner in respect of the proposed acquisition. This acquisition is currently at conveyance stage.
I wish to confirm that my Department is committed to progressing this project and will continue to liaise with Fingal County Council and the school authorities to achieve this.
The acquisition process for a permanent site is under way. My Department is aware of the limitations of the current temporary accommodation and every effort is being made to progress the permanent accommodation for the school as quickly as possible.
That is for the purpose of putting on the record the history of the matter and where we are at. At a personal level, I am eager to move this forward. If there may be areas where we can work together to make this happen, I would be happy to do so. The Deputy asked for a timeframe. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to give the timeframe because of the conveyance issue but I am aware parents want certainty, staff want to know when this will happen and the Deputy also spoke of the opportunity to grow the school population. It may require meeting with relevant officials sitting around a table. Deputy Brendan Ryan's constituency colleagues, my own party colleagues, have been on to me as well on this issue. It is not just because it is a public issue that appeared in the media today - Deputy Brendan Ryan has raised this on numerous occasions. I want to give my personal commitment to do whatever it takes to do this. It is not acceptable to be in this position for over 30 years but, unfortunately, things happen. The Deputy talked about his colleagues being in positions previously, a site was identified and things did not happen. Unfortunately, that can happen. It is a slow process. At the same time, if there are areas where we can work together, I would be happy to sit down with the Deputy and the relevant officials to ensure that we keep this on a live agenda.
I thank the Minister for his response. Much of the Minister's reply goes through the history of it, which is exactly what we heard the last time I raised it in March of last year. The site has been acquired. As I understand it, the conveyance matter should not take long. This is an issue of priority.
From the time St. Michael's House was founded in 1955, it has helped to change fundamentally how we as a country educate people with intellectual disabilities. It has been a leader in the development of community-based services for people with intellectual disabilities, providing services to 1,751 children and adults.
St. Michael's House has demonstrated exceptional leadership throughout the years but if it is to deliver its vital service, it requires assistance from the State in the form of a new building and facilities worthy of its staff and deserving of its pupils and their families.
The school community needs a new school delivered. It needs the Department to provide this as a priority by getting work under way as soon as possible. The people are waiting to see machines go on that site. If they can see that, they will take hope from it. From where the process is, that should not take too long. It needs to be accelerated.
I have been working closely with the school in recent times. I am aware of the various developments and reasons for delays, but I cannot emphasise strongly enough how stretched the school is. Pupils cannot take their required breaks. There are also pressures on space from a staff perspective, which has a direct effect on how well they can deliver their services to the pupils.
St. Michael's House is a special school and as such has special requirements unlike mainstream schools, but these requirements are not so special that an inordinate delay should occur.
I ask this Minister to be the one this school has been waiting for who finally delivers this project. The Irish are a compassionate people who want to see fellow citizens treated equally and fairly. I want to see this progress as soon as possible.
There is a wider concern I want to raise in the couple of seconds I have left.
Throughout my 12 years as a Member of the Oireachtas, school building programmes have come and gone. Special schools tend to factored in at the tail end of each school programme and are never given priority. They are never provided for upfront in year one or two of the programme but, rather, are afforded low priority. They tend not to be delivered and are then rolled into the next programme. On and on it goes. The Minister is new to the Department and there is an opportunity for him to make his mark. He must root out this approach to how the Department treats special schools and he will be a hero of the disability sector. They very much deserve it.
I wish to reiterate my point on the conveyancing process. The matter is currently with the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. If there is something that can be done at this stage of the process to keep this alive and on the agenda, I will do it.
On the Deputy's second point regarding where we are in terms of the priority of special schools, in my initial introduction to the Department and the area of special schools and special classes in mainstream schools I have been struck by the intensity involved. The services are demand led. Parents demand the choice of being able to send their children to a special or a mainstream school based on what is most suitable for the child. I met representatives of three special schools this morning and committed to continuing to work with them. The Deputy is correct that we must ensure there is equal focus on this issue, including special classes. The number of special classes has increased from more than 408 in 2011 to 1,500 currently, indicating significant momentum and change.
The overall budget for this year is approximately €1.75 billion. We must hold what we have in terms of priority for special schools, which is very important. I appreciate the sometimes very challenging areas within that. However, a recent visit to Little Angels, a special school in my county, highlighted the number of dedicated staff, including special teachers and special needs assistants, who work very well on a collaborative basis. However, if the staff do not have the proper environment and buildings, it makes their job far more difficult.
I am focused on this issue and want to see progress made on it. If there are things we can do collectively, I am prepared to do them. The Deputy and I worked very well together on the Business Committee, along with the Ceann Comhairle. As a politician, I believe in consensus and that by reaching out and working together, we can make changes more quickly. I am happy to do so in this case.