Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects Status
I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for the sensitivity in choosing this matter because the progression of the project relating to St. Mary’s special school in Navan, County Meath, means a great deal to many parents and students across the county. I understand the Minister for Education and Skills is delayed in the Seanad but the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is well apprised of this issue. I hope he will address the issue of the logjam in progressing this project which was promised over seven years ago. I also hope he will have information in respect of the commencement of the construction process because parents have been left frustrated with endless tales of architects working on the tender process. As the parents have listened to information about tendering and other aspects of the construction process, they have seen two brand new schools built on the same educational campus where St. Mary's has had a site reserved. These two schools are a much needed primary school, St. Stephen's, and secondary school, Coláiste na Mí, for the large residential area of Johnstown in Navan. However, all three were announced together for this campus and the only one that has not been delivered is St. Mary's special school.
At Christmas in 2013, I sat in the hall of the new primary school and looked at the plans for the proposed St. Mary's special school. I also listened to affirmations that construction would be under way soon. What has frustrated the parents greatly is the fact that there has been such a delay while the other two schools progressed. They were completed on time on the campus while no work commenced on St. Mary's. The parents have been left in the dark about where their school actually stands and whether there was going to be any progress in building it.
I know the Department receives many requests for the advancement of schools. None is more deserving than St. Mary's special school in Navan. It is led superbly by the principal, Maria Corredor, and the chairman of the board of management, Bob O’Callaghan, as well as the team of dedicated staff who accommodate individual learning styles to ensure all students may experience success. The school has been in existence for over 42 years and caters for nearly 90 students from all across counties Meath, Cavan, Louth and Dublin. This week I met parents of students from Oldcastle in north County Meath, besides the Cavan border, whose children must get up at 6 a.m. to travel to this school. Some 60 km away in Ballinabrackey, at the far end of the county where one can puck a ball into Offaly, there are children doing the same thing. These children, some with acute special needs, are spending an hour and a half on a bus to get to school. While they are grateful there is a school to go to, they would like the new school promised to them on several occasions. They want a school that is not just surviving in an adapted and antiquated building where some students have to attend in a different HSE-owned building a mile down the road because there is not enough room on the site.
Last summer, the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, visited the school along with three fellow Ministers from Meath. The Meath Chronicledid not buy the photo shoot moment and captured the mood perfectly when it ran a front page the following week with the headline, "Build Our School Now Minister" and stated, "Despite the visit of four Government Ministers last week, staff and parents of 90 pupils of St Mary’s special school in Navan look set to wait another 18 months before work starts on their new building promised seven years ago."
The parents I met from the school this week want to know why there has been such a delay, what is the logjam and when will a shovel actually go into the ground for construction to start. One mother I met this week, Tracey Holsgrove - she said she could be named in the Chamber - wanted to know when would her little girl, Fionnula, get the same facilities and opportunity afforded to the rest of the children currently on the new educational campus. Her daughter leaves Oldcastle at 7.30 a.m. in order to get to school in Navan at 9 a.m. because the latter is the only school she can attend. Fionnula has done this commute since she was five years of age; she is 12 now. If Tracey knew that when Fionnula got to school that she had a dedicated purpose-built soft play room to enjoy, then she would have a weight lifted from her shoulders.
Many parents have seen their children progress through these outdated facilities over the past four decades. They are now fighting for the current crop of students and staff of the school. Perhaps they might get to enjoy the planned new school and have the dignity they deserve in receiving their education. I hope the Minister of State will have some positive news on when the school will commence.
I apologise for the Minister not being present. He is in the Seanad dealing with the Brexit emergency legislation.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the current position on the major building project for St. Mary’s special school, Navan. This project is included in the 2016 to 2021 six-year construction programme, announced on 17 November 2015, to go to tender and construction. St. Mary’s special school will be part of a shared campus with Coláiste na Mí. The building project will deliver a phase 2 extension for Coláiste na Mí and a new school building for St. Mary’s special school. The new building for St. Mary’s will provide an area of 3,746 sq. m with 11 classrooms and associated ancillary accommodation to cater for pupils with a range of learning disabilities. In December 2018, the project completed stage 2(a), developed design stage, and has been authorised to proceed to stage 2(b), detailed design, which includes the applications for planning permission, fire certificate and disability access certificate, as well as the preparation of tender documents.
Planning permission for this particular project was sought earlier than usual in the architectural planning process, during stage 2(a), as a means to identify any potential issues which might arise. All statutory approvals for St. Mary’s are now secured and the project design team is working on the completion of the stage 2(b) submission and bringing the project to tender ready stage. This will include the pre-qualification of contractors for the main contract and reserved specialist contracts, as well as compiling a shortlist of contractors. Upon receipt and review of the stage 2(b) submission, the project will then be authorised to commence the pre-qualification of contractors. Pre-qualification normally takes between eight and 12 weeks to complete. When pre-qualification is complete, the project will then be progressed to tender stage. A tender stage normally takes between seven and eight months to complete.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply but I would have hoped for a firmer and more detailed timeframe for the commencement of the building work. The parents have been listening to how long a tender process takes for the past several years. The Minister of State indicated that the school project is included in the 2016 to 2021 building programme. However, it was announced by the previous Government seven years ago. What frustrates the parents is that there were no qualified remarks when the project was announced seven years ago. The projects relating to the other two schools on the campus flew through the planning process, the approval stages in Tullamore and have been built. The only project that has not progressed is that relating to St. Mary's special school.
Why has there been such a logjam? Will the Minister of State ask the Department why there has been such a delay? Of all the students on the campus in question, those in St. Mary's special school are the ones who need the most up-to-date facilities. For the past 42 years, the school's students have been in two separate temporary antiquated facilities. The hope afforded those students seven years ago when the new school campus was announced was amazing. The frustration now is that another generation of students will go through it and not see the realisation of that dream. The parents who had children in the school are now fighting for the current generation because these children deserve the best. I know the Minister of State, due to his brief, will appreciate that and back those parents' sentiments.
The parents have heard the outlines for the tender process before. Will there be a shovel-ready site in January 2020 or will it be delayed even further? Will the Department come back with a definitive date as to when we can expect construction to start?
The Deputy’s frustration with the delays to date and his passion to see this project over the line are obvious. Nobody in the Department or the Minister wants to delay this project any further.
Planning permission had been granted earlier in the process but issues with traffic management arose on stage 2(a). That necessitated several meetings with Meath County Council which caused delays. We would prefer if these issues did not arise but it is a fact of real life when one is dealing with large-scale projects such as these. The Deputy acknowledged that two other projects in the town went through the planning and building processes well. However, not every project will sail through. We all have these issues in our constituencies, as well as the frustrations with projects which take extra time to deliver.
It is not the political system, political will or finances that is holding it back, it is just that it is undergoing the different processes. St. Mary's special school has passed all the major hurdles, including one of the biggest hurdles which is getting on the plan. There are schools in my constituency which cannot get onto the next plan, although they are trying desperately to do so. The school has planning permission, which is a great achievement. It has been through the design process, that is, the 2a stage, which is where the issues arose, and has now gone to 2b which is the final stage of design and which involves firming up some minor changes that have arisen as a result of the issues around traffic. That has to be approved by the Department and then the pre-qualification stage which is narrowing down the list of contractors and going to tender. I cannot give the Deputy a date here and I would be loath to do so even if I could because that can build expectation and disappointment but this is on track and progressing well. I outlined the timelines, namely, six to seven months for the tendering process, having gone through the pre-qualification stage and 2b stage relating to details. However, both of those processes typically take weeks rather than months.