Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects
The schools in question are two important primary schools in Dublin Bay North, Our Lady Immaculate senior national school, SNS, Darndale, Dublin 17 and St. Laurence's national school, Brookstone Road in Baldoyle Dublin 13. The principal of St. Laurence's, Ms Clare Finnerty, told me that she met the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Bruton, in March 2017 and that she sent in a letter of application for a single school campus because the school is unusual in that it has two separate campuses. The dual campus is unsatisfactory. Infants are in Grange Road and 3rd to 6th classes are on Brookstone Road. Her application was turned down, but she was encouraged to apply for upgrade works to both buildings. She applied again for a single campus in 2018 and did not even receive an acknowledgement.
In October 2018, the secretary of the senior school retired and the application for a replacement secretary was turned down. There is no secretary now at one of the campuses. In February 2018, the school made an emergency works application to replace doors that are necessary to create an internal corridor. It is one of the old style schools from the 1960s or 1970s. At present the children must leave the building to move into other classrooms. The covered shelter area outside the building is also in serious need of repair and could be very dangerous if it collapsed. This application was refused. St. Laurence's representatives were then told by the Department that they should apply for emergency works but, again, this was refused in September. they were then told that they should apply for a summer works grant to get fire alarms and electrics upgraded. The principal was also told the school could apply for a minor works grant but the amount, €13,600, is too small for the upgrading needed. Why has the school not received approval for the single campus or for the urgent works that are necessary?
With regard to the second issue, other Members and I were in touch with the principal and deputy principal of Our Lady Immaculate SNS Darndale, Dublin 17. They were in contact with us first around the time of a shocking murder in broad daylight beside the junior national school in Darndale, which had a devastating effect on the community. In fact, during the past school year there were two gun-related murders in close proximity to the school and as deputy principal, Shane Loftus, tells me, this had a serious impact on the children and on school life and teachers had to work closely with the children and parents to try to alleviate the impact of this utter mayhem happening outside their building.
School staffing is based on figures from the previous school year and, in effect, staffing runs a year behind the number of children in the school. I am told that in 2018-19, Our Lady Immaculate SNS had 180 children but had staffing for 193 based on numbers from 2017-18. This year, however, the school will have 197 children but will only have staffing for 180 students. The case made by Shane Loftus and his colleagues on the school team is that the school will have one teacher fewer but will have more children to provide for. The circumstances in that environment in the vicinity of the school are not remotely normal. I was told that the smaller classes in the school meant teachers were able to provide a critical support to the children. The school, the principal and deputy principal made the case that in these exceptional circumstances Our Lady Immaculate school should be allowed to maintain its current staffing level. The numbers coming from the infants school in 2020-21 will increase. We have had many discussions in this Chamber and I know the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, have visited the community. The north Coolock community is facing an exceptionally difficult time on those grounds we want the Minister to grant the additional teacher that is needed.
I thank the Deputy for giving the opportunity to outline to the House the position regarding these schools. He covered a broad range of issues. I acknowledge the recent difficulties faced by Our Lady Immaculate SNS in Darndale and the supports provided by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, which launched a critical incident response, that included advice to the school in supporting the staff and students affected by the very unfortunate incident.
Budget 2020 marks the fourth year of a major investment in education. It provided for an allocation of more than €11 billion for my Departments in 2020. This is the highest ever allocation to the sector and an increase of almost €2 billion since 2016. The numbers employed in our schools have reached the highest ever level. More than 580 additional teaching posts will be funded to cater for children with special needs, the growth in our student population and supports to secure the future of small schools. This builds on the budget 2018 measure, which provided a one point improvement in the staffing schedule in primary schools to bring the position to the most favourable ever seen at primary level, and budget 2019, which provided for more than 1,300 additional posts in schools. Teacher numbers at primary level have increased by almost 3,500 when comparing the 2015-16 school year with the current school year and this has led to a steady improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio and average class size statistics during this period. It was also announced in budget 2020 that an additional 1,064 special needs assistant, SNA, posts will be allocated to schools by December 2020, bringing the total number of SNAs available for allocation to more than 17,000.
The key factor in determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. The staffing process includes an appeals mechanism for schools to submit a staffing appeal under certain criteria to an independent appeals board. These criteria are available on my Department's website as part of the primary teacher allocation section. Our Lady Immaculate SNS submitted an appeal to the primary staffing appeals board but the appeal was unsuccessful. The school will be entitled to an additional mainstream class teacher in the 2020-21 school year based on its latest enrolment returns. The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. There is no change to the staffing of St. Laurence's national school in the current year and the school has not submitted an application for additional teaching staff to my Department.
An Taoiseach recently met local stakeholders in the area, including the principal of Darndale senior school. The meeting was attended by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, Deputy Sean Haughey and Senator Catherine Noone, and provided an opportunity to discuss a range of issues of importance locally. Under Project Ireland 2040, the Department will invest €8.4 billion in primary and post-primary school buildings. This will include the provision of 50 large-scale school building projects and 20,000 additional school places in new buildings and extensions being delivered annually.
The summer works scheme is designed to allow schools to carry out small and medium scale building works that will improve and upgrade existing school buildings. The works are carried out by the schools themselves on a devolved basis mainly over the summer months. There are no applications from the schools in question under this scheme. In addition, the Department also provides an emergency works scheme, solely for unforeseen emergencies or to provide funding to facilitate inclusion and access for special needs pupils. An emergency is deemed to be a situation that poses an immediate risk to health, life, property or the environment, which is sudden, unforeseen and requires immediate action and, in the case of a school, if not corrected would prevent the school or part thereof from opening. Grant approval for mechanical repairs to Our Lady Immaculate SNSl was issued in September 2019 under this scheme.
The Minister has not given us any assistance on either issue. St. Laurence's national school in Baldoyle has had a distinguished history but it is unusual in having two separate campuses, 600 m or 700 m apart, along a main road. It has always been a popular choice for families in the Baldoyle area. There is no waiting list for families since every parent who applies on behalf of his or her child is given a place.
The school never used religion as a criterion for pupils’ entry. Accordingly, St. Laurence’s did not have to alter its enrolment policies when the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Bruton, made some legislative changes in this regard.
A new Educate Together school is opening for the coast, the nearby district of the north fringe with thousands of new families due to be living there in the future. This new school is a welcome addition to the current poor services in the north fringe. Constituents ask, however, why the necessary improvements are not also being funded and supported for our existing primary school at St. Laurence’s, given the large size of the existing Baldoyle parish.
Will the Minister look at making the necessary funding available for the emergency works application made by the principal, Ms Clare Finnerty, in February and April 2018? In particular, will he examine the creation of an internal corridor and restructuring of the shelter area in the yard at the Brookstone Road campus? These are essential because the buildings in question are old style where pupils have to go into the yard to go from room to room.
On 18 October, Our Lady Immaculate senior school received notice from the Department that its staffing appeal had failed. The deputy principal, Mr. Shane Loftus, told me that he and his colleagues believe that the terrible events in the past year in the Darndale-Belcamp parish and its environs mean that an extraordinary intervention was needed and an extra teacher should have been provided. All the community organisations in Darndale, including Darndale Belcamp village, the Belcamp estate steering committee, the Northside Partnership, Coolock Development Council, of which I am a director, and An Garda Síochána, DMR north, strongly support this request. Will the Minister review this and provide the necessary funding for Baldoyle?
The Deputy is talking about two separate schools and two separate issues.
With respect to St. Laurence’s, I am not familiar with the two separate campuses idea. I can only suggest that if the application under the emergency works scheme was turned down, the summer works scheme will be open early in the new year. That could provide an opportunity for another application.
I am also interested in the two campus idea and more synergy between schools. I will need more details and will ask my officials to give me a run down on that.
On the staffing schedules, it is determined by an independent body which works on enrolments from the previous 30 September. I appreciate the Deputy’s point about the impact of the particular incident on pupils, staff, parents and the local community. I acknowledge the work of the NEPS, National Educational Psychological Service, team which worked with the school on this. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to make any changes with respect to teacher allocations in that regard. If the numbers are there for the following year, an extra teacher will be provided in September 2020. That will be coming up in the near future.