Thursday, 28 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Schools Building Projects
I thank the office of An Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for a Topical Issue debate this evening. I am very glad the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, is here to take the debate. An application from St. Aidan's comprehensive school in Cootehill, County Cavan has been with the Minister's Department for a long time. It relates to the provision of a new PE hall and socialisation space, an extension to the woodwork and engineering rooms and general refurbishment work. From replies to representations to the Department and parliamentary questions, I understand that this application has been under consideration and under assessment for some time. In recent years, some necessary improvement and upgrading works have been carried out at St. Aidan's comprehensive school. There is an urgent need to provide these additional facilities and I urge the Minister to have the application progressed, finalised and approved at the earliest possible date.
St. Aidan's was one of the first comprehensive schools, having been built back in 1966. We should be thankful that there has been substantial growth in enrolment in recent years with 512 students now enrolled. There is an extra first year class this year and it is projected that there will be another additional first year for the 2020-21 school year. This is a sure sign of the positive role the school plays in the community and of the determination of parents to have the opportunity to send their students to St. Aidan's.
These applications were originally made some years ago in respect of a substantial upgrading of St. Aidan's. They have been revised in the meantime. When this project is approved, Cavan and Monaghan education and training board, ETB, will manage it. As the Minister is aware, our local ETB has been very successful in managing building projects for both primary and second level schools over the past 11 or 12 years. As he will be aware, the projects managed by Cavan and Monaghan ETB have represented very good value for money for the Exchequer and the taxpayer and have been delivered on time and under budget. I am sure that, when the Minister approves funding for the St. Aidan's comprehensive school project, it will also be delivered on time and under budget.
The applications relate to the PE hall, necessary upgrading of the woodwork and engineering rooms and an art room. There is also a requirement to undertake general refurbishment works including, very importantly, the upgrading of an old heating system. It is clear that upgrading and refurbishment works are necessary for a building that is more than 50 years old and which has been in use practically every day during that time.
I have had the opportunity to visit the school on many occasions. The good educational environment and the good leadership of the principal, Mary Ann Smith, her deputy principal, and the entire staff of the school, including both teaching and support staff, are clear to anybody who visits. Along with other Oireachtas Members, I recently visited the school for the opening of a room for students with hearing impairments, for the presentation of another green flag to the school, and for the presentation of a health promoting schools flag, the result of another very welcome initiative and achievement of the school. That was a very worthy endeavour and great credit is due to the teachers and students who participated in these competitions and who won those awards.
Apart from the school's core work of teaching subjects and delivering education, there has always been a very varied and worthwhile programme of extracurricular activities. It is delightful to see the many awards won in different sporting disciplines when one enters the reception area of the school. In recent years, the school has successfully competed in county, provincial and national competitions in camogie, basketball, soccer, and Gaelic football. Many of the school's teams have taken national awards home with them. We are very aware of the need for people to participate in sport. Great credit is due to the school and to the staff who take on the coaching and management of different teams. That work goes on well after normal school hours. The lack of basic PE facilities is very frustrating for the coaches, management teams and those preparing teams.
As well as good leadership from the principal, deputy principal and all the school staff, there is a very active board of management and an equally active and committed parents' association. All the members of these bodies, as well as the public representatives who support them, are determined to ensure this building project proceeds to construction as soon as possible. The Minister's assistance in this respect would be much appreciated.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue because it gives me the opportunity to clarify the position in relation to the Department of Education and Skills' plans for upgrading school buildings, including St. Aidan's comprehensive school, Cootehill, County Cavan. St. Aidan's is a co-educational comprehensive school under Catholic patronage. There are currently 512 pupils enrolled in the school. This represents a decrease in enrolment of 2% in the last five years. I am pleased to advise the Deputy that a building project for the provision of a one-class special educational needs base was completed at St. Aidan's comprehensive school in early 2019, as he will be aware.
My Department's planning and building unit has subsequently received an application from St. Aidan's comprehensive school seeking further capital funding for additional school accommodation, as outlined by the Deputy, including the provision of a PE hall.
This application is currently being considered by the Department and as soon as this process has been completed, the school authority will be informed.
The Department is in receipt of an application from the school for the summer works scheme 2020 onwards for a windows project commensurate with the level of funding available through the scheme.All applications will be assessed in accordance with the prioritisation criteria outlined in the governing circular letter for the scheme. In that regard, applications submitted for other works will be considered under future rounds of the summer works scheme. St. Aidan's comprehensive school will be considered in this regard.
More generally, under the national development plan, increased funding has been provided for the school sector capital investment programme. This funding allows for a continued focus on the provision of new permanent school places to keep pace with
demographic demand and also provides for an additional focus on the refurbishment of existing school buildings to include the building and modernisation of PE facilities in post-primary schools.
As the Deputy will be aware, under Project Ireland 2040, we will invest €8.4 billion, compared to €4.9 billion in the previous decade, in primary and post-primary school buildings. This investment will see a 70% increase in the school building budget which will be targeted at delivering on the twin objectives of catering for the continued increase in demographics and a greater focus on refurbishment and upgrade of existing school stock.
The Government remains committed to delivering on existing projects on the school building programme. The immediate priority of my Department is providing 20,000 new and replacement school places each year to ensure that every child has a school place. The Government will focus, in the medium term, on the provision of PE facilities in post-primary schools.
Project Ireland 2040 provides the investment necessary to implement the commitments in the action plan for education to reform and modernisethe school curriculum by committing to a PE hall build and modernisation programme, starting in the second half of the Project Ireland 2040 period, that ensures that students in all post-primary schools have access to state of the art facilities to support PE provision, particularly in the context of the roll-out of PE as a leaving certificate subject.
During 2018 and 2019, the capital budget is facilitating extensions and new schools being delivered as part of the roll-out of Project Ireland 2040 which involved overall construction activity during 2018 and 2019 of circa 130 large-scale projects ranging in value from €1 million to projects in excess of €20 million. There was also in excess of 280 projects with a project value of less than €1 million at construction during this period. All of these projects are expected to deliver more than 40,000 permanent additional and replacement school places and replace circa 600 prefabs. This will make significant progress in providing modern energy efficient school facilities and the replacement of temporary accommodation. All new schools being constructed by my Department include the provision of PE facilities and also endeavours to include these facilities in the design of major extensions within the constraints of available funding where possible.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Deputy Smyth has also raised this matter on a number of occasions. I welcome the opportunity to outline the position of the Department of Education and Skills and I understand that the application from St. Aidan's is under review and the Department will be in contact with the school authority directly.
The Minister, in his concluding remarks, said that the application is under review and I would like that status to move to finalisation and approval. I hope that he will be outlining approval for the project the next time he communicates with us on this matter.
The Minister gets requests for worthy building projects that need to be advanced every day of the week but this one is exceptionally worthy. The school in question is overcrowded and does not have PE facilities for more than 500 pupils. Some of the existing classrooms need upgrading as a matter of urgency.
There school has exceptionally good academic results. I instanced earlier all the extracurricular activities that go on and, if permission for the PE hall is granted, it would be available for the community. This school does not close at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. It is open, within reason, for community events and there is also access for other schools to use its facilities.
The money that the Minister will hopefully allocate at an early date will be put to exceptionally good use and is needed. St. Aidan's comprehensive school was established in 1966 and is a source of pride to everybody in Cavan and Monaghan. It draws pupils from both counties and was one of the first comprehensive schools established after the announcement of the extension of free second level education to all in the mid-1960s. It is basically the same school that was founded in the 1960s with some upgrading work completed over the years. There is a requirement for further upgrading and refurbishment work.
I instanced the PE hall but there is also a need for proper construction and engineering for classrooms, an art room and the heating system. There are no canteen facilities in the school for the 512 pupils and 53 staff. That is a big congregation of people in a limited building.
I said earlier that the Cavan-Monaghan Education and Training Board will manage the project when it gets to the stage of construction. That board has delivered projects on time and within budget for the Department in Cavan and Monaghan over the past few years. I have no doubt that, when the Minister is in a position to approve that funding, the money will be put to very good use. The wider community in Cootehill will very much appreciate the provision of those upgraded and additional facilities.
The Deputy makes his case very well, much like his constituency colleague, Deputy Smyth. I have also spoken to my Cabinet colleague, Deputy Humphreys, about this and Senator O'Reilly keeps this issue on the agenda. I am well aware that a good bit of preparatory work is required for these applications. I am also aware, as the Deputy pointed out, that the education and training board is very much involved in this.
I do not want to create expectations which is something I never do and is not my style. The application is being reviewed at the moment although that does not signpost where we are going with this. There are needs for additional accommodation and the provision for creative arts and physical education in the school and I will ask my officials to ensure the issue is kept on the agenda. We will see where we go at the end of the review.