Wednesday, 4 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister for being here today to answer my questions on a long-running and unacceptable situation which is affecting students, parents and teachers in Greystones Community College in my constituency. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the tremendous effort and hard work of teachers throughout this country as well as that of school staff, principals, secretaries and everyone in the Department of Education who is involved in getting our schools up and running and creating some sort of normality for our children. Keeping them in school is a huge service and we appreciate the effort of everybody involved. As a parent of young children I can really appreciate how important it is that our children are back at school and that we maintain a safe system that will allow them to stay there.
The Minister will be aware of the issue I am raising because I have written to her about it several times. In fairness, she has corresponded with me on it several times.
It concerns Greystones Community College. The Minister will know it is a brand new secondary school which had its first intake in August of this year. It had been planned that the secondary school would share accommodation with Greystones Community National School on a temporary basis in a new primary school building, but that building failed to open in September, as the Minister is aware. The school was built by Western Building Systems. I am sure the Minister can imagine the disappointment of children cycling or walking past a school every morning but not being able to go into it and not understanding why.
When the school building failed to open, the primary school stayed in its temporary accommodation at Greystones Rugby Club, where it has been for the past five years. At least it had a place to which it could return when it experienced the disappointment of not being able to move to the new school. However, Greystones Community College, which is a brand new school, did not have anywhere to fall back on. The management of the school did what it could. The students have been housed in Greystones Lawn Tennis Club, which is totally unsuitable accommodation. The students are in changing rooms and tennis club meeting rooms. It is totally unacceptable.
The Minister will know that all Deputies representing Wicklow have contacted her on this issue. To be fair, I credit all of those Deputies because we are trying to work together to seek a resolution on this issue. I appreciate the efforts made by the Department so far, but the school needs clarity. It is not acceptable for the school to be in its current accommodation week to week and not know where it is going. It is a very difficult time for children at the moment and we need to create as much of a sense of normality around school as possible, rather than their being in a situation such as this whereby they do not know where they will be after Christmas. The students, parents and management need a clear understanding of where the school will be after Christmas. Where will it be after Christmas? What steps will be taken by the Minister's Department to resolve the issue around the school building? When are the children of the schools likely to end up in the building? The building looks fine to me. There may be some difficulty with it, but I am not aware of that. If the Minister were to come back to me on that, I would appreciate it.
I thank the Minister for being here and Deputy Matthews for sharing his time. The central issue in this situation is the fact that there is a brand new school building in Charlesland in Greystones that is unable to open. The building was to be a rapid build programme that was meant to take ten months and open in 2019. It was delayed until 2020 and now the building is sitting there empty. The parents and school staff have no real understanding as to what is happening with the school. Public representatives for the area received a letter from Western Building Systems, which built the school. The letter stated that the company was not sure what was going on with the school either. As Deputy Matthews outlined, there are two schools waiting to find out what is happening with that brand new build. The schools are in limbo until that happens. When will a decision be made as to when the new school will open? When was the Department last on site to review the school? Has the Department, the Minister or an official recently met Western Building Systems to discuss this issue ?
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it allows me the opportunity to update the House on the current position in respect of the provision of accommodation for Greystones Community College in the first instance and also for Greystones Community National School. It was the intention to open the community college in the newly constructed community national school building in September 2020 but, unfortunately, that has not proved possible.
Greystones Community College opened its doors to 64 first year students on Friday, 28 August 2020 in Greystones Lawn Tennis Club. The school, Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB and my Department are grateful to Greystones Lawn Tennis Club for facilitating Greystones Community College. I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the entire school community in preparing the accommodation for the school's opening in these particularly difficult and trying circumstances. A licence agreement is in place for this interim accommodation with a commencement date of 17 August 2020 until the end of December 2020.
Senior Department officials met KWETB and Greystones Community College on Wednesday, 23 September to discuss the school's current arrangements and the immediate and future accommodation requirements of the school. My Department has agreed to look at all potential options in the area in the short and medium term ahead of the school's move to its designated permanent site in Charlesland, Greystones. This will include the provision of appropriate temporary accommodation, including specialist rooms, as quickly as possible as the current school year progresses. Officials of my Department will continue to work closely with KWETB and the school to ensure the needs of the school community will be met. Department officials, along with the school and KWETB, met Greystones Lawn Tennis Club on Monday, 28 September 2020 to discuss and request an extension to the existing arrangements. The tennis club has agreed to extend the current licence agreement until the end of December 2020 and is willing to consider extending beyond that if so required. The school and KWETB are aware of this development.
In the meantime, my Department continues to work on exploring options for further interim specialist accommodation for the school. Department officials have been in discussion with Greystones Rugby Club and the club has agreed to allow for further temporary accommodation on its site to meet additional needs for either of the schools should this be required. The Department will progress this as necessary over the coming weeks in consultation with the schools and the ETB.
The building project to deliver a permanent new 1,000 pupil school for Greystones Community College is planned for the designated post-primary site at Charlesland, as was referenced. My Department is committed to delivering this site for the new post-primary school for the Greystones and Kilcoole area of County Wicklow and work is ongoing to achieve that as soon as possible. Discussions are ongoing with the landowner with a view to acquiring the site. As the Deputies will appreciate, any site acquisition process may be lengthy and there may be complex issues which need to be addressed during negotiations, technical assessments or conveyancing. At all times, my Department must strive to obtain best value for the Exchequer while seeking to complete the acquisition as quickly and efficiently as possible. The project to deliver permanent accommodation for the school is to be delivered under my Department's design and build programme. As soon as there is sufficient certainty in respect of completion of the site acquisition, the architectural planning and design stage will be completed and, following grant of planning permission, the project will be expedited to tender and construction stages.
On the letter referenced by Deputy Whitmore, that letter was not forwarded to my Department by the contractor. However, the Department has had sight of the letter. There are several inaccuracies in that communication. Notwithstanding that, there has been ongoing communication between my Department and the contractor. Certain information was provided by the contractor at the end of September. In October, the Department informed the contractor that further information was required. That was provided at the end of October and is currently being adjudicated on.
I thank the Minister for her response, but it did not give me much information beyond what I have received already from her Department or others who have received communications from her Department. At the heart of this issue is the fact that the children are being taught in a tennis club which is totally unacceptable and unsuitable as classroom accommodation. I acknowledge that the Department is doing what it can and that it and the Minister are dealing with a range of difficulties across the educational system at the moment. However, my focus is on the children, teachers and parents in Greystones who were meant to go into a new school.
I have received several communications from the Department and addressed several questions to it. I have received communications from the construction team, the project management team on the site. I do not know whether the Department and the construction team are communicating with each other. The Minister stated that her Department had not received a notification that Deputy Whitmore and I received. We should not have to act as referees and arbitrators in this situation. The communication should be between the Department and the construction team. I ask that senior officials in the Minister's Department open a line of communication with the construction team to put whatever difficulties exist right such that the children can go into the school.
The Minister stated that she is grateful to the tennis club. We are all grateful to the tennis club for stepping in in this emergency situation, but it is not a resolution. The children are guaranteed to be there until December 2020.
We would be looking at potential options. Temporary accommodation in Charlesland would be fantastic, but they need the permanent school in Charlesland. We have no indication or confirmation that the tennis club is willing to extend. Temporary accommodation in Charlesland would be better than the tennis club. Considering acquisition of land, planning and design, it could take at least three years before moving into that school. I would like clarification on that and assurance on where the school will be after Christmas 2020. The children, their parents and the teachers need to hear that.
Unfortunately, the Minister gave a non-answer following a litany of non-answers from the Department on the issue. The children, their parents and the staff are getting frustrated. Everyone needs to plan. Two schools are waiting to hear what is happening with that new build. They are putting off enrolment. A number of children will not get places next week when admissions are confirmed. It is not fair to the staff that they cannot plan. Far too many children are reliant on this building. I ask the Minister to get her Department to focus on the issue and ensure a solution is provided.
I thank both Deputies for their observations. I reiterate my Department's commitment to the delivery of these projects. That commitment has been ongoing in trying to resolve outstanding issues. Both Deputies will appreciate the strong determination on the part of the Department to ensure the duty of care that we hold is fulfilled. I imagine both Deputies would expect that would be the Department's priority. That is exactly what is happening in this instance.
On the specific matters that have impacted the handover of the building, the Department is taking the appropriate steps to ensure it is completely satisfied that the building is fit for handover prior to accepting it. The Department is engaging with the contractor in this regard under the appropriate terms of the public works contract. As I have already outlined, some communication was received from the contractor on 30 September and was reviewed and assessed. That communication was deemed inadequate and a further notice issued to the contractor in October. A response was received at the end of October and this is being considered. While this process is under way, my Department will not make any further comment other than to say that we are expediting this as quickly as possible.