Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

9:22 am

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for her attendance. I apologise that I have to raise this issue but I am disappointed with what is going on at the Department. I will outline the history of the school in question, about which the Minister and I had a Zoom meeting a few months ago. It is Holy Trinity school which has been there for 230 years. It is under the patronage of Church of Ireland and if it was anything but a Church of Ireland school, this would not be going on. The site in Altamount Street, Westport, was formerly owned by the Sisters of Mercy and was selected for this new school. It was the wish of the Sisters of Mercy that this school would be used by Holy Trinity. The school is currently located on Newport Road but this site is not fit for purpose.

The school is a credit to the community. Four or five of the Mayo GAA panel are former pupils, yet there are very few sporting facilities. After the school had been provided by the Sisters of Mercy, there was a row as to who would take over the site. I was involved in that. Neither the county council nor the Department of Education would take it over, but eventually, the Department took it over because there were problems with not doing so. We were delighted when we heard that had finally happened.

All of a sudden, the co-educational school appeared and, for whatever reason, the Department, which had a site for the school in the town of Westport, tried to build it in the middle of a housing estate, in an old social welfare office, which was never going to happen. Then, out of nowhere, the Department decided it would put the two schools together on a site that is capable of having only one school. I hope that in respect of Mayo County Council and the planning office, it will not again be the case that there is one rule for the general public and another for the State. The State should obey the law as the general public does. This site is not capable of housing two schools.

The Holy Trinity school was included in the schools programme. When the previous Minister, Deputy McHugh, was in office, he texted me to say the school was going ahead, that the co-educational school would not be with it and that the Holy Trinity school was about to begin construction. I have a copy of the text message on my phone. To be fair to Holy Trinity, the management, the principal, the teachers and the 230 pupils, the time has come for the school to be built. We have the site and the school is in the programme. The site is going into dereliction and is affecting the town of Westport, which is very proud of its tradition with Tidy Towns and very little dereliction. Across from the site, a new library is to be built.

I accept that the Minister inherited this problem but she might address my questions. When will Holy Trinity get its school? Who made the decision to have the co-educational school co-located with the Holy Trinity school, given that it was never in the game in the first instance?

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which has been raised consistently with me by Deputy Calleary and Senator Chambers. As Deputy Ring outlined, I met a deputation from the school and was happy to do so. Nevertheless, this Topical Issue matter gives me an opportunity to set out for the House the position with regard to Holy Trinity National School.

Holy Trinity is a co-educational primary school under Church of Ireland patronage. The school had an enrolment of 63 pupils in the 2020-21 school year and a staffing of one principal, two mainstream class teachers and one special education teaching post. It is currently situated on a patron-owned site in a permanent building in the heart of Westport, comprising three classrooms and ancillary accommodation.

The Department has a largescale and ambitious plan for the roll-out of school building projects under the national development plan, NDP, and as part of Project Ireland 2040. The continuation of construction work on school building projects during the lockdown period in early 2021 was an important enabler in facilitating the delivery of our school building programme. Significant increased funding is provided to the school sector capital investment programme under the NDP. My Department’s focus for capital investment in recent years has been the provision of new permanent school places to keep pace with demographic demand and this is expected to continue to be a driver of capital investment in the short to medium term.

During the NDP period from 2018 to 2020, 526 building projects were completed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. These projects delivered in excess of 48,000 school places, including permanent accommodation for 229 special classes, and additional capacity for 67 classrooms in 14 special schools throughout the country. The Department has a significant existing pipeline of projects to be delivered over the coming years to meet capacity needs. This is managed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. This will make significant progress in providing modern energy-efficient school facilities and the replacement of temporary accommodation.

A building project to construct a new school building for Holy Trinity National School is included in the Department’s large-scale capital programme. It is the Department’s intention, subject to securing the usual statutory consents, that the school will be relocated to a Minister-owned site at Altamont Street, Westport. In line with the public spending code, to maximise the use of State assets consideration must be given to the potential to master-plan the Altamont Street site to accommodate a second primary school. This proposal has required engagement with the local authority and my Department is now in the process of finalising its assessment of this potential solution. This assessment is also incorporating current projections of future school place requirements, which were recently updated.

These projections of future school place demand are modelled using data from a range of sources, including school enrolments, attendance patterns and information on current and planned residential development activity. The Department also works closely with the National Council for Special Education in anticipating requirements for special education needs provision. Once the full assessment process is complete, my Department will be in further contact with the patron bodies of the schools in question, including Holy Trinity National School.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I assure him that my Department is concerned, at all times, with ensuring the accommodation needs of schools in Westport are appropriately advanced.

9:32 am

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for her reply. I will not get into a row with her today but natural justice should apply here. This school was involved first. I know a previous Minister - not the current Minister - had more interest in co-education schools than the other schools. We have great schools in Westport and the only school that needs to be relocated is Holy Trinity National School. The co-education group has come in since and it seems to be getting priority now. The Holy Trinity school has lobbied and raised funding while working in difficult conditions, and it is not being treated right by the Department.

I have nothing against co-education. In fact, I hope a site is obtained for the co-education school. There are plenty of derelict sites in Westport that could be used for it but I do not see why it should be located on the Holy Trinity school site. I was very much involved in this process. If the Minister knew the trouble her Department and Mayo County Council have caused because neither of them wanted to take over the site. We had to get the Minister at the time and the county council to sit down together and reach an agreement on who would take over the site. The site was always for Holy Trinity National School. The co-education school was not in the picture in regard to that site. The Department brought it into the picture. That decision was taken by a previous Minister. As usual, the real government are the officials who will not put their names on the ballot paper. It is the Minister and I who represent the Holy Trinity National School and the people of Westport and Kerry. We are, therefore, the people who should be making the decisions. I would like the Minister to make the decision that Holy Trinity National School will open on that site as quickly as possible. If the council wishes to break the planning laws, I will deal with that in another forum.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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It is my primary objective, at all times, that all schools are treated fairly in the process. The Deputy will accept that I have an obligation under the public spending code to maximise the use of State assets. Therefore, consideration must be given to the master plan. I am obliged to do that but I hear very clearly the case the Deputy makes. I assure him that the Department is in consultation with the local authority and is in the process of finalising the assessment of the potential and possibilities on the site. The assessment includes the present and future potential needs of schools.

I confirm that fairness is at the core of all that I seek to achieve in this regard. I wish to ensure the needs of children in Westport are suitably addressed. I assure the Deputy that I am giving full consideration to what needs to be done. That is my intention and that of my officials, whose paramount interest is that the needs of all will be served. We are working on this matter and will continue to do so. As soon as we have expedited all issues in regard to potential opportunities on the site and the needs of schools, which is most important, we will bring it to completion. I am conscious of the issues raised by the Deputy and they have been raised, as I said previously, by others in the constituency.