Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
A matter has arisen this morning in regard to the Christian Brothers Primary School in Wexford, which had a publicised closure to students this week because of a Covid outbreak. I emphasise the closure was for students because they were asked not to come to school, although all teachers and staff attended at school in order to provide online learning. This has generated poor publicity. The principal, Vicky Barron, and the board of management have the full support of the children and families whose health and safety they have prioritised. It is incumbent on the Department to address the fact that the HSE has not been forthcoming with the support required to prevent this action being taken. There are questions to be answered, primarily for the parents, teachers and the principal. Who is in charge? Who is responsible for a situation like this?
I will move on. The issue I raise today relates to the Christian Brothers post-primary school in New Ross, which wrote to the Department in 2017 requesting that the physical education, PE, needs of the children be addressed. There are more than 403 pupils in the school and they have no PE hall. Since 2017, the principal, Pat Rossiter, has received just two responses from the Department. The first was on 12 December 2017 from the then Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, stating that the application had been received. On 9 February 2018, a letter was received from the then Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, acknowledging that the sports hall application had been received.
I have been involved in this matter since my election 18 or 20 months ago and I have received the same reply to my correspondence several times. The most recent reply I received was in September. It states:
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 provide for an additional focus on the refurbishment of existing school buildings to include the building and modernisation of PE facilities in post primary schools.
In addition, the national development plan states:
The strengthened focus on refurbishment of existing school stock will have different strands to include those listed ... a PE build and modernisation programme will enable students in post-primary schools to have access to appropriate facilities to support PE provision, particularly also in the context of the roll-out of PE as a leaving-certificate subject. Enhanced and modernised PE facilities will also provide important amenities for local communities.
That is brilliant but I hope it will be delivered. When will the Minister provide funding for a PE classroom or hall for the CBS Secondary School, New Ross, to ensure the school can provide its students with the learning facilities required to support PE as a leaving certificate subject? I ask her to make a statement on the matter. I also ask her to come to County Wexford in the near future and visit the Christian Brothers school in New Ross so that the principal, Pat Rossiter, can make that case to her and show her around.
It would not be appropriate for me, as the Deputy will appreciate, to comment directly on an individual school and that is not the purpose of the Topical Issue matter.
It has always been and will continue to be the case that we will operate on the back of full public health advice. All the operations within our schools, from their reopening and the measures we put in place at that time, have been under the direction of public health authorities, and those authorities continue to make judgments on the operation of our schools where there may be a Covid-19 incident. It was a request of school management and leaders that no individual school would have that burden of responsibility placed upon it. We are required to follow public health advice as it is issued.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which has also been raised with me on a consistent basis by the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne. Today gives me an opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education's plans for upgrading school buildings, including the Christian Brothers Secondary School, New Ross. The Deputy may be aware that CBS New Ross is a Catholic, co-educational post-primary school in New Ross with an enrolment in 2020 of 397 pupils. This represents an increase of 24% in the past five years.
I am pleased to inform the Deputy that my Department approved capital funding for CBS New Ross in 2019 for the provision of four general classrooms, including one general classroom prefab replacement, one special education teaching room, one design and communication graphics room and one home economics room. This project was devolved to the school authorities for delivery and they were approved to go to planning in July 2021, which I was pleased to see. My Department's planning and building unit also received an application in June 2017 from CBS New Ross seeking capital funding for the provision of a physical education, PE, hall. The school authority was informed in writing that it is currently not possible to consider this application.
Under the national development plan, increased funding has been provided for the school sector capital investment programme, which is an extremely positive and proactive step. 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. During the national development plan period for 2018 to 2020, there were 526 completed building projects 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 also has a significant existing pipeline of projects to be delivered over the coming years to meet capacity needs, 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.
The immediate priority of my Department is providing 20,000 new and replacement school places each year to ensure every child has a school place. However, later in the national development plan period there will be an increasing focus on the upgrade and refurbishment of the existing school stock. This will include a physical education hall build and modernisation programme to ensure students in all post-primary schools have access to these facilities. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to outline the current position with that type of school build.
I thank the Minister for her positive response. The engagement between the Minister and me has always been positive and I am pleased with her response. I again extend the invitation to the Minister to visit New Ross so the principal of the school, Mr. Pat Rossiter, can have the opportunity to show her around. I was there for the delivery in 2019 of the grant of funding for the new build.
The enrolment of 397 students has increased to a current total of 403 students, although the school lost two students because of the lack of PE facilities. The fact remains that we have 403 students and need to cater for their physical education requirements. I am a mother and the Minister has been a principal as well as a mother, so I know she is aware that physical education must be balanced with academic education. In a time when we live in such mental health strife, and particularly with what students have been through in the past number of years because of Covid-19 and other factors, we must prioritise a build for the school. There are 403 students with a basic tarmac yard where they must carry out physical education exercises, and most of the time that is impossible because of the weather, particularly at this time of year.
The principal has stated:
CBS New Ross is the only secondary school in the county without a sports arena. Presently, PE is delivered outside on a non-suitable tarmac yard. Winter PE is regularly not an option for the students presently for 403 students. This is a major issue. The school board of management is extremely frustrated and annoyed with the situation and feel that in 2021 it is totally unacceptable for CBS New Ross to be without basic PE and sports indoor facilities.
I am nonetheless heartened by what the Minister has said today. If she can make her way to New Ross before Christmas, I would greatly appreciate it, as would the school principal.
I thank the Deputy. I am inundated with invitations to County Wexford and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, is consistently inviting me. I accept the Deputy's invitation also. When my diary allows it, I will be absolutely happy to visit. I am certainly very conscious of the Deputy's invitation.
I appreciate the case made by the Deputy. There is positive news in what I have to say and I appreciate that the Deputy has acknowledged that. The Department currently has a significant pipeline of projects in train for delivery to the 4,000 schools in my care as Minister for Education. For example, in the year ahead we have more than 200 projects that will be on-site and going to construction for the 2022 period. We are looking at a net spend of more than €792 million on capital projects for 2022, which is a significant envelope of funding.
I am conscious of the need to progress PE halls, as the Deputy has referenced. I am pleased to be able to say that as part of the national development programme, there will be an increased focus on refurbishment of existing buildings, specifically including PE hall build and modernisation. I am determined that we will deliver on that as soon as possible. It is a huge vote of confidence in the education sector that even during lockdown we saw such innovative and determined delivery of additional accommodation, much within the Deputy's county and to the benefit of students there. We are determined to continue that roll-out.