Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Accommodation

4:15 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I thank the Minister of State for the opportunity to discuss this matter. I understand that neither the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, nor the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, were able to take this matter.

Tramore Educate Together National School has been in existence since 2014. It was mooted as far back as 2008. My first teaching post was in an educate together school. Many educate together schools are developing schools. It takes a significant amount of energy to get these schools off the ground. As they develop and grow, huge stress continues to be placed on the board of management, which works hard, and principals who have to hold the school community together and make sure that it continues to grow.

I engaged with Eilish, the principal, and Corinne, the chair of the board of management for a number of years on an ongoing basis on provision for their school as it grew. Eilish and I met the Minister, Deputy Foley, in April 2021, at which point I thought the problem had been solved and we were making provision for the school to move forward in a way that would suit the school community.

I visited the school again just last week, however, and met Eilish and Corinne in the company of Councillors Cristíona Kiely, Eamon Quinlan and Joe Conway, who were all elected to represent the area, and the story is not a good one as to where we are. Eilish is trying to run a school that is split over three campuses. It has 160 students enrolled at the moment. Some class groups have their own classes; others are in split-level classes. The school is also being asked to have an autism unit. One class is already established and a further one is to open in September. What we have is three buildings. We have a HSE building which houses senior infants, first class and a nurture room. Then we have the Stella Maris building, which is an old secondary school building currently in private ownership. That is being renovated. It holds the junior autism spectrum, AS, classroom and junior infants. Excuse me. That is the third campus. The Minister of State will forgive me for getting mixed up. The Stella Maris building has a second class and third class split class, a third class and fourth class split class and the senior AS classroom. Then there is the Stella Maris hall, which is being renovated. That holds the junior infant class and the junior AS class. To add a fourth dimension, there is a prefab, which houses the fifth class and sixth class classroom.

This is clearly an unsuitable arrangement. Thankfully, Eilish is now what is referred to as a walking principal. By God, she is walking a lot to cover the distance between these classrooms. To complicate matters, a couple of hundred metres up the road there is a renovation project happening in what is referred to locally as the 50 p piece building, which used to be part of the provision of my school, Glór na Mara. It is now consolidated in one building on one site. That has been renovated. The plan seems to be that it has been renovated for Tramore Educate Together National School. However, I know that building intimately, having taught in it, and it is too small to house Tramore Educate Together National School. We therefore have a situation unfolding in which a huge amount of money is being spent renovating a secondary school that is now in private hands, a huge amount of money is being spent renovating the 50 p piece building for intentions I am not clear on, and we have a school for which we have inadequate provision. I want to work with the Minister of State to find a solution for what has been an intractable problem up to this point.

4:25 pm

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the accommodation in place for Tramore Educate Together National School.

Tramore Educate Together National School was established in 2014 under the patronage divesting process. The patronage divesting process arises from the recommendations of the 2012 report of the advisory group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, following which the Department of Education undertook surveys of parental preferences in 43 areas of stable population in 2012 and 2013 to establish the level of parental demand for a wider choice in the patronage of primary schools within those areas. Analysis of the parental preferences expressed in each area surveyed indicated that there was sufficient parental demand to support changes in school patronage in 28 areas, including Tramore.

Under the patronage divesting process, a school can be opened where a school building became, or was due to become, available - for example, as a result of an amalgamation or closure of an existing school. In the case of Tramore Educate Together National School, the planned permanent accommodation is a school property formerly used by Glór na Mara primary school, as Deputy Ó Cathasaigh has outlined. That property is undergoing a building retrofit project. Financial provision has been made in the national development plan for funding support for the refurbishment of schools, including retrofit. To prepare the way for that large-scale retrofit work, a pathfinder partnership programme has been put in place, jointly arranged by the Department and the Sustainable Energy Authority Of Ireland, SEAI. The pathfinder partnership programme focuses on supporting energy efficiency retrofit in primary and post-primary schools. That includes retrofit improvements to buildings, test approaches, building of best practice and development of a scalable retrofit model which can be replicated across the public sector. Where improvements are made, the intent is to optimise improvements relating to fabric and ventilation; to improve efficiency of lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning, HVAC, systems; and to deliver space heating by means of renewable heat.

The Tramore school building is one of three schools selected to pilot a procurement approach whereby refurbishment work will be completed at the same time as the deep energy retrofit work. The refurbishment works are being funded 100% by the Department of Education, while the deep energy retrofit works are funded on an equal basis by the Department and SEAI. The project at the Glór na Mara building is progressing well on site and is expected to complete later this year. Having considered the long-term accommodation needs of the school, the Department of Education has acquired additional land beside the Glór na Mara property site to facilitate the provision of additional accommodation on that site. In this way the school will have sufficient accommodation between the retrofitted Glór na Mara building and the newly built accommodation on the site. This will secure the long-term needs of Tramore Educate Together National School.

Pending the completion of all required building works, for the first quarter of the upcoming school year Tramore Educate Together National School will remain in its current interim accommodation arrangements. The school is currently located, as Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said, on a split-site basis, comprising a premises formerly occupied by the HSE, namely the Tramore health centre, and on part of the former Stella Maris Secondary School property, which is now under private ownership. The lease of the former HSE building has been extended until the end of December 2022 to ensure accommodation is in place for the school while the retrofit project is ongoing. On completion of the retrofit project, the school will operate from the upgraded Glór na Mara building and the rented accommodation in the Stella Maris building until the extension project is delivered.

The Department of Education has approved funding for the reconfiguration of a second classroom for special education in the main Stella Maris building, along with a central activities space which will allow for a two-class special education base to function from that location in the medium term. Accommodation is also in place for the school's seventh developing mainstream post.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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There is more information in the answer the Minister of State has given me than was made available to the school, so I thank him for that because the school has been kept in the dark on this. Something I find frustrating about this whole process is that one of the first things I asked for when the Government was formed was for the forward planning unit in the Department of Education to do a desktop survey on Tramore and to assess the school needs there and the school lands that were at that time available for sale but that have now been lost to private ownership, which complicates the entire situation.

To speak to the specifics, the classrooms in the 50 p piece building, which I know extremely well as I have taught in it, are 50 sq. m. I have taught a class of 30 fifth class kids in the building and there was not room to swing a cat - not that one should swing cats in primary school classrooms. Modern standards now call for classrooms of 80 sq. m, so these classrooms are too small. They are also a peculiar shape. The building is in the shape of a 50 p piece. The rooms are oblong. That makes for unusable corners. That might seem like a small thing, but when you are trying to fit furniture and children into a room it makes a big difference. There are only seven classrooms. We are talking about a school which will soon have eight class groups and a requirement for special educational needs, SEN, provision and which has an AS unit in it. As for land acquired on the old CBS site, there are now three owners of the site. There is the Department of Education and the diocese, and the site is also partially owned privately. It should have been acquired by the State and we would have had a more consolidated landholding. The only details I can find on plans for the additional accommodation is a red rectangle marking where it could putatively be. Now I have to go back to a principal and tell her that, sometime in the never-never, her school may sit on the one campus. I am not sure that that is a reply I want to give to a principal who has been working so hard to make this school thrive within my town's community.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Given the points the Deputy has raised, it is important that the Department of Education re-engage on this and give it some further consideration. Considering the constraints the Deputy mentioned, particularly after what we have been through with the pandemic, it is critical that this school building is fit for purpose in respect of spacing, layout and future expansion. Census data have just come out today and, from that point of view, I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Education and recommend that the Department go back and re-engage with the school on this.