Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

4:45 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending. I appreciate this is not his area, so I hope he has been well briefed. It is a pity the Minister for Education is not here to take this issue because it is important for many students and parents in north Wicklow.

Greystones Community College is a secondary school in Greystones. For many years, there was great pressure and demand for school places in our locality and we were delighted when the school was sanctioned, given it met a significant need in the area. Since its sanctioning, it has been in temporary accommodation at three different sites, including a tennis club, where the principal's office was situated in a bathroom. It has also been accommodated at a rugby club and it is now shared between there and a GAA club. The students are being taught in old prefabricated buildings rather than a dedicated facility or building and they have no PE facilities or sports hall. They have a reduced curriculum because the school is not able to provide all the subjects to the students.

Land in the area has been allocated and planning permission provided for the new school. It is costing enormous sums to provide this temporary accommodation. The Department is paying hundreds of thousands of euro while the full build is being completed, and land is sitting idle.

I wanted to raise this issue with the Minister for Education because in June of last year, I was told the school was on track to be completed for September 2024, which was welcome news. Since then, however, I received notification that the Minister for Health, who is sitting in the Chamber, was provided with an update indicating that the construction of the school would be completed in mid-2025, which would have a considerable impact on the school given its demand is continuing to grow. It is a very popular school and it will not have the facilities to provide enough places for students who need them. It will need to put a cap in place.

In November last, I wrote to the Minister for Education's office to try to find out what was happening with regard to the school because parents, students and the school community were very worried about the issue, although I did not receive a response. I again wrote earlier this year and have not received a response to that either. I hope the Minister of State has been given a comprehensive prepared response from the Department of Education on this issue.

My understanding is the Department told the parent body that lot 6, which includes Greystones Community College, was to go to tender in 2022-23 but that, in fact, it did not go to tender in 2022. Did the tender issue in 2022, and if not, why not? Will it happen in 2023? The initial response I received from the Minister in the middle of last year suggested construction would begin in early 2023, but that deadline has passed. There are significant concerns about this and I hope the Minister of State will have a comprehensive response for me.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy and apologise on behalf of the Minister for Education, who is in Roscommon today. She has assured me she is working with the Minister for Health to try to progress the issue the Deputy raised.

In April 2018, the then Government announced plans for the establishment of 47 new schools between 2019 and 2022, including a new regional solution at post-primary level for the Kilcoole and Greystones school planning area, and the school in question opened in Greystones for the 2021-22 school year.

The permanent building project for Greystones Community College, raised by the Deputy, is being delivered under the Department’s design and build programme, which uses a professional external project manager to progress projects through the stages of architectural planning, tender and construction. As part of the conditions of sale of the permanent site for the school at Glenheron, Greystones, the lodgment of the application for planning permission for the project was under the remit of the vendor, and the Department worked closely with the vendor on the planning application for the new school. Planning permission was submitted to the local authority on 21 February 2022 for the development of a new 1,000-pupil post-primary school and four classrooms for children with special educational needs, a PE hall, an associated staff car park, ball courts and ancillary accommodation at Glenheron. The final grant of planning permission, which was subject to 11 conditions, was received on 19 May 2022.

The Department has a large pipeline of projects for delivery under the schools building programme. The main elements of the pipeline currently involve more than 1,300 schools building projects for delivery under the Department’s large-scale and additional accommodation scheme. These projects are in progress at the various stages of planning, design, tender and construction. The Department has a strong record in the delivery of school buildings. During the period 2018 to 2021, 691 schools building projects were completed under the large-scale capital programme, LSCP, and the additional school accommodation scheme, ASA. These projects delivered more than 64,000 school places. While the numbers have yet to be finalised, it is estimated that more than 150 schools building projects were delivered in 2022.

This month, the Department will assess the overall requirements for 2023 and the associated work programme and will update the patron body for Greystones Community College in due course. As the Deputy outlined, the school is currently located in interim accommodation on the Greystones Éire Óg GAA site and the Greystones Rugby Football Club site. The Minister assures the Deputy that she and the Minister for Health are working closely to try to bring this matter to a speedy conclusion.

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Minister of State but, unfortunately, not a single question was answered and there has been no further update on this issue. He said the Department has a strong record of building schools and I absolutely disagree, not least in respect of Wicklow. In that county, there have been years of instances where demand has built up and students cannot get into a school within their locality, where they have to fight for a place and where their parents or the school community have to campaign. When a school is finally sanctioned for the community, that school takes years to get under way. In Wicklow, there have been cases where, because of building issues, those schools have been held up.

When it comes to Wicklow, the record of school building is not something on which the Department should be selling itself. I am glad to hear the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is working closely with the Minister of State and perhaps the Minister of State might have further information on this. I acknowledge he pledged to keep this school on track for 2024. It is now clear that deadline will not be met. The building on the site and the construction was meant to start now and there is still no news about whether a tender has been put in place. It is unacceptable and it appears this is the case in a lot of schools. A bloc of schools have gone to tender but for some reason, the Department has decided not to tender for this school. As the Minister of State is in contact with the school body, I would appreciate it if he got in touch with it to tell it what is going on because it is not fair that it must deal with these temporary accommodations and that the promises made to it have been broken. This is not the first time it has happened but these promises have been broken. Those students deserve to know where they are going to be attending school in two years' time and where they will be sitting their leaving certificate exams. They deserve the full curriculum, not a limited one, and deserve to have proper facilities, such as a PE hall. It is not much to ask. Considering that the Department has made repeated promises in this regard, I am not sure whether the Minister of State can give me an update but I would appreciate it if he could do so, if he had further information, because it appears as though that he and the Minister, Deputy Foley, are working closely on it. It would be really great if he could give me an update on this.

4:55 pm

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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In fairness to the Department, as I said, it delivered 64,000 school places between 2018 and 2021 during a global pandemic during which construction was closed. It seems that 150 school building projects were delivered in 2022. The Minister, Deputy Foley, in particular has prioritised ample investment in securing record capital budgets. I will ask her office to reach out to the Deputy on the outstanding correspondence and I have no doubt but that she and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, are working closely to try to deliver this project for Greystones. As I said, work is ongoing during the month of January to finalise the 2023 programme and hopefully, that should be brought to a head soon. I will bring the Deputy's concerns about the lack of response to the Minister's attention.