Dáil debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

3:25 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State when I say that it is disappointing that a Minister from the Department of Education could not here to take this matter or the preceding one. There is a Minister from the Department in the building, but clearly she is otherwise occupied.

I was made aware early this week that, towards the end of last week, Ardee Educate Together National School received confirmation from the Department of Education that its new school project has been postponed. Last August, local Government party representatives appeared in the local media to tell us all that the school would proceed to construction shortly. They were not dreaming this up but had been told by the Minister for Education. However, this project has yet again been thwarted.

I will give the Minister of State a potted history of the project. Back in 2011, at a time of great difficulty for this country, I worked with the then Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, to have this project sanctioned. The Labour Minister sanctioned it in 2011. Some 12 years on and five Ministers for Education later, the school has been told that the project will again be long-fingered, along with many other important projects around the country. To say that the principal, board and parents of the school are incandescent with rage is not an understatement. I am absolutely infuriated as well. This is a project on which I worked closely with successive Ministers. I am particularly determined to see it over the line because the school is operating in what I can only describe as Dickensian circumstances. That is it, plain and simple. There are 208 students, now accommodated on two sites across the road from one another. The junior element of the school occupies a very old building dating back to 1812 that is simply not fit for purpose. Nobody could ever pretend that it is. On the other side of the road, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-class students are accommodated in part of a converted warehouse previously owned by a furniture company. The warehouse accommodation works better for the school and the unused portion could, in the interim, accommodate the rest of the school. The principal would favour moving the junior element of the school over to what is left of the warehouse to accompany the other students. The school board is meeting this afternoon to discuss that very issue.

The principal told us today that she is sick of it and that a new school is not going to be built so the junior element should at least be moved into the warehouse in the meantime. She spoke about the cost of heating the prefabs and said that at least in the warehouse the children do not have to wear their coats in the classroom. To receive the kind of information the principal received this week in the middle of a very difficult cold snap has added to the school's frustrations. The principal, the school staff, parents and the entire school community are at the end of their tether. The school also accommodates four special classes for children with autism. Nobody could say that the conditions they are in are satisfactory. It is not appropriate to be accommodating anyone, let alone children who have autism, in a situation like this.

The builder was ready to go the week after St. Patrick's Day. The project was proceeding to construction but is now being pulled. I remind the Minister that this school was first approved in 2011 and, five or six Ministers for Education on, it is being pulled again. Will the Minister of State give me an update on when it will proceed? I know a review is taking place but it is simply not good enough given what we heard from the Minister last August about the project proceeding to construction this year.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Nash. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Education, who in unable be here. I can understand the frustration of the principal of Ardee Educate Together National School. I know the great work Educate Together schools do nationally.

I thank Deputy Nash for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the current position as to the development of the new school building for Ardee Educate Together National School. The brief for this major school building project is to provide an eight-classroom school with an additional four-classroom special educational needs base included. As the Deputy stated, the school already provides that service. Responsibility for the delivery of this project has been devolved to Louth County Council, which will act as the contracting authority for the project. The project is currently at tender stage, which is a very critical point in the process.

The Department of Education is experiencing capital pressures. These pressures on the capital allocation have been compounded since the NDP allocations were determined in 2021 by the impact of high construction inflation, the increasing prevalence of autism and other complex special education needs which requires the accelerated delivery of special educational needs provision at pace, and the urgent need to provide capacity for students from Ukraine and other countries under international protection system. The national priority within the NDP to increase the roll-out of housing is also adding to pressures on the Department’s capital allocation given the knock-on impact for additional school provision requirements. The Department's published NDP allocation for 2023 is €860 million. As part of its planning ahead for 2023, the Department is engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform on funding for various school projects.

We hope that they will be concluded relatively soon.

On the project itself, the brief for the school is for eight classrooms with four classrooms with a special educational needs, SEN, base included. This was upgraded from two to four SEN-based classrooms in December 2020 following consultation between the Department, Louth County Council, the school and its design team. However, I understand from Deputy Nash's initial contribution that four special education classes are being provided in the school at present, so it is obvious that is what would be required. The enrolment increased from 177 in 2020 to 187 in 2021 and 198 in 2022. Deputy Nash referred to there being 208 students currently, with four special classrooms for children with autism.

The Department states that it is a challenging project to plan, as significant archaeological finds have been recorded in and around the vicinity of the site. There is also a need to carefully plan and design the site's road access from the N52. This prolonged the planning process, but planning permission was granted in July 2018. The Department is engaging to facilitate the provision of sufficient school places for all children, including those with special educational needs, for the coming 2023 to 2024 school year. The Department is engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform in regard to capital funding pressures in order to continue to be able to adequately support the operation of the school system with the roll-out of the school building project to tender and construction in 2023 and to minimise project delays to the greatest extent possible. It is hoped that the discussions will conclude reasonably quickly and that the building of the school can proceed as planned.

3:35 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State very much indeed for his response. It is appreciated, but in some ways we are none the wiser.

I do not have a colleague who has not mentioned a school - indeed it is four schools in the constituency of my party leader, Deputy Bacik - that has not been affected. Councillor Fiona Bonfield spoke to me about Newport College in Tipperary, which is an area with which the Minister of State will be familiar given that it is in a neighbouring constituency. The school is overcrowded and requires these resources to develop and evolve.

The devolved process that was announced some years ago by the Department to engage with the local authorities to make processes more efficient are all well and good on paper. I do not believe that any of delays we are talking about here are down to Louth County Council. The schools were blindsided by the announcement last week. Today, my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, demanded a list from the Department of the 58 schools affected and the 29 that are most directly affected, including Ardee Educate Together National School. If the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, understood the circumstances in which the school is operating and if the Minister for Education understood in more detail the circumstances in which the school is operating, nobody in their right mind would continue to delay this project. The school is operating out of building dating back to 1812. The oldest of the prefabs on site is 20 years old. I have previously been informed about rat infestations, dampness and cold. This is an economy that is doing well. We had a surplus last year of almost €6 billion and we are constantly told that this economy is doing well, but our society is not. When people see school projects being delayed, partly because of construction inflation, they ask questions about how the Department of Education is functioning. To the credit of the current Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, his announcement last year on burden-sharing with contractors, if we can call it that, was interesting, in terms of delivering national development programme projects. How will that operate in the context of the school programme? In other words, will the Department absorb some of the additional cost that will accrue because of increases in construction cost inflation? Is the Minister of State aware how that will work and how it will be applied to these projects in education?

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I will respond to the two main points raised by Deputy Nash. The Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and her Department are fully committed to the provision of the new school building for Ardee Educate Together National School. In the wider context, I assure the Deputy that the Department is very conscious of the need to continue to support the operation of the school system and intends to provide clarity for individual schools about their school building projects that are on hold, as quickly as possible. We hope that the review with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform will conclude reasonably quickly, which will provide clarity.

Deputy Nash referred to Newport College. I am familiar with the project as Newport is in my constituency. There was a revision of the public procurement framework for building. I do not know that will work in the current context but I suspect it is a general national development that will apply to capital projects. The most important point is that the Minister for Education is determined to provide clarity to schools reasonably quickly. Discussions are ongoing with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and we hope they will conclude pretty quickly. In the specific case raised by the Deputy of Ardee Educate Together National School, the hope is that the principal, staff, students and parents will have their school building project going to tender and built as quickly as possible.