Seanad debates

Thursday, 5 May 2005

1:00 pm

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for remaining to take my matter on the Adjournment. Recently the principal of St. Brigid's national school in Castleknock invited all the public representatives to meet with him and do a tour of the school. This school, which was built in 1971 as an eight teacher school, has now grown to a 35 teacher school. While it received summer work grants for 2004 and 2005, this represents a mere attempt to address some refurbishment. The school is in need of much more work.

The school architect, Mr. Roger Hofler, expressed his concerns about some issues. These concerns are shared by the health and safety officer and the school insurers, Alliance. The general purpose room, which was built many years ago, is now totally unsuitable for the number of children in the school. Furthermore, in terms of today's standards, it is not suited to the types of PE activities in which children participate. It is in a very bad state. Teachers in the school are most unhappy and concerned about allowing children to use it with the result that PE is not undertaken there.

Four teachers have no classroom facilities. A teacher of international pupils currently teaches three or four children in what was originally a broom cupboard. I saw this room while accompanied by the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Brian Lenihan. The school has a large number of international children who need special attention. One resource teacher teaches in a converted toilet. Four resource or learning support teachers share two remedial rooms. We saw these rooms and noted they are separated by a partition. The teachers are trying to teach children who need special attention but the set-up in which they are being taught is not conducive to learning.

The school needs and hopes to acquire two further resource teachers but it has no accommodation to offer them. The school also needs special security, which is difficult to provide in the present circumstances. The school has no storage facilities because the storage rooms are now being used for teaching. It has no storage facilities for PE equipment, video and audio equipment or classroom resources. All equipment of this kind is now being stored in corridors. The health and safety officer stated this is unacceptable.

The school staffroom was built for eight teachers but must now cater for 35. The school's accommodation is no more suitable for teachers than it is for children. There is no multipurpose room or place to facilitate parent-teacher meetings, visiting dentists, doctors or psychologists.

The school is located in a developing area. Approximately 3,500 thousand houses are to be built in the area, some of which are under construction. The school has received 172 applications for enrolment for September 2005 but there are only 90 places on offer.

The number of pupils in the classrooms is far too high. This is a serious issue in all schools throughout the country. Teachers at the school in question are up in arms about class sizes, and this can be said for all other primary schools in the area. All the principals attended a meeting in this regard and all had the same difficulty. The problem needs to be addressed.

A more urgent problem arose in recent weeks regarding health and safety in the school. Mortar is falling off the walls and this is a danger to children playing nearby and to passers by. The school is in need of major refurbishment. Senator Morrissey raised this issue on behalf of the school last week and the Department responded as follows:

Last year, the Department of Education and Science received an application from the school authorities of St. Brigid's for the provision of a general purpose room, resource rooms, a multipurpose room and storage space. This application was assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects, which were revised following consultation with the education partners. The project will be considered in the context of the school building and modernisation programme 2005-09.

This reply is incorrect because the school submitted an application initially in 2001. It is now 2005 and no significant moneys have been forthcoming to address the health and safety issues at the school. I hope the Minister will be able to give a more positive response today to address these issues. They need to be addressed quickly before an accident happens. We need to take seriously the accommodation needs of both teachers and pupils in 2005. It is unacceptable that they should have to teach and be taught in such conditions. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Seanadóir as ucht na ceiste seo a ardú liom. I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the House both the extensive action already taken by the Department of Education and Science and those planned to tackle the accommodation needs of St. Brigid's national school, Castleknock, Dublin 15.

Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of under-investment in this area, as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office, the Government has shown a sincere determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

The Department has progressively increased funding for the school modernisation programme in recent years to achieve our goal, with an aggregate total of almost €2 billion allocated for this purpose since 1998, the largest investment programme in the history of the State. Since the beginning of the year, the Minister for Education and Science has made a number of announcements relating to the schools building and modernisation programme. This year alone, €270 million will be allocated to primary schools and €223 million to post-primary schools for building works. This represent an increase of 14% on the 2004 allocation.

The programmes supported will include the following: some 141 major building projects already on site and a further 28 due to commence in the coming weeks; 122 major schools building projects countrywide, for which tenders will be prepared and which will move to construction during 2005; 192 primary schools which have been invited to take part in the small and rural schools initiative and the devolved scheme for providing additional accommodation; up to 120 schools which have been given approval to rent temporary premises, pending delivery of a permanent solution to their long-term accommodation needs; 43 schools which have been authorised to start architectural planning of their major projects and 124 which have been approved to progress through the architectural planning process; and 590 schools which were given approval to complete essential small-scale projects under the summer works scheme.

I am pleased to confirm that St. Brigid's national school, Castleknock, was successful in securing funding of over €90,000 towards the partial replacement of windows under the summer works scheme 2005. The school also received a grant of €225,000 in 2004 towards the replacement of windows. Senator Terry has her script and I have my script——

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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The facts are with the Department.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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No doubt. In the knowledge that Departments are accurate about these matters, I am sure the Department of Education and Science is correct in stating it received last year an application from the authorities of St. Brigid's for the provision of a general purpose room, resource rooms, a multipurpose room and storage space. If the Senator checks this, she will find it did happen.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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Yes.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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We agree.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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It also happened in 2001.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I cannot talk about 2001.

The application of last year was assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects, which were revised following consultation with the education partners. The project will be considered in the context of the school building and modernisation programme 2005-09.

As the Senator will no doubt recognise, one reason there is such pressure in schools at present is because there are so many extra teachers, remedial teachers and resource teachers, all of whom need space. An average rural two-teacher school now needs a third classroom because there are so many extra services being provided. This is great but, as the Senator knows, if extra people are employed, extra space is required. When people complain about the problems associated with the schools building programme, they often ignore the two main causes. The first is the population shift. When those of us who fight against urbanisation say we are pushing too many people too fast and that we have half-empty schools in one half of the country and schools that are too full in the other half, we are often berated.

The second problem is that we have provided many extra services to schools. The third issue is the unprecedented growth in our population, for which nobody had planned. Had we planned for it we would have been dismissed as mad. We are dealing with these issues.

The position with regard to class sizes is that the mainstream staffing of a primary school is determined by applying the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous school year to a staffing schedule agreed between the Department and the education partners. The system for allocating teachers to primary schools is based on ensuring an overall maximum class of 29 in each school. Where some classes in a school have more than 29 pupils that is generally because a decision has been taken at local level to use the teaching resources to reduce the numbers in other classes.

In the 2003-04 school year, the last year for which details are available, there were 11 classes of over 30 pupils in the school to which the Senator referred. The average class size, however, in the school is 28. In accordance with the staffing schedule, the staffing of the school for this school year is a principal and 27 mainstream class teachers based on an enrolment of 761 pupils at 30 September 2003. In addition, the school has three resource posts, two learning support posts and two temporary language support posts.

The Department will finalise the staffing schedule for the 2005-06 school year shortly and thereafter notify school boards of management. According to data submitted to the Department by the board of management, the enrolment in the school on 30 September 2004 was 766 pupils. The staffing for the 2005-06 school year will be determined on the basis of this figure and in accordance with the relevant staffing schedule.

Once again I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the method used by the Department of Education and Science in determining in an open and transparent way how projects are included for funding in the schools building programme and to assure the House that this school and all others will be treated in a fair and equitable manner.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I have deep concern about the Minister's reply. It does not address the health and safety issue outlined in the question.