Tuesday, 24 May 2005
Ardpatrick national school is situated on a main road outside the speed limits of the village. It was originally built as a three-teacher school in a rural community in 1969, and the grounds incorporated approximately ten parking spaces for staff and parents. These spaces were arranged within a recess directly adjacent to the main road to allow the cars park parallel to it. Given that there was a lower usage of cars for transporting children to school and family patterns meant more children per family car, this allowed adequate parking for the staff of three and parents collecting and dropping off their children at the school.
In 2002 the school gained a fourth full-time resource teacher and the services of both a visiting resource teacher and a learning support teacher. The school also gained the service of two full-time special needs assistants and a part-time secretary. This led to at least six spaces being filled on a full-time basis with a further three spaces often being occupied either at the start or end of school by the part-time staff.
Social and population demographic changes placed further pressure on the limited parking spaces with an increase in car usage for bringing children to and from school. More families are now attending the school and these family units are smaller than previously, resulting in a greater number of cars being used to bring students to school. Often each car occupying a car parking space only contains a single student.
A potentially lethal situation has resulted from these changes. At collection and dropping off time, parents are often forced to double-park on the open road as the spaces available to them are rapidly occupied. This results in many of the students having to walk a distance through these double-parked cars on the main road to reach their parents' cars. The congested nature of the car-park and the need to pass outside the cars on the road has been identified as a clear hazard to students in the safety statement. The double-parking has also been identified as a hazard to passing traffic on the busy road. A poll taken among parents in 2003 and a subsequent petition seeking departmental redress of the situation clearly identified strong concerns about safety.
The board attempted to implement some measures to reduce these hazards. They applied to the county council to erect hazard warning lights and signs on the approaches to the school. This has had a limited effect on the speed of passing traffic. Through consultation with the parent body, attempts to relieve the congestion resulting from the limited parking facilities were made, including appeals to parents to stagger collection times, to turn their cars prior to collecting their children, to depart as soon as possible from the premises and that staff would park their cars perpendicular to the road. All of these measures proved unfeasible.
The board then applied for financial support to extend the parking facilities through the summer work scheme run by the Department of Education and Science. In 2003 a plan for extending the parking facilities was submitted to the Department for adjudication in February 2004. This application, supported by photographs of the parking situation, the results of the parents' poll and their petition, was rejected in March 2004, two months after the Department's deadline. The Department had placed this in amenity category six for funding, the lowest priority category. This says much about the Department's attitude to safety.
On appealing this decision, based on the Department's obligation to redress a clearly identified safety hazard, the school was requested to re-submit the plans for the following year's scheme. This was done, again in total compliance with the Department's regulations, but again, two months late once more, the appeal was rejected. The reason given this time was that a quantity surveyor had drawn up the plans. The school immediately appealed this decision on the grounds that the regulations applying to these plans did not prohibit their being drawn up by a quantity surveyor. This is clearly stated on the appendix to the regulations, which is available on www.education.ie, if the Minister of State wishes to examine it.
The board of management has sought planning permission for the car park and has sent a revised plan to the Department for re-assessment. The total cost, as per this revised plan, is approximately €42,000. The parking situation is clearly a safety issue. This year's application was rejected merely on the technicality that the plan was drawn up by a quantity surveyor. The school informed the Department that the quantity surveyor had been already involved in projects which received financial assistance from the Government, including the sheltered housing project in Kilfinane a year ago. While the board of management and parents clearly wish to act to eliminate the hazardous parking situation, due to the financial limitations on a small rural school, this cannot be done without a grant from the Department of Education and Science.
While I am discussing education, I wish to sympathise with the families who were bereaved or have children in hospital after the bus crash in Meath yesterday. I wish those in hospital a speedy recovery. We should focus on safety, and I hope we are not risking an accident at this school for the sake of the princely sum of €42,000. The Department should respond positively and not classify it in category six when the safety of school-children is in question. I look forward to a positive response.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it affords me an opportunity on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to outline to the House the strategy of the Department for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the position regarding Ardpatrick national school.
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. We have 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 Department of Education and Science has made a number of announcements on 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 represents an increase of 14% on last year's allocation.
The schools building and modernisation programme for 2005 to 2009 will be underpinned not just by a significant increase in overall funding but also by major improvements in the administration of the funding. Devolving more funding to local level through the summer works scheme and the small and rural schools initiative will allow schools to move ahead more quickly with smaller projects while also delivering better value for money.
As part of the schools building and modernisation programme, over €62 million will be spent this summer. In all, 362 primary schools and 228 post-primary schools will benefit from the scheme to complete essential small scale projects over the summer months, such as gas, electrical and mechanical works, roof replacements and repairs, windows replacement, toilet upgrades, structural improvements and access works.
An application was received under the summer works scheme 2005 from the management authority of Ardpatrick national school for funding towards the extension of car parking facilities at the front of the school. The application fell under category 9 of the published prioritisation criteria for the scheme. Unfortunately, due to the level of demand for funding for higher priority projects, it was not possible to fund the project in question this year. To ensure maximum spread of available funding among the summer works scheme applicant schools, attention was focused on the top priority application for each school categorised under the published criteria. The available funding was then distributed in accordance with the criteria hierarchy as detailed in the circular letter governing the scheme. In the context of the available funding and the number of applications for that funding, not all applicants, including Ardpatrick national school, were successful this year.
The summer works scheme 2006 will be advertised shortly and it will be open to Ardpatrick national school to apply for consideration for this scheme. In the meantime, as the primary responsibility for health and safety issues relating to school buildings rests with the school managerial authorities, the grant scheme for minor works, the devolved grant, should be utilised as necessary to address basic maintenance issues. The level of grant paid under this scheme amounts to €3,809 per school plus €12.70 per pupil.
Once again I wish to thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the position regarding this school project and to highlight the significant work being undertaken by the Department of Education and Science in implementing the school building and modernisation programme to ensure that infrastructure of the highest standard is available to all our school-going population.
As the Minister of State will appreciate, the grant scheme for minor works will not be used in this situation. I have outlined the safety aspect that is attached to this issue. I cannot emphasise any more the importance of the extension of this car park. Can the Minister of State give me any assurance that this matter will at least be favourably considered in the 2006 scheme, given that it has been rejected in 2004 and 2005? I want some reassurance from the Minister of State.
In these Adjournment debates one receives a stock reply. Sometimes one does not see the matter that is being presented from the other side of the House. I am sure the Minister of State can understand the seriousness of the situation and the necessity to accede to this request. At least I want to hear what the Minister of State means when he refers to the 2006 scheme, and what consideration he will give to the proposal.
The easiest answer I could give would be that funding will be provided in 2006. However, it would not be proper for me to do so. As a fellow politician I am aware of the number of schools in Kildare that have applied for the same scheme and not all schools were successful. The Senator is more familiar with Ardpatrick school than I am and has outlined the case very strongly in the House. I suggest he outline the case to the Minister for Education and Science once the school in question applies for the 2006 scheme.
The health and safety of the pupils attending the school is very important and if this case is as dangerous as Senator Finucane has outlined, it would be important the matter be dealt with as quickly as possible. The most appropriate method for securing funding would appear to be under the summer works scheme. It was right that the school applied for this scheme last year, and while it is disappointing it was not selected, I would encourage it to resubmit.