Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Adjournment Matters

Schools Building Projects.

7:00 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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I was expecting the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, to reply on this matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, will understand that my remarks are directed towards the Minister, Deputy Hanafin.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That sounds ominous.

8:00 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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This issue has been causing huge concern in Clonakilty in recent times. Those concerned, the principal, teaching staff, parents and pupils who attend Clonakilty community college, are beyond frustration. The college was built in 1980 to accommodate 400 pupils. There are now almost 600 students enrolled there.

There is a clear need for an extension to the school. Much professional advice to that effect has been offered by the Department's experts. At present, such are the restrictions in terms of capacity at the college that students must walk from one side of Clonakilty to the old technical school on the other side of the town to use spare capacity there. In February this year I organised a public meeting in Clonakilty in conjunction with people who are affected by the problem in the college. I have visited the college on a number of occasions and have brought various members of my party to the college when they made constituency visits to highlight the problem, should they or other politicians be in a position in future to do something about it.

I walked from the college along the route to the technical school that students are expected to travel. It is inherently dangerous. Regardless of the debate about the extension, I must confess that walking that route, which entailed crossing five or six dangerous junctions, is not ideal in terms of safety and the other problems that could arise. What if a student, for example, were struck by a car? It could happen on MacCurtain Hill, near the Garda station in Clonakilty, through Assumption Place or crossing the road to the old technical college.

The extension is needed now more than ever. Experts from the Department of Education and Science have examined this issue. The proposed extension was to be 1,600 sq. m. but in 2001 inspectors from the Department increased it to 1,900 sq. m. That is how the Department envisages it. It has been sanctioned since 2001. In 2002, the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, wrote to the local Deputy, who also happened to be the Minister for Agriculture and Food in that Administration, and sanctioned the appointment of the design team. This was greeted with great fanfare locally. People were delighted. However, nothing has happened since.

There has been a deafening silence from the Minister about this issue. There is no way of knowing if the design team will be appointed in days, weeks or months. The school is constantly expanding and it is not good enough that there is a silence about when the design team will be appointed, particularly given the clear political stunt that was pulled in 2002. There has never been an explanation from the current Minister as to why the project did not go ahead.

There was great expectation locally about the schools listed in the most recent schools building programme; it was expected that Clonakilty community college would feature on it. Alas, however, there was no mention of the school. Again, there has been utter silence. I have been in constant communication with the Department of Education and Science on this issue. The responses I have received contain all sorts of Civil Service drivel about prioritisation criteria but what does that mean? How does one go from a situation where the extension is sanctioned in 2002 to nothing happening in 2006? There has been no communication with the community in Clonakilty about it.

Recently, the Taoiseach was in Clonakilty to attend the transfer of Bord Iascaigh Mhara staff to the technology park. It was a great day for Clonakilty and for decentralisation. It is part of the decentralisation programme that has worked well and is a most welcome development in the area. People of Clonakilty welcome the employees of BIM and their families with open arms. However, if the Government were serious about decentralisation, it would ensure the educational facilities in that area were such that they would attract the employees of BIM and their families.

This issue is a cause of great ongoing frustration in Clonakilty. The Minister could imagine the angst of people if this occurred in his constituency. There is a deafening silence from the Department despite the raised expectations. There was a clear pre-election commitment but it has not been fulfilled. People want to know when this project will go ahead.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator McCarthy for raising the matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the position regarding Clonakilty community college.

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 focused determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

As evidence of this commitment, there will be approximately 1,300 building and modernisation projects active in primary and post-primary schools during 2006. This year, approximately €500 million is being spent on primary and post-primary projects. The Senator will agree this record level of investment is a lasting testament to the high priority the Government attaches to this sector.

There are two schools serving the post-primary needs of Clonakilty — Clonakilty community college, which is co-educational, and Sacred Heart secondary school, which is an all-girls school. Clonakilty community college was formed in 1980 as a result of the amalgamation of the town's vocational school and St. Mary's boys' secondary school. It operates under the aegis of County Cork Vocational Education Committee. The community college was built in 1980 to cater for 400 pupils. Since then, additional accommodation has been provided to cater for increasing enrolments.

Cork VEC requested that the Department of Education and Science review the accommodation at the college and make capital funding available for refurbishment and extension. This application was processed having regard to all relevant factors, including enrolment and demographic trends in the area and the overall accommodation requirements of the post-primary schools in Clonakilty. An accommodation brief to cater for a long-term enrolment of 550 has been agreed with the school authorities. Schedules of accommodation were revised earlier this year to ensure the appropriate level of accommodation is provided to meet the school's long-term needs. This project is under active consideration in the Department and will be progressed in the context of the schools building and modernisation programme, 2006-10.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the position with this school project and to highlight the great amount of work being undertaken by the Department of Education and Science in implementing the schools building and modernisation programme to ensure infrastructure of the highest standard is available for all our schoolgoing population.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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The most telling part of the reply is the statement that the project is under active consideration. It has been for many years but we need to know when it will happen. If that decision were announced, people would be happy. The project has been already approved and if there were no knowledge deficit, the situation would not be so frustrating. The project is urgent. I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, for replying.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Obviously I am aware of the concerns in Clonakilty. These concerns have been brought to the attention of the Minister. She has declared that the project is under active consideration and is part of the 2006-10 building programme.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.10 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16 November 2006.