Wednesday, 13 December 2006
Schools Building Projects.
There is an urgent need to provide additional permanent accommodation at St. Mary's national school, Virginia, County Cavan. The school has 309 pupils enrolled but was originally built for 200 pupils. A substantial part of the accommodation needs are met by prefabs. The Department has replied to concerns raised by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, stating that as part of the assessment of the school's application a detailed assessment of demographic trends, housing developments and enrolment trends is needed. This would ensure capital funding would deliver accommodation appropriate to the school's needs. The Department stated that when the assessment is complete a decision will be made on the current and long-term accommodation needs. The building project required will be considered in the context of the school building and modernisation programme 2006-10.
The Department must make a thorough assessment of accommodation needs and I hope it is completed shortly. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Smith, has consistently raised this matter with the Minister for Education and Science and officials at the Department. I met the Minister, Deputy Smith, and Councillor Shane O'Reilly in November. I raised the matter again in recent days.
I welcome the Minister's assurance that this application is a priority and I appreciate her interest. I raise the matter now to highlight the need for the project to proceed to the next stage. I hope it will be included in the 2007 schools building programme.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his warm message of congratulations. I also thank the Leader, Senator Wilson and all Senators. I was honoured to serve in this House from 1987-92. The last words I uttered in this House were in 1992 and I suspect the subject was Aer Lingus. It is great to be here in a different capacity. I respect the role of this House even though some people try to undermine it in our parliamentary democracy. The Seanad plays an important role in our democracy and I support that.
I thank Senator Wilson for raising these matters as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and, in particular, to outline the position regarding the proposed building project for St. Mary's national school in Virginia.
Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools, as well as responding to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth, is a major priority for the Government. Since taking office, this 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, approximately 1,300 building and modernisation projects are under way in our primary and post-primary schools in 2006. This year some €500 million is being spent on primary and post-primary projects throughout the country, compared to €90 million in 1997. Funding has been increased in recent years with an aggregate total of more than €2 billion in 2000-05 and a commitment to invest a further €3.9 billion up to 2010.
This record level of investment is a testament to the high priority the Government attaches to ensuring school accommodation is of the highest standard. To reduce red tape and allow projects to move faster, responsibility for smaller projects has been devolved to school level. Standard designs have been also developed for schools with eight and 16 classrooms to facilitate speedier delivery of projects and to save on design fees. The design and build method is also used to expedite delivery where the use of standard designs is not possible. Taken together with the unprecedented level of available funding, these initiatives ensure building projects are delivered within the fastest possible timeframe.
St. Mary's national school in Virginia is a co-educational primary school with a current enrolment of 309 pupils. In recent years an upward trend in enrolment at the school has necessitated a review by the Department of housing developments, demographic trends and enrolment trends in the area to ensure any capital funding provided will deliver accommodation appropriate to the school's need into the future. On completion of this assessment, a decision will be taken by the Department and conveyed to the school on how best to provide for the school's long-term accommodation needs. A site visit will be required to inform the final brief for the project and the Department will be in contact with the school authority to arrange this at the appropriate time. Following the site visit, the brief will be completed and the project will be considered for progress in the context of the school building and modernisation programme from 2007 onwards.
I assure the House that school building projects are selected by the Department for inclusion in a capital programme on the basis of priority of need presenting, which is determined by published prioritisation criteria formulated following consultation with the education partners. Application of these criteria to capital funding submissions and the publication of the school building programme ensure that maximum openness and transparency apply to the school building and modernisation programme. Most importantly, this approach ensures all schools applying for capital funding can know how their applications will be treated and when they are likely to progress.
I assure Senator Wilson that the Department is anxious to move ahead with the school building project and every effort will be made to finalise an accommodation brief in order that the project can move to the next stage. I thank Senator Wilson for raising this matter and I hope the response gives him some encouragement.