Seanad debates

Thursday, 15 February 2007

1:00 pm

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Clerihan, a village approximately five miles from Clonmel, is rapidly growing into a new town, but it has limited facilities. It has no sports pitch but one is being prepared, partly grant-aided by the Department. There used be a post office when it was a tiny village, but now that the population has expanded it has none.

The school, which was built approximately 12 years ago, is expanding rapidly. For example, there were 55 pupils in 1994, there are now 162 pupils and there is every indication from the state of the town, which is effectively almost a building site, that the number will continue rising.

There is an active and enterprising board of management, chaired of course by the parish priest Fr. Ó Bric, which wants the best for their children and to provide the facilities needed. A fine new school with two classrooms was built in 1995. In 1999 permission was granted for an extra classroom, and then there was a question of further accommodation. Following much correspondence, permission was given for two classrooms, but the board of management decided the school would need four classrooms and proper facilities for the principal, and it funded this itself. Simultaneously, it also undertook to build a fine sports hall — not funded by the Department. The school had to raise and borrow significant sums of money. There is a sense of injustice in that it is having to pay for a basic classroom facility and it is encountering an almost punitive attitude from the Department because it moved ahead and provided the facilities itself.

To be fair to the Department, it has, particularly in the case of small schools with the devolved grant, moved in the direction of giving more responsibility and block grants to school managements. However, as I stated, the sports facility in Clerihin is being funded entirely by the school It is a big building and it looks as if the school will not have sufficient funds to complete it unless it can get some of the money allocated for the classrooms, which the Department would have to fund, whether as temporary or other accommodation.

I appeal to the Minister to show some flexibility in this regard and to honour, rather than take a disapproving attitude with, parents and boards of management who have the enterprise to undertake to provide proper facilities for their schools. I can easily understand their impatience.

Of course I must be fair to the Department of Education and Science and accept that it must ensure an orderly system of development of educational facilities but, as I stated to a previous Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who took note of it, in the context of south Tipperary this is a unique town because it is growing exponentially in a way that no other town or village of its size is doing and it will have to cater for pupils from a very large population.

Before people get into the trenches, I appeal to the Department to reconsider this matter and see if it can at least reimburse the board of management for the extra classrooms that were needed and that were provided for by the foresight of the parents and the management. I admit to having reservations about so many areas of policy being centralised and everything having to go through a Department. Should we move towards giving more responsibility to people, supporting those prepared to take initiatives and put money towards facilities? This would be the enlightened way to run our education system and these are very worthy people with a fine school, the core of which was built by the Department of Education and Science. Those involved have taken this issue further than they were permitted but their behaviour is totally justifiable on the basis of the huge increase in pupils.

I appeal to the Minister for State and the Department of Education and Science to enter discussions to resolve this matter and address what is a justifiable sense of grievance.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Transport; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Mansergh for raising this matter and providing me with an opportunity to respond on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science. In doing so I wish to outline her strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the position on capital funding for Clerihan National School, County Tipperary.

This year, over €300 million will be invested in large-scale building projects concentrated mainly in the provision of school accommodation in rapidly developing areas. This level of funding will facilitate construction work on over 150 large-scale projects which will deliver over 15,000 additional permanent places in new schools and the extension and modernisation of facilities in existing schools for over 45,000 pupils.

It will also enable the purchase of sites to facilitate the smooth delivery of the school building programme, again with the focus being on site requirements in rapidly developing areas. The balance will be used to fund the other elements of the school building programme such as the summer works scheme, the small schools scheme and the permanent accommodation scheme. In total over 1,500 school building projects will be delivered in 2007.

As Senator Mansergh said, Clerihan national school was built in 1996 as a new two classroom school. In 1998 the Department gave approval for a one-classroom extension and this was completed in 1999. The management authority of the school then made a further application in August 2000 requesting two additional classrooms, a general purpose room and appropriate ancillary accommodation for a five-classroom school. In 2002 the school accepted an all-in grant towards the cost of two permanent classrooms in lieu of prefabricated units.

The management authority of the school decided at this time to build a third classroom and ancillary accommodation, which was funded, as Senator Mansergh said, through the board of management and the parents association. At no time did the Department of Education and Science approve this accommodation and this is where the problem lies.

In 2006 the management authority of the school requested retrospective grant aid from the Department for the unsanctioned classroom. Funding for this room was not approved by the Department as it is considered that a request for retrospective funding, for which there is no provision in the capital budget, would militate against the published prioritisation criteria which were agreed with the education partners.

The management authority of the school has applied for two additional classrooms under the permanent accommodation scheme 2007. All applications under this scheme are being assessed and I understand that an announcement on this list of successful schools will be made shortly. The school's application for a general purpose room has also been assessed in accordance with published prioritisation criteria and has been assigned a band 4 rating. Progress on this application will be considered in the context of the school building and modernisation programme from 2007 onwards.

I appreciate Senator Mansergh's strong views and assure him I will relate them to the Minister. The Senator has referred to the pragmatism, courage and enterprise of the board of management, parents association and the families with children at the school. He has given a balanced contribution and can see, I believe, the position of the school authorities and the department. I will advise the Minister of Senator Mansergh's request on review, reimbursement and the uniqueness of this school that began in 1996 with two classrooms. This matter is a microcosm of what is happening around the country and is indicative of a successful economy and population growth. Senator Mansergh can be assured that I will advise the Minister of his strong views at the first opportunity.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for State for his reply and understanding of the situation but I query the inflexible attitude to retrospective funding he presents. If this is a blanket policy then I think it is wrong.