Wednesday, 21 March 2007
I thank the Minister of State for remaining in the House to take this matter. I wish to put forward the case of St. Joseph's secondary school in Rochfordbridge, County Westmeath. This school is unique. Rochfordbridge is a small village and the school has been built up over the years to the point where it now has 700 post-primary pupils, which is an amazing feat. It was built up by the work of the Sisters of Mercy who were there originally, and the parents who wanted it to succeed. The school accommodation report, which is the bible of planning in education, has stated that the school must accommodate 850 pupils in three years' time. Planning permission has been granted for a further 500 houses in the village and the sewerage scheme is being upgraded. Consequently, building will commence, which will increase further the demand for school places.
Although the school is supposed to take 850 pupils in three years' time, it cannot cope with the 700 pupils it already has. This modern secondary school is using two prefabs that are more than 20 years old. It is also using six classrooms in a converted boarding school, which was only intended as a temporary measure. The rooms are poorly ventilated and access to two of them can only be gained by walking through a third. Moreover, one of the rooms has very poor natural light.
A number of students require resource teaching and while the school wishes to acknowledge the provision of teaching hours for such students, its space is highly restricted. The same is true for the leaving certificate vocational programme, the leaving certificate applied, the transition year programme and of course the normal junior certificate and leaving certificate examination programmes. Each programme puts additional pressure on accommodation and on specialist rooms such as the computer room in particular.
As with all towns and villages in Ireland, the school's intake of non-national students, who require additional language classes, is increasing. The school wishes to emphasise that it is receiving the requisite teaching resources. However, it is not receiving the accommodation to go with them. For example, the art room is too small and storage space is necessary for project work. However, the school cannot extend the room as it cannot afford the space.
I am aware the Minister of State is standing in for the Minister for Education and Science. However, he is well able to so do, as was demonstrated by the passage of his legislation. This is a modern, interesting and good school that has served Rochfordbridge and the midlands in general. The school accommodation report published approximately two years ago stated that it should take 860 pupils by 2010. It now has 700 pupils and can barely accommodate them. How the school will manage to fit 850 students is a midlands mystery. I hope the answer to the mystery will be contained in the Minister of State's reply.
I wish to thank Senator O'Rourke for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the current position of the Department of Education and Science in respect of St. Joseph's secondary school, Rochfordbridge, County Westmeath. Senator O'Rourke has outlined a wonderful story of development regarding this school.
At the outset I wish to state that 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 consistent 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 Government has increased dramatically investment in the school building programme from slightly more than €90 million when it came into office, to €550 million this year. During the lifetime of the national development plan, almost €4.5 billion will be invested in schools. This is an unprecedented level of capital investment, which reflects the commitment of the Government to continue its programme of sustained investment in primary and post-primary schools.
This year, more than €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 more than 150 large-scale projects, which will deliver more than 15,000 additional permanent places in new schools and the extension and modernisation of facilities in existing schools for more than 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, the permanent accommodation scheme and so on.
In total, more than 1,500 school building projects will be delivered in 2007. The Department of Education and Science is anxious to ensure they are proactive in planning for the needs of rapidly developing areas. Senator O'Rourke will be aware of the recently published area development plan for the M4-N4 corridor.
This plan now equips the Department with a blueprint for educational development in an area that will continue to experience rapid change in the coming years. The N4-M4 plan recommends that:
[t]he old dormitory area in St Joseph's Secondary School should be refurbished ... to cater for up to 800 students. House building in the area should be subject to constant review. The proposed refurbishments should be contingent on the implementation of a strict enrolment policy to cater for students from the catchment area on a priority basis.
The school's management authority has made an application to the school planning section of the Department for extensive refurbishment works and for an extension to replace three prefabs, to provide canteen facilities, additional toilets for pupils and staff, a home economics kitchen, a science laboratory and ICT facilities.
The application has been assessed in accordance with the Department's criteria for prioritising large-scale projects and has been assigned a band rating of 2.3. An examination of the school's long-term projected enrolments is currently being carried out by officials in the school planning section of the Department.
Once the long-term projected enrolment is established and agreed with the school, the Department will draw up a schedule of overall accommodation outlining the extent of new build and refurbishment required at the school. The application will then be considered for progress in the context of the multiannual school building and modernisation programme.
I again thank Senator O'Rourke for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding the application for new accommodation for St. Joseph's secondary school, Rochfordbridge, County Westmeath.