Wednesday, 6 February 2008
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stait go dtí an Seanad.
In the past many schools availed of the summer works scheme to get work done throughout the summer months, including essential repairs of windows, roofs and other maintenance work. In budget 2007 the summer works programme was suspended, therefore denying grants to schools for vital building work. Will the Minister indicate how the urgent requirements of schools will be met without this scheme? The scheme had previously allowed schools with minor repairs to access funds speedily and to take small projects out of the general building programme.
As a result of this unilateral decision by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, schools with minor maintenance repair needs will now get caught behind other schools in the schools building programme. This means schools that need new windows or to have existing ones repaired, or are in need of minor electrical or plumbing works will be made to wait substantially longer.
Under this scheme, schools that wished to apply for grants had to hire a consultant to organise the application. The cost of hiring the consultant was covered in the grant. However, schools which have applied to receive a grant this year, without the knowledge that the scheme was to be suspended, now have to cover the cost of hiring the consultant to organise their applications in the first place.
Not only will schools not be able to apply for grants for crucial building works but some have found themselves in debt due to applying for grants in the first place. This is unacceptable. I was told that one school with which I have been in contact had to fork out €1,500 to consultants for the compilation of the report used in its application. One can well ask for what. Has this money been thrown away or will it be refunded? I ask that the Minister refund the money spent by schools on consultants. Other schools that responded to my query indicated that they paid between €400 and €2,121 on consultants' fees.
In announcing the suspension of the scheme following the budget, the Minister claimed there was no longer a need for it. It is clear that if schools are still applying for grants then the scheme is required. I wrote to the 204 primary and secondary schools in County Donegal and it is clear from the responses I received that there is a need for the scheme this year. Approximately 50% of the schools that have responded so far have applied for this grant but will not be able to avail of it because it has been cancelled.
The Minister should be honest about this cutback in the budget. Prior to the election schools were allowed to apply for funding from the summer works scheme and once the election was out of the way, the scheme was suspended. That is outrageous. Many projects will be stalled as a result.
The responses to the questions that I put to the principals of the schools show that the projects are essential. They include the removal of asbestos from roofs, replacement of leaking roofs, playground extensions, refurbishments of toilets originally constructed in 1956, upgrading of a heating system from the same year, electrical rewiring of buildings dating from 1971, emergency lighting, installation of fire alarms and cavity wall insulation. These are just some examples of work this scheme was supposed to fund and cannot be done under the minor works scheme because that does not cover the costs associated with the works for which funding has been sought.
Not only will schools not be able to apply for grants for crucial building works but some have found themselves in debt due to applying for the grant in the first place. Once again, I call on the Minister to reinstate the summer works scheme. I ask the Minister, through the Minister of State, because she is not here, to ensure that no school must pay consultants' fees for applications for grants which they will not receive.
The Minister of State will be aware that there is already a crisis in terms of funding for our primary schools in particular and it is estimated that half the cost of heating our schools is provided by contributions from parents or through local fund raising. Does the Minister of State agree that the suspension of this scheme will add further financial burdens on many schools which are already under severe strain? For many schools it is simply incomprehensible that they could meet these costs themselves and, therefore, the decision to end this scheme has ensured that our children will continue to be taught in sub-standard schools for yet another year at least. Primary schools, in particular, are already under-funded due to the highly inadequate capitation grant. With the recent announcement of water charges for schools, the suspension of the summer works scheme is yet another imposition of a costly charge on already drastically under-funded schools.
I ask the Minister of State whether there will be a summer works scheme in 2009. The current suspension is illogical, especially when taken in the context of an inadequate schools building programme which has left us with rodent-infested schools, damp prefabs and other school buildings in dire need of repair and maintenance. If anything, this scheme should be enhanced, not suspended.
This is a low blow by the Minister and the Government. It is a blow directed at the most vulnerable who cannot speak for themselves, the children of this nation. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science who is unable to be with us this evening. I thank Senator Doherty for raising the matter as it provides me, on behalf of the Minister, with the opportunity to outline the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the current position on the 2008 summer works scheme.
At the outset, as a public representative from the constituency of Donegal South-West where Senator Doherty is based, I am familiar with the success of this scheme, not only in Donegal but throughout the country. I wish to pay tribute to the many boards of management who have carried out the works on a devolved basis. That has ensured the fast-tracking of works which, if they were to be carried out in the normal way, might have taken much longer.
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. None the less, the Government is committed to improving the condition of our school buildings and to ensuring the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.
The Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme from just more than €90 million ten years ago to more than €600 million this year. In 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.
On the specific issue raised, the summer works scheme, Senator Doherty will be aware that this scheme was introduced in 2004. Since its inception, 3,000 projects costing in excess of €300 million have been completed. With so many small projects having been completed in the past few years, the concentration is on delivering as many large-scale projects as possible in 2008. There is not, therefore, a summer works scheme as part of our building programme for this year.
On the issue of fees incurred by schools which applied for the summer works scheme this year, I assume Senator Doherty is referring to consultants' fees. The Minister has asked me to point out that the circular letter for the summer works scheme states, under item six, technical issues, "The appointment of a Consultant is a matter for the school authority and any fees arising must be borne by it." Any consultant's report completed this year may be submitted by the school authority under any future works scheme for consideration.
As a Deputy for the constituency, I will prevail on the Minister and the Government to reintroduce this scheme. I realise there are many schools that have applied and will apply in the future, and these developments are necessary. I again thank Senator Doherty for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position on the summer works scheme 2008.
I thank the Minister of State. The reply from the Department is not good enough. We have left schools in a vulnerable position due to the costs that have been incurred but, more importantly, we have left children in a vulnerable position because the essential works need to be done. Does the Minister of State, Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher, support the suspension of this scheme?
Given he mentioned he represents the constituency of Donegal South-West, one of the schools there, Pobailscoil Gaoth Dobhair, applied for €0.75 million worth of essential works to be done under this scheme. Another, Pobailscoil Chloich Ceann Fhaola, applied for €120,000. A primary school in Falcarragh applied for €112,000. A school in Killybegs applied for €190,000. There are other schools and I can list them. Some 20 schools in Donegal, of which I have a sample, have applied for €2.3 million in funds.
As a Deputy for that constituency who has worked with many schools that have been successful in carrying out exceptional works under the summer works scheme and the devolved schemes for new buildings and extensions, I am well aware of the matter and I will continue to work with these schools to ensure a favourable outcome.