Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Schools Building Projects
Tá lúcháir orm go bhfuil an Aire anseo linn um thráthnóna. Bhí sé ag obair go crua inniu. Tá sé anseo déanach san oíche. Tá mé buíoch go bhfuil Aire sinsear anseo chun na ceiste a ghlacadh. I appreciate the presence of a Cabinet Minister in the House at this time of night to take this Adjournment matter. It reflects his personal commitment to Seanad Éireann, which I acknowledge.
Earlier today I was involved with a delegation from the County Donegal Vocational Education Committee which met the Minister for Education and Science regarding a project in my constituency. The Minister outlined difficulties concerning the current financial situation within the Department. In addition, the Minister is new in the Department and is only finding his way around it. I have raised this issue to impress upon the Minister the urgency of this particular project in my own village of Gortahork. It is a building project at Gortahork national school, scoil náisiúnta Gort a' Choirce, atá lonnaithe i gcroílár na Gaeltachta i dTír Chonaill in aice le sléibhte an Mhucais agus an Earagail agus an Mhuir Atlantach. Scoil lán-Gaeilge atá i gceist anseo. Tá thart ar 120 scoláire ag freastal ar an scoil a thógadh i 1929. Rinneadh obair feabhsúcháin ar an scoil i 1957. As I said in Irish, this particular school was built in 1929 and renovation was carried out on it in 1957. A staffing complement of five teachers are working in the school, while year-on-year the pupil numbers are approximately 120. It is a mixed Catholic school.
The current accommodation provision available to the school is insufficient to meet the needs of its pupils and the teaching staff. This has been acknowledged by the Department of Education and Science, particularly in recent years. Following that acknowledgement and following lobbying by the school board of management and political representatives, the Department sanctioned approval to examine new sites that would be more accessible, available and suitable to the school's needs. A number of sites were looked at. Following work carried out by the board of management, the Department of Education and Science and the Office of Public Works, an agreed site has been located which is on the edge of Gortahork village. It is the most suitable site and the only one available. Gortahork is a small village and very few sites are available there. This particular site it available and the Office of Public Works has been negotiating with the landowner concerning it. It is critical that the site be purchased by the Department of Education and Science to allow the project to proceed. The current accommodation is not fulfilling the needs of the pupil cohort. The site is located between the N56, the national secondary route which runs through the village, and Gortahork bay. There are issues concerning odour, sewerage and road safety given the increasing number of vehicles using the N56.
The discussions between the school board of management, its chairman, Fr. Seán Gallagher, and the Department on the site's acquisition have been going on for five or six years. The projected pupil numbers remain constant. I wish to impress upon the Minister the need to move this project forward. I realise we must be realistic but no other site is available for this school building project. If this site came on the open market, it could be swallowed up by developers. We cannot expect the landowner to hold on forever. We need a commitment from the Department to purchase the site so we can examine the construction phase. I am seeking movement to allow the project to progress.
I appreciate the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is not responsible for the Department of Education and Science but he might raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, as I will be doing in the weeks ahead. I believe it is important to raise the issue on the Adjournment given that we now have a new Minister in the Department of Education and Science. I wish him well in his new role. By the same token, however, I wish to impress upon him the urgency of moving forward with this project, which has been standing still for the last ten to 12 months. The site has been earmarked since summer 2007 and now, a year later, we want to see some movement in this regard. The board of management is starting to get frustrated so it is important for us to move the project forward and provide facilities for the current and future pupil intake in the Gortahork primary school's catchment area.
I thank the Senator for raising the matter in this House as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the current position on allowing the site acquisition for a new school at Gortahork, County Donegal, to proceed to the next stage.
Modernising facilities in our existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge and one which the Minister for Education and Science intends to be one of his priorities. This Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme to almost €600 million this year. Under 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. It will underpin a particular emphasis on the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas while continuing to develop on the Government's commitment to delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary accommodation throughout the country. It will enable also 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 Office of Public Works, OPW, which acts generally on behalf of the Department of Education and Science concerning site acquisitions for schools, was requested to source a suitable site for Gortahork national school. On foot of advertising, a number of proposals were received and one of these was identified as the preferred option. The OPW entered negotiations with the vendor for the acquisition of this site, but agreement could not be reached with the vendor on price and the OPW readvertised. On foot of readvertising a number of proposals were received, including the previous preferred option. The OPW again deemed this site to be the most suitable and entered negotiations with the vendor for its acquisition. Agreement was reached on price and the acquisition of the site is at an advanced stage.
I understand that Deputy Pat the Cope Gallagher has had various meetings with the school authorities on this particular matter and has also discussed the matter directly with the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and his predecessors outlining the urgency of the situation. The Senator will appreciate that the progression of all large-scale building projects, including this one, from initial design stage through to construction is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available under the Department's capital budget. In the circumstances, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the progression of this project. I thank the Senator once again for raising this matter.