Wednesday, 2 July 2008
Schools Building Projects
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I always appreciate the time he has taken when he comes to Athlone and the midlands in his role with responsibility for adult education.
The three schools about which I seek information regarding building projects are Coosan national school, Athlone Community College and Ballymahon Community College. Coosan national school is a 14-teacher national school on the outskirts of Athlone. Enrolment has expanded rapidly in recent years. As the Minister of State will be aware, Athlone is a gateway town the population of which is expected to double in coming years. The school has 248 pupils, which puts great demands on the physical structure of the school. The school has eight prefabs, some of which were closed for periods of time during the year due to vermin infestation which is appalling and unacceptable.
In January 2007, the Department approved a new school building with 14 classrooms and four auxiliary rooms. Although the design team was appointed, funding has yet to be sanctioned. While I am sure the Minister of State hears this throughout the country, this is very important for the pupils and teachers of the school. I ask him to clarify the position on the school.
Athlone Community College has 1,000 post-primary pupils. I have raised this matter on the Adjournment several times previously. It was with delight that I received a phone call today informing me that the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has agreed to meet with the Oireachtas Members who represent Longford-Westmeath. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. While it might be pre-empting that meeting, I ask the Minister of State to ask him for clarification as to when we might have a commencement date for the building of the new school. As the Minister of State is aware, Athlone Community College has had very high academic and sporting achievements and has an holistic and caring manner. It caters for all pupils and especially for those with special needs.
There are great health and safety risks for pupils and teachers in Athlone Community College. There are serious issues with the roof and space is of serious concern. Windows cannot be opened and there are other problems. Land has been purchased by Westmeath VEC from Athlone Town Council. Considerable preliminary work has been done and a design has been put in place following consultation with parents and teachers. I ask the Minister of State to expedite the building.
Regarding Ballymahon Community College, I understand members of Longford VEC will meet the Minister on 9 July. I also look forward to that meeting. A grant of €1.3 million was allocated last year. In December 2007, the Department of Education and Science contacted the architect to stop all plans. Where is grant of €1.3 million? Has it been ring-fenced for the refurbishment of this school? There are 200 pupils receiving an excellent schooling. It has an ABA special unit, which is housed in a prefab. The old building is in a desperate state and I ask the Minister to give me clarification on this. These are three very worthy projects and obviously warrant urgent attention because they already have been approved by the Department of Education and Science. What is different this year compared to last year? I cannot accept it is all about money. The money is there. If not, is it gone somewhere else? In the interests of health and safety I ask that these three building projects be expedited urgently.
I thank the Senator 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 the current position on the building projects for Coosan national school, Athlone Community College and Ballymahon Community College. Modernising facilities in approximately 3,200 primary and 730 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, the Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure 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 in 1997 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 Government's commitment to continue its programme of sustained investment in primary and post primary schools. As the Senator may be aware, a developing area unit was set up recently in the Department to focus on the school accommodation needs of rapidly developing areas. The main emphasis in 2008 is on providing sufficient school places in these developing areas, as well as delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary school accommodation throughout the country.
The developing areas unit of the Department has identified Athlone as an area of rapid development. A decision has been already taken to replace and expand the existing Athlone Community College. The new building, when complete, will cater for 1,000 pupils. The proposal for Coosan national school is to construct a new 16-classroom generic repeat design facility on the existing school site. Both projects have advanced to the point where the next step is the appointment of a design team. The status of all schools in Athlone, including Athlone Community College and Coosan national school, is being assessed as part of an overall delivery plan, which is currently being formulated within the developing areas unit. The policy and modernisation unit of the Department has appointed the design team to the Ballymahon Community College project and a stage 2, that is an initial sketch scheme, has been approved by the Department subject to certain technical requirements being adhered to.
While I am not in a position to give a timetable for the progression of Coosan national school, Athlone Community College or Ballymahon Community College, I reiterate that the need for new school buildings for the schools in question is acknowledged by the Department. As with all large capital projects currently on hand within the developing areas unit and policy and modernisation unit, their progression will be considered in the context of the multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.
I thank the Senator once again for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position on Coosan national school, Athlone Community College and Ballymahon Community College.
Was there a need to establish a developing area unit when all these projects had been already approved, funding allocated and design teams approved? I accept that the Minister says Athlone is a developing area and I have outlined the same, that we are part of the spatial strategy. I reiterate my question: where has the money that was already allocated gone?
The former Minister for Education and Science announced projects under the school building and modernisation programme earlier this year and most of them are focused on rapidly developing areas. When the new Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe took over he took time to brief himself. I expect further announcements to be made during the year as the financial situation is reviewed in the Department and as the Minister familiarises himself with all programmes and projects that have applied for funding. The funding has been made available to the Department and that is being further considered by the new Minister.