Seanad debates

Thursday, 23 October 2008

2:00 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chair for giving me an opportunity to raise this matter. Our schools are facing many problems at present. Schools in the Lucan area have been badly affected by the initiatives announced in the recent budget. I am concerned that many children in the Lucan and Clondalkin area are being educated in prefabricated buildings. Some of the schools in question were hoping to get further provision as a result of the budget, but they have not received it to date. Schools are also worried that the cuts in substitution will impact on their staffing levels. The specific school I am speaking about this afternoon, Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada in Lucan, County Dublin, is the fastest growing gaelscoil in the country. It has almost 180 pupils. I would like the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, to outline whether the school will be helped in its efforts to acquire a site from County Dublin vocational education committee for a new school building. I am glad she is here to respond to my queries.

When Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada opened its doors in 2005, it had 26 pupils, a principal and a single teacher. Its pupil numbers have grown rapidly since then, as I have indicated. There is huge demand for places in the school. As a result of the failure to provide a site for the new building, it looks like many of the siblings of the children who are attending the gaelscoil will not be able to join them there. The school has recently been offered an adjoining site, currently owned by the local VEC, on which to develop new permanent buildings. In return for the permanent site, the VEC is apparently asking for some works to be done on other sites. The VEC is willing to provide the site in question for this growing school. I understand the VEC has not heard from the Department about the acquisition of the site. I ask the Minister of State to get the Department of Education and Science to contact the VEC to see whether it is possible to make some arrangement, as a matter of urgency, to ensure the school will be able to take in new pupils, including the siblings of existing pupils, next year. Action needs to be taken to meet the growing demand in the area for this form of education. Many parents in Lucan want to send their children to a gaelscoil.

I would like to ask the Minister of State a few questions. Can she update me on the status of the negotiations on the site I have mentioned? Can she give me some detail on the Department's general view on the request that has been made by the VEC? Can she arrange for the negotiations to be concluded swiftly so that a site can be provided? Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada has proved to be a major asset to the Lucan area. The school authorities want the school to develop further so it can meet the need in the area. As a disappointed parent has said:

We feel that the Department are victimising us and our children because we chose to send them to a Gaelscoil. It is clear that the Department do not support Gaelscoileanna and that they have no interest in nurturing the language of our country. We have been more than patient as we watched other schools being built around us during the last two years while our children were left in prefabs. We are worried that our children are being discriminated against because we chose to send them to a Gaelscoil. What other reason can there be for them being left in prefabs, with no Departmental will to do anything for them?

It is clear that the parents of Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada are very concerned. They are keen for a permanent school building to be put in place soon. The site that has been offered to the school authorities is beside the existing school. It looks like it is possible to conclude the negotiations with the VEC. I ask the Department of Education and Science to make progress with the negotiations, thereby offering hope and encouragement to the parents who are doing a great deal of fund-raising. They want to continue to send their children to the gaelscoil and to be able to send their siblings there as well.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State with special responsibility for Health Promotion and Food Safety, Department of Health and Children; Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Fitzgerald for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and, in particular, the current position in respect of the purchase of a new site for Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada in Lucan, County Dublin. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has asked me to clarify that the modernisation of facilities in our existing building stock is a significant challenge. Similarly, we need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. The Minister intends to prioritise such challenges during his term in office.

The Government has dramatically increased investment in the schools building programme to almost €600 million this year. Almost €4.5 billion will be invested in schools during the lifetime of the national development plan. This unprecedented level of capital investment reflects the Government's commitment to continuing its programme of sustained investment in primary and post-primary schools. The Government is emphasising the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas while furthering its commitment to improving the quality of existing primary and post-primary accommodation throughout the country. Its investment will enable the purchase of sites to facilitate the smooth delivery of the school building programme, with a focus on site requirements in rapidly developing areas.

Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada is operating in temporary accommodation on a site that is owned by County Dublin VEC. The Department of Education and Science is consulting the VEC on the possibility of using the site, together with additional VEC lands, to meet the school's long-term accommodation needs. A study that was conducted to determine the feasibility of this proposal is being considered in the Department. The acquisition of the site will be considered in the context of the capital budget that is available to the Department for school buildings. As there are many competing demands on the Department's capital budget, it is not possible at this time to give an indicative timeframe for the acquisition of the school site.

Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. The band rating that is assigned to a project indicates the urgency, type and extent of work required at a school. Under the band rating system, all applications for capital funding are assessed in the Department's planning and building unit. The assessment process determines the extent and type of each school's need, based on such matters as the demographics of the area, proposed housing developments in the area, the condition of existing school buildings and the capacity of the proposed site. The process ultimately leads to a decision on an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, each project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. The criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners. This project has a band rating of 1.1. I thank Senator Fitzgerald for giving me an opportunity to outline to the House the current position in respect of the purchase of a new site for Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada in Lucan, County Dublin.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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Can the Minister of State give me any idea what the phrase "this project has a band rating of 1.1" actually means in terms of the timescale for the conclusion of the negotiations?

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State with special responsibility for Health Promotion and Food Safety, Department of Health and Children; Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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My knowledge of such matters is based on my experience of dealing with schools in my local area. I am sure the Senator has similar experience. As both of us represent constituencies in commuter land, we have to deal with many schools building projects. I understand that when a school is told that its project has a low band rating, it is bad news for the school. If a project is one of the upper bands, such as band 1, it is good news because the project has priority status.

While I do not have in-depth knowledge of the detail of the case mentioned by Senator Fitzgerald, it appears we are talking about a site that is owned by the VEC. A study has taken place. It appears from the sentence that reads "the Department of Education and Science is consulting the VEC on the possibility of using the site" that the Department considers the use of the site in question to represent the best way forward. However, an additional portion of VEC lands is also needed to meet the school's long-term needs. The study that was carried out is being reviewed in the Department. The outcome of that study will tell a lot.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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Perhaps the Minister of State will ask the Department to contact the VEC.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue. Like most of the Adjournment matters I have raised, this is a schools issue. Without casting aspersions on the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, I want to raise my objection that we do not have a Minister from the Department of Education and Science present for the debate. Two of the three Adjournment matters this afternoon relate to education and there are enough Ministers in that Department to have one here to answer them. While the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, will ably deputise for her colleagues in the Department of Education and Science, one of them should be here as a matter of principle.

My issue concerns Marymount national school in The Rower, a rural school in a neighbouring parish. The school caters for approximately 134 pupils. It has six teachers including five class teachers and a learning support teacher with a half-day of a resource teacher every week. The problem concerns the dilapidation of the school building. In the past few months the parish community has purchased additional lands adjacent to the existing school premises and has received a number of commitments, principally before the last general election and even before the previous one, that the school would be completed as a matter of urgency. The board of management and the parents' council have done Trojan fundraising work. They have been told they have passed all stages and are awaiting clearance from the Department to commence construction. That was expected to happen last October. The contractor who had been more or less pinpointed to do the job was expecting an announcement to be made last October but it has not been made.

As I said, the school is in poor condition. The rooms are smaller than standard size, there are significant problems with sewerage and electrical equipment. For the past eight years they have been renting two prefabs in the school yard for additional space at a cost of €10,000 each annually. This story is repeated in other parts of the country but unique to The Rower is the number of commitments given by the Government in the past number of years that work would be carried out, and nothing has happened.

It has already cost approximately €200,000 in fees for architects and engineers for the plans that have been drawn up for the new school in The Rower. It has not reached the final stage of the Department granting the go-ahead to the developer to commence work. The principal and other staff members had numerous meetings with the previous Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and were told they would be included in the last three or four announcements on school construction, but it has not happened. There is a high level of frustration in the area that this has not happened. In post-Celtic tiger Ireland there is concern that this announcement might never be made.

I was interested to hear Senator Fitzgerald's question at the end of her remarks on the banding system. As far as I was aware until very recently the bands included only one, two, three and four; the decimal places seem to be a recent development. I do not know if I am correct and maybe the Minister of State could correct me. There is a significant problem in The Rower national school. The building is more than 40 years old and is in an unacceptable condition for a national school in 2008. Commitments have been given by Government representatives over a number of years and no work has been done. I hope the Minister of State will have positive news for construction to begin in the near future when she responds.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State with special responsibility for Health Promotion and Food Safety, Department of Health and Children; Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the proposed building project for Marymount national school, The Rower, County Kilkenny. Marymount national school is a fully vertical, co-educational facility. This means it caters for boys and girls from junior infants to sixth class inclusive. The enrolment as at 30 September 2007 was 128 pupils. The school has a principal, four mainstream assistants and one learning support teacher. The school has applied to the Department for large scale capital funding for an extension and refurbishment project. In common with all applications for large scale capital funding, the application for Marymount was assessed in accordance with the Department's published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects. It has been assigned a band 2.4 rating under this process.

A band rating reflects the type and extent of work needed and the urgency attaching to it. In this case, the band 2.4 rating reflects the fact that a refurbishment of the school building is needed and that the school has a deficit of mainstream accommodation but this deficit is not as significant as that of higher band rated projects. Overall, the Department intends to provide the school with suitable accommodation for a five teacher school. The project was on the Department's capital programme for 2007 to advance to tender and construction. Tenders were submitted late last year.

As the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe has said in this House many times before, not all school accommodation needs can be met together. They can be met only incrementally over time in a structured orderly manner. A realism has to attach to the fact that there was a significant under-investment in school buildings over decades. Taken together with the current extra demands on the Department's capital budget from newly emerging communities with little or no school infrastructure and the growing need to provide for special needs pupils, to name but a few, it is clear the Department must stand on an orderly process in terms of how it allocates its capital funding to ensure the most critical needs are met first.

The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, appreciates that boards of management and wider school communities are anxious to see their individual building projects proceeding as quickly as possible. The Minister has no desire to see schools in less than suitable accommodation but he, too, must be realistic about what needs to be done on a nationwide basis and to ensure that the resources of the Department are targeted at the most urgent needs first. This is ensured by the implementation of the prioritisation criteria which the Minister has outlined.

This Government has dramatically increased investment in the schools building programme to almost €600 million this year. This will allow it to continue to significantly invest in primary and post-primary school buildings throughout the country, to provide additional school places and to continue the Department's programme of modernising existing schools. Annual capital resources of this magnitude have allowed the Department to deliver more than 7,800 building projects under the last national development plan alone. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, looks forward to building on this unprecedented level of work.

I again thank the Senator for raising this matter and assure him that the project for Marymount national school will be considered for advancement in accordance with the procedures I have outlined.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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While I am not happy with the response I thank the Minister of State. If we had a Minister from the Department of Education and Science here I might be able to find out more information. I am very disappointed with the band rating of 2.4, which is a kick in the teeth for those concerned with the Marymount national school in the The Rower. It is lower than I would have expected. I note with interest the Minister of State's reference to realism. So many commitments on this school have been given by Government representatives in Kilkenny in the past few years and a sense of expectation has been built up.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Phelan must ask a question.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I ask the Department of Education and Science to be more realistic in that sense. A number of years ago the school authorities were told not to seek any additional funding under the summer works scheme because they were to be in for a major redevelopment of the school. As a result of that the circumstances and conditions have deteriorated. I regret that people in the Department told the board of management not to apply for summer works in the expectation that they would get a completely new school. I am not happy with the response, although I understand the Minister of State has to give it.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Phelan has gone beyond the normal time without asking a question.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State with special responsibility for Health Promotion and Food Safety, Department of Health and Children; Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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While I understand the band is in category two rather than one, it is not a kick in the teeth. A band of 2.4 clearly reflects the fact that a refurbishment of the school building is needed. I am familiar with projects that have a band of four, and they are stacked well behind the project that has a rating of 2.4.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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They were misled, unfortunately.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State with special responsibility for Health Promotion and Food Safety, Department of Health and Children; Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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It is an acknowledgement that the school has a deficit of mainstream accommodation but that this deficit is not as significant as those in the higher band ratings. That is how the band system works.