Seanad debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

6:00 pm

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I wish to share time with Senator Wilson. I welcome the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to the House and thank him for dealing with this matter.

Laragh national school is a five-teacher school with 130 children on its roll book. Four out of five of the classrooms are prefabricated buildings, with 80% of the children being educated in these rooms, which is an extraordinary statistic. A full 75% of the prefabricated buildings are 36 years old. These temporary buildings were put in place with an intended life span of ten years, which means that they are 26 years beyond their sell-by date. There are various health and safety concerns and very high maintenance bills associated with these inadequate buildings.

The school has an excellent teaching staff and an excellent principal leading them. It is a wonderful school community but morale is greatly damaged by the current state of affairs. The board of management has been campaigning for the past ten years for improved facilities, with no success. Problems faced daily include inadequate heating, no hot water in toilets and classrooms, an inadequate sewerage system that is continually blocking, a leaking roof which is in danger of collapsing, slippery and dangerous tiles in hallways and toilets, no cloakrooms or facilities for storing coats, bags, footballs, etc., classroom windows that will not open or close without force, dampness causing foul smells in many classrooms, dangerous steps in the yard, leaking gutters, and major traffic problems outside the school gates.

A reputable builder visited the school recently and carried out an assessment of the state of the prefabricated buildings. He asserted that he does not believe the buildings will survive another winter. They are at the end of their lifespan which begs the question what we replace them with. The school has experienced a serious problem with mice in recent weeks. Teachers have been trying to set traps and kill mice before children arrive in the mornings, which is an horrendous state of affairs.

An application for a new school building was submitted ten years ago but nothing has happened since then. The parish has purchased a site for a new school, yet nothing has happened. In essence, we have drab, semi-derelict prefabs and a field upon which a new school can be built. I submit that in the current economic climate, a reasonably cheap contract could be entered into to build a new school. It would be cost-effective and would provide employment to people who might otherwise be unemployed. The current situation is absurd in terms of social and educational policy. Children are leaving comfortable and pleasant conditions at home and going into dreadful conditions at school which does not create the right signals for children. It is demoralising in that regard. We have an extraordinarily good teaching staff and a great school community. It is a tribute to this excellent teaching staff that they have maintained morale and maintained a vibrant, happy school in the awful conditions in which they operate. I appeal to the Minister to give a positive reply. I say respectfully that I can see no logic in an alternative.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, to the House and thank Senator O'Reilly for allowing me a few moments of his time on this Adjournment matter. I raised this matter on the Adjournment on 29 May this year, and unfortunately, nothing has moved on since that date. Senator O'Reilly, while he did not speak on the matter because he was away, was very much associated with it.

As Senator O'Reilly pointed out, Laragh national school in Stradone, County Cavan, was built in 1963. Originally designed as a three-teacher school, it now has 130 pupils, five mainstream teachers, one part-time resource teacher, one learning support teacher, three special needs assistants and one school secretary, which is a total of 11 staff. Three prefabricated buildings were added to the structure in 1972 when Caulfield and Carrickallen national schools amalgamated with Laragh national school. A further prefabricated building was provided in September 2001. There are only two permanent classrooms, the rest of the accommodation being prefabricated. The condition of the prefabricated accommodation is deplorable despite the best efforts of boards of management over the years. Asbestos panels were removed from the prefabricated buildings approximately six years ago and replaced with plywood, which is now rotting, and the roofs are leaking.

The Department is well aware of this school as I and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, have continually brought it to the attention of the present Minister and previous Ministers. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, in his reply on 29 May, stated that the proposed extension and refurbishment of Laragh national school had been assigned a band rating of 2.1. We want to know the up-to-date position from the Minister for Education and Science, through his colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. It is one of two or three schools within the county, but this school in particular is in a deplorable condition. Councillors Michael McCarey and Gerry Murray and Mr. Pat Smith of the school's board of management, along with the school principal, Donall O'Donnchadha, have been writing to me and Senator O'Reilly. The morale of the staff is at an all-time low, not to mention the morale of the students who are expected to be educated in these deplorable conditions.

Two options are available to the Department, as Senator O'Reilly has pointed out: a total refurbishment of the existing school plus the construction of a permanent extension, or a new school on a greenfield site provided by the parish. I urge the Minister of State to enlighten us and give us some positive news. It will not take much money to get the school that these people in Laragh deserve. I thank the Minister for being here and I thank Senator O'Reilly again for allowing me time to speak on this matter.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the two Senators for raising this issue. I will take the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects as well as the current position on Laragh national school, Stradone, County Cavan.

At the outset, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, wishes to clarify that modernising facilities in our existing building stock while fulfilling the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. This Government has dramatically increased investment in the school building programme to almost €600 million this year. The completion in 2008 of 67 large-scale projects at primary level and 19 projects at post-primary level will benefit more than 18,000 students, and construction work on 150 devolved projects will provide an additional 8,000 permanent places in existing primary schools. The Senators will be aware also that the Minister announced in September a further tranche of 24 large-scale projects to progress to tender and construction. This year has seen also a particular emphasis on the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas, with the construction of 26 new schools under the fast-track off-site construction programme.

This is an enormous programme of work by any standards and, while there will continue to be a focus on providing extra places in developing areas, the Department of Education and Science will also deliver improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary school accommodation throughout the country. The emphasis, however, will continue to be on new schools and extensions to provide additional school places in rapidly developing areas. The programme also will 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 project of particular concern for the Senators is Laragh national school. This is a co-educational school with an enrolment of 127 pupils as of 30 September 2007. Senator O'Reilly stated that the school had 130 pupils, and I will not argue with him. The current staff at the school consists of a principal, four mainstream assistants, and one permanent learning support and resource teacher. The school authority submitted an application to the Department for large-scale capital funding for an extension project. The long-term staffing figure, on which accommodation needs will be based, has been determined. It has been agreed that accommodation should be provided to cater for a long-term projected staffing of a principal and five mainstream assistants, with appropriate ancillary accommodation.

The proposed extension and refurbishment of Laragh national school has been assigned a band rating of 2.1 in accordance with the Department's published criteria for prioritising large-scale capital projects. 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. This project will be considered on an ongoing basis in the context of the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

The Department's capital allocation for next year will amount to €581 million. This will allow it to continue to invest significantly in primary and post-primary school buildings throughout the country, provide additional school places and continue its 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 previous national development plan alone, and we look forward to building on this unprecedented level of work with an allocation of €4.5 billion for school buildings under the current national development plan.

I thank the Senators once again for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position on Laragh national school, Stradone, County Cavan.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is disappointing that in the six months since Senator Wilson spoke on this issue, the school's band rating of 2.1 has not changed. Could the Minister clarify what exactly a band rating of 2.1 means? There is great concern among parents, pupils and the teaching staff at the school as well as among local public representatives. Senator Wilson correctly identified a number of public representatives who were in touch with him on this issue. I must acknowledge also representations and strong approaches from Councillors McKiernan, Kettyle and Boyle, who have contacted me a number of times about this issue. I will not be down the stairs from the Chamber when they will be phoning me to know what the Minister said. I will tell them the school has a band rating of 2.1, and they will want to know what that means. That is the level of frustration that exists. The school rating system is Byzantine. I appeal to the Minister to try to translate it or have it translated for the good people of Laragh who are anxious about this.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I will try to get a translation, but I am sure it is available on the Department's website. However, I will ask the Department to clarify the band ratings. My understanding is that it is 1, 2.1, 2.2 and so on. I will obtain clarification for the Senator.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Could we have any kind of time frame?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I cannot give the Senator a timeframe this evening. Often with capital projects, timeframes depend on how the projects ahead in the queue are proceeding and if there is a delay in one of those, sometimes another project goes ahead. It is not easy. People are always asking me as a Minister for timeframes and I often say it is not that simple. Sometimes a project which might have been expected to proceed does not proceed for one reason such as planning and that means another project can jump forward. I will try to get answers from the Department of Education and Science and clarification as to the meaning of the band rating of 2.1. I presume the Department has given as much information in terms of timeframes as it can.

There is a very substantial budget. At the end of the day, there is €580 million for schools next year. We have been spending at an unprecedented rate and I am sure County Cavan is no different from all the other counties I have visited. Many of the schools that needed work have had it done in the past four or five years. I have seen school after school throughout the country, many of which I have had the privilege of opening. It is fair to say that most of the rural primary schools with very poor accommodation have been dealt with.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister for his reply. I would be very grateful if he could send me in writing the explanation from the Department of what the band rating of 2.1 means because the people in my area will want to know. I again appeal to the Minister to convey to the relevant Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe in this instance, that I cannot imagine a greater priority. We are talking Dickensian stuff here. We are talking mice in damp prefabs with roofs caving in. That is the level we are at here.