Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

10:00 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I call on the Minister for Education and Science to examine the Finn Valley college issue. The Stranorlar technical school, which was built in 1939 and opened in 1940, is the oldest County Donegal Vocational Educational Committee school today. The school was renamed in 2007 as the Finn Valley college, having previously been known as Stranorlar technical school. The Department of Education and Science granted approval in 2005 for the provision of a 3,452 sq. m. new school. Planning permission for the new site was granted in November 2006 at the County Donegal VEC site at Drumbo, Stranorlar.

The current school site is very compact, comprising 0.996 acres. Some of the prefabs on the current site have been in place for more than 20 years and are inadequate for meeting the school's accommodation needs. As I did in March, I acknowledge the magnificent contribution of the school board of management, County Donegal VEC and especially the staff for their upkeep of the school's facilities.

The proposed new school will be constructed on the VEC-owned site at Drumbo, Stranorlar, which is 6.79 acres. The proposed project will consist of the construction of a new school building with a floor area of 3,452 sq. m. to cater for the long-term projected enrolment of 325 students. The number of students enrolled this year is 261. The new school will comprise four general classrooms, two lecture rooms which are inter-connected, a specialist room, ancillary accommodation and a physical education hall. This issue has been ongoing for some time.

The school site is valued at approximately €1.5 million, but that may change in the current economic climate. It has been offered to the Department by the VEC. While the project was previously out for tender and tenders were received, their approval was sought by the VEC, but it was not forthcoming. On 4 June last, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, met a delegation from the school. I attended that meeting, as did a number of my Oireachtas colleagues. The meeting was productive and following it there was a subsequent meeting on 8 October between the chief executive of the VEC and his staff and staff of the Department.

In a letter from the Department of Education and Science on 18 November last, the chief executive of Donegal VEC was informed that the project would have to be reissued for tender. That may be good because we may be able to obtain a lower cost for the project given the different economic environment in which we find ourselves. Perhaps more contractors will be available to do the project or carry out the construction at a lower cost.

We accept the Department's viewpoint on the matter and the VEC, staff, parents and pupils associated with the Finn Valley college now seek the re-advertising of the project for tender as quickly as possible, certainly within the first few months of 2009. It is a good time to go to tender as many contractors in Donegal would be able to carry out this project and there are advantages to that.

I welcome the fact that there is almost €600 million in the Department's budget next year for building new projects. What we seek now is approval to proceed to tender again on this project. I hope the Minister of State has some good news on this.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I thank the Senator for raising the matter as I know this is something high on his list of priorities.

The Minister wants me to clarify that modernising facilities in our existing building stock, as well as responding 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 to ensure that 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 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. Construction work on 150 devolved projects will provide an additional 8,000 permanent places in existing primary schools. The Senator will be aware that in September the Minister announced a further tranche of 24 large-scale projects to progress to tender and construction.

This year has also seen 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 will also deliver improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary school accommodation. The emphasis, however, will continue to be on new schools and extensions to provide additionality in rapidly developing areas. The programme will also enable the purchase of sites to facilitate the smooth delivery of the school building programme, but again with the focus on site requirements in rapidly developing areas.

With regard to Finn Valley college, this is a mixed vocational school with an enrolment of 245 pupils as of 30 September 2007. The school authority submitted an application to the Department for large-scale capital funding for a new school. In this regard, it has been agreed that accommodation should be provided to cater for a long-term projected enrolment of 325 pupils. The proposed new school for Finn Valley college has been assigned a band rating of 2.2 in accordance with the Department's published criteria for prioritising large-scale capital projects.

The progress to construction of all large-scale building projects, including this project, depends on the funding available under the Department of Education and Science's capital budget. This project will be considered in the context of the Department's building programme for 2009. The Department was not in a position to allow the project to proceed in 2008 due to financial constraints. In addition, from February 2008, all publicly-funded capital works projects must use new forms of construction contracts. As a result, the project at Finn Valley College will have to be re-tendered when the Department is in a position to approve that.

The Minister is committed to the project for a new building at this school, funding permitting. Again, I thank the Senator for affording the Minister, through me, the opportunity to outline the current position to the House. I will bring the Senator's specific points to the attention of the Minister.