Seanad debates

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

7:00 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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Is ceist an-thábhachtach atá agam le chur os comhair an tSeanaid, ceist a leanann ar aghaidh as an díospóireacht a bhí againn níos luaithe leis an Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta, An Teachta Batt O'Keeffe, ar chúrsaí oideachais agus an faillí atá á dhéanamh ag an Rialtas ar chúrsaí oideachais sa Stát.

My matter deals with two school building projects, both of which are in my home parish. The first is a primary school, Bunbeg national school, or Scoil Chonaill Naofa, and the other school is Pobalscoil Gaoth Dobhair. I attended the national school in my youth and I also attended the secondary school, Pobalscoil Gaoth Dobhair, so I know both schools very well. I could probably stand here and ask similar questions about many other schools throughout County Donegal. I could talk about Glen Swilly which has been seeking an extension since 1992. The school changed its name since then and its official name is now Seeking an Extension since 1992. Another school has more prefabs than blocks and mortar. I could talk about Gortahork national school or Creeslough national school but I have focused on these two schools. Like many of the other schools I have mentioned and many more which I have not mentioned, they need and deserve the extensions and the ancillary facilities they have been demanding for many years. I have raised these cases numerous times in this House and the Minister of State is well familiar with the case that has been made by me and others for the need for the building works to go ahead.

The one point I will focus on is that the Government has committed to these two projects for many years. Pobalscoil Gaoth Dobhair is looking for PE facilities. It is one of the few, if not the only, Gaeltacht secondary school that does not have such a facility. It excels in sport but the pupils have to travel miles to facilities and this has its own effect on the funds available to the school to pay for buses which is more difficult with the cutbacks. This also has an effect on the school's carbon emissions and on the environment. In this day and age it is not good that this school has somehow been left behind even though as far back as the 1980s when Fine Gael was in power, a commitment was made for the works to proceed. What makes the situation worse is that in June 2006, the go-ahead was given for this project and further permission was given in May 2007. Funding has been committed by the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and the school has also collected its own portion of the money. In May 2007 the school received a letter saying the project would be on site no later than eight months from the date of the letter; this is long past.

The national school, Scoil Chonaill, Bunbeg, is one of the feeder schools for the secondary school. The Minister will know about this case in detail because he received a delegation from the school made up of the board of management, teachers and parents' representatives and I also attended. We thanked him for his attention to the need for the extension to that school. I will not go over the reasons but suffice to say the school is unsafe. I have produced electrical reports for the House which show that this is not a safe school. There is no trip switch, no fire alarms and the electrics have been condemned. I can tell the House about things that are happening and the dangerous condition of the school but I do not wish to make people fearful. The Minister knows how dangerous this school is and there needs to be a commitment to move this project on. What sets this school apart from many of the others is that the commitment was made by Government. I raised this point with the Minister when he met the deputation from the school and he was unaware of the commitment.

Just before I left my office to come to the Chamber, I printed out a page from the website of the Department of Education and Science which details the school building programme for 2006. It stated in March 2006 that 36 primary schools and four post-primary schools throughout the country with major building projects had been approved to proceed to tender and construction stage. Outlining details of the schools, the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, said:

These projects are in addition to the 15 major school building projects which I have already approved to progress to tender and construction earlier this year. The projects will go to tender and construction on a rolling basis over the next 12 to 15 months when the schools concerned and the design teams are in a position to advise the Department that the projects have advanced to the point where tenders can be sought.

Both these schools have received planning permission and letters. They are named on the Department's website today as being allowed to go to tender and construction. Both these schools are still denied that right.

I ask the Minister of State to come clean, to tell the people of Gweedore whether their primary school and their secondary school will be built. Will the pupils of that area get what they deserve? Are we going to put people back into work in those communities by building those schools? There have been too many letters, too many false promises and too many false dawns. I am encouraged that there might be movement here but I would like the Minister of State to say these vital projects will be allowed go ahead.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this adjournment on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, Minister for Education and Science. I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and also to outline the current position regarding Scoil Chonaill, Bunbeg, County Donegal and Pobalscoil Gaoth Dobhair, County Donegal.

The modernisation of 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. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

All applications for capital funding are assessed in the modernisation and policy unit of my Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting, based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity etc., leading ultimately to an appropriate accommodation solution.

As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners. Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project. In other words, a proposed building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it.

There are four band ratings overall, of which band one is the highest and band four the lowest. Band one projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists but where there is a high demand for pupil places, while a band four project makes provision for desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities, such as a library or new sports hall.

In relation to Scoil Chonaill, Bunbeg, the brief for this extension-refurbishment project is to provide accommodation for a long-term projected staffing of a principal plus four mainstream class teachers plus ancillary staff.

The project, which has been assigned a band rating of 2.1, is at an advanced stage of architectural planning and planning permission has been received. The Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, met with a deputation from Scoil Chonaill, Bunbeg in December 2008. A new cost-saving proposal for the decanting of pupils for the duration of the project was presented at the meeting and was welcomed by the Minister. However, it is not possible at this stage to be precise about when this project will go to construction.

In relation to Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, this project, which involves the provision of a new PE hall, is at an advanced stage of architectural planning. The project has a band rating of 4.1. While it is not possible at this stage to be precise about when this project will go to construction because of higher competing priorities — I refer in particular to the need to provide new schools in rapidly developing areas — I can say that the project will be considered for progression as the school building and modernisation programme is rolled out.

The progression of all large-scale building projects, including these projects, from initial design stage through to construction, is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available under my Department's capital budget. These projects will be considered in the context of my Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

The allocation for school buildings in 2009 is €581million. This represents a significant investment in the school building and modernisation programme. This level of funding for the building programme, at a time of great pressure on public finances, is a sign of the Government's commitment to investing in school infrastructure and will permit the continuation of progress in the overall improvement of school accommodation. Under the recovery plan, announced last week by the Taoiseach, a further €75 million has been allocated to the schools building programme for 2009.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position regarding the schools building projects for Scoil Chonaill, Bunbeg and Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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I am tired of hearing the same response to the position of these two schools. To clear up this nonsense once and for all, will the Minister write to Scoil Chonaill, Bunbeg, informing it that what was on the departmental website in 2006 was a complete and utter lie? Will he inform the school there is no intention to allow it to go to construction and tender as stated on the departmental website? Will he also write to Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair informing it that the letter sent to it in May 2006 is also a lie and the project will not be delivered in eight months because the time has come and gone? It is simply not good enough. The Government keeps telling us about investment in education, but it is not happening for those schools whose building projects were approved two years ago. It is just not acceptable.