Seanad debates

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

4:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome to the House the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome once again to the House the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. We continue our discussions.

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 delighted to be here.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The matter I raise concerns Clifden community school and the building programme there. In the few minutes available, I seek a constructive discussion with the Minister of State and my purpose is to achieve helpful information for the entire school community of Clifden community school. In particular, the Minister of State should outline the timeframe for the commencement of construction for the new Clifden community school building that has been sanctioned for some time, explain the rationale for the blocks being encountered at present between the school and the Department of Education and Science and advise the school board and parents on how to advance the process towards the speedy delivery of the new school for Clifden.

Clifden community school has been told in a letter from the Department of Education and Science that it cannot proceed further in the stages towards acquiring a new school in that area. This makes no sense to me and I consider it an outrage. The Minister of State should explain what this means and the reason it cannot progress further. Is the Department stating the school is not entitled to a new building and, if so, what is the reason?

Clifden community school was built in the 1970s for 250 pupils. It was never finished by the Department of Education and Science because at the time the builder went under. Moreover, it has used prefabs for the past 20 years due to its growth, over time, to its present enrolment of 420 pupils. Windows need to be replaced on a daily basis and each morning the school is obliged to mop up and dry out rooms before classes begin. This is unacceptable and, as a teacher, I would not have liked to work in such conditions. They contribute to a bad atmosphere for learning and definitely affect educational outcomes. It also affects the morale of staff, pupils and parents.

While the building caters for 420 pupils at present, the school maintenance grant goes on the prefabs, which are old, and on the maintenance of a building that never was finished. The impending closure of another local school, Kylemore Abbey, means that numbers will be even greater next year. As the nearest post-primary school to Clifden community school is 30 miles away, the entire community has no choice but to send their children to that school. Its teachers are excellent and its leadership is very good - I know its principal. However, this does not mean the pupils' place of learning is suitable because the opposite is the case.

The school covers a large rural area in west Connemara and its parents' association has stated it does not have a choice as to where to send the children to school. It states that although it has been waiting for a new building for ten years and has been moving on to different stages, it has been informed it cannot move on to the next stage. The association notes the school is in a CLÁR area due to its disadvantaged status and that although this is within the remit of the local Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, the parents believe he has let them down. Their impression is that one might ask why one should come to west Connemara when one can get as many or more votes by visiting two housing estates in Galway city. The children's education is important to the parents of west Connemara, to the staff teaching in the school and to the children. One parent told the parents' association that her child now is being taught in the same prefab in which she had been taught 20 years previously.

This is a fairly grim case that requires addressing. Given the construction downturn, it would be as easy to build the school now as it was during the time of the Celtic tiger because prices will be lower. I again ask the Minister of State to address my three questions on the timeframe for the commencement of construction for the sanctioned new building and the Department's reason for the block, which is completely outrageous. I look forward to hearing the response in this regard and advice on how to help the community to move forward its application.

5:00 pm

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 matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. 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 to outline the current position regarding Clifden community school, Clifden, County Galway.

At the outset, I wish to note that modernising 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 that 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 planning and building unit of the 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 1 is the highest and band 4 the lowest. Band 1 projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists but there is a high demand for pupil places, while a band 4 project makes provision of desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities, such as a library or new sports hall. The proposed new school building for Clifden community school has been assigned a band 2 rating.

The new school building project for Clifden community school is based on a long-term projected enrolment of 425 pupils. The current enrolment is 423 pupils, including 19 post leaving certificate pupils. The proposed new school building includes general classrooms, science laboratories, a woodwork and construction studies room, a technical graphics room, a general purpose and dining area and other ancillary accommodation.

The school authorities were informed in January 2008 that stage 3, the detailed design stage, for the project was approved but the project was not authorised to progress further at that time. In February, the Minister announced details of 43 major building projects to proceed to tender and construction and 25 high priority projects to commence architectural planning. The project for Clifden community school was not included in this announcement. Therefore, it is unlikely that it will be progressed further in 2009. Given the competing demands on the Department's capital budget, it is not possible at this stage to be precise about when this project will go to construction. The progression of all large scale building projects 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. The proposed building project for Clifden community school will continue to be considered in the context of the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme for 2010 and subsequent years.

The allocation for school buildings in 2009 is almost €614 million. 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 real commitment of the Government to investing in school infrastructure and will permit the continuation of progress in the overall improvement of school accommodation. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the school building project for Clifden community school, Clifden, County Galway. I appreciate that I have no good news but I am happy to clarify the position.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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These parents are having fortnightly meetings to advance the project. What can they do to move the school building forward, given the conditions children and teachers are in?

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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It is a matter of funding. The allocation for funding for this year is €614 million. The progression of school building projects is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available in the Department's capital budget. The Department is conscious of the needs of the school but is constrained in the allocation of funding for this year. The situation will be kept under review.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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That is unsatisfactory.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on surviving the cull. He has been most courteous to Members in this House.

The parents of a number of children with special needs in County Galway have worked very hard in recent years to fill an educational void that exists for children with special needs in the three to six years age group. They have done so in child development centres located in Galway city, Ballinasloe and Tuam. The Department of Education has helped by funding the provision of teaching and special needs assistant hours and the centres have been very beneficial to the children involved in recent years.

Last year the parents became aware that this funding might not be available. After a number of interventions, the funding was made available. At this point the same message seems to be coming from the Department of Education and Science, that it will no longer provide funding for this valuable service, which cannot be provided within the mainstream education system in County Galway or most parts of Ireland.

Parents are confirming enrolment for September but are not able to enrol new children until they find out if ongoing funding will be available next year. The children catered for in these centres present with autism, severe learning disability and physical disability and the multidisciplinary staff who have assessed these children have recommended the child development centre placements as valuable, particularly in the absence of other appropriate educational placements.

I plead with the Minister of State that the current funding be made available so that the service can continue. Alternatively, this service could be incorporated into other permanent school facilities that exist in the area. I understand there may be an initiative in this direction and it would be most welcome. The funding in the child development centres could be diverted to other formal schools with boards of management and principals. The children could be cared for and educated under the auspices of these schools. I ask for one of these measures to be set up. Anyone who works with children knows that the most vulnerable time in a child's development is between three and six years. I hope the facilities provided in three locations in County Galway can continue.

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 matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I am pleased to clarify the position on the matter.

The child development centres referred to by the Senator are health facilities managed by the Brothers of Charity Services, which provides a range of services in these centres for pre-school children aged between three and six years of age. The children attending these centres have a diagnosis of severe to profound general learning disability, autism or multiple disabilities. As an exceptional matter, the Department has provided funding to the Brothers of Charity Services to facilitate educational provision for a number of children attending the child development centres for whom it had not been possible to source a school placement.

The Government is committed to ensuring that all children with special educational needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs, preferably in school settings, through the primary and post-primary school network. This facilitates access to individualised education programmes, fully qualified professional teachers, special needs assistants and the appropriate school curriculum.

The Department's policy is to ensure the maximum possible integration of children with special educational needs into ordinary mainstream schools within the child's community where this is in the best interests of the child and those with whom he or she is to be educated. However, there may be circumstances when full integration is not in the best interests of some children. In such cases, these children can attend special classes attached to certain ordinary mainstream schools. These special classes have the same increased levels of staffing and funding as are made available to special schools. Children with special educational needs attending special classes attached to mainstream schools may also, where appropriate, be integrated into ordinary classes for periods of the school day.

Children can also attend special schools that are dedicated to providing education for children with special educational needs. There are over 100 special schools in the country at present and these schools cater for children from four to 18 years of age. Each school has a significantly reduced pupil-teacher ratio, as well as special needs assistant support and increased levels of capitation. For example, special schools catering for children with a severe or profound general learning disability would typically have one classroom teacher and two special needs assistants per class of six pupils.

In County Galway there are approximately 12 special classes catering for pupils with severe to profound general learning disability, autism or a multiple disability. In addition, there are four special schools in County Galway catering for pupils with these diagnoses; one in Galway city and three new special schools established in Tuam, Carraroe and Ballinasloe in 2008.

The Senator will be aware that the National Council for Special Education is responsible, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, for allocating resource teachers and special needs assistants to schools to support children with special needs. The National Council for Special Education operates within the Department's criteria in allocating such support. A function of the council through its network of local SENOs includes identifying appropriate educational placements for children with special educational needs.

I understand the local SENO is continuing to liaise with the Brothers of Charity Services and the parents of children attending the child development centres to assist them in sourcing an appropriate school placement for the 2009-10 school year in cases where they are experiencing difficulty in identifying such placements.

I take this opportunity to emphasise that priority will continue to be given to provision for children with special educational needs. I intend to build on the progress that has been achieved in recent years, which has seen a large increase in resources for special needs. The National Council for Special Education will continue to support schools, parents, children and teachers. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position and to indicate that the local SENO is endeavouring to solve this problem.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Progressive Democrats)
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On the face of it, the reply seems positive and I thank the Minister of State for that. I ask that, in incorporating all the children who are currently attending the child development centres into either mainstream schools or the special schools which were mentioned, whatever resources are required be made available.