Seanad debates

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

12:00 pm

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I did not expect my matter on the Adjournment to be heard at 2.10 a.m. I am also looking for the Minister of State to show a personal touch by addressing the needs of Scoil Mhuire, An Gharrán, Maree, Oranmore, roll No. 1809S. Given that it is willing to progress its urgent accommodation needs for four permanent classrooms to replace deteriorating prefabs in a way that would suit the Department of Education and Science, can the Minister of State advise which of the relevant schemes is preferable in this case? Is it to proceed with the major capital programme or should it transfer to the devolved scheme? Can he also advise on the timeframe for delivery of the preferred building option which he recommends?

I will give a little bit of background to the case. The principal told me recently that his aim was to replace the substandard buildings. He said he wanted to replace the sheds with permanent buildings. Maree national school has 208 pupils including my own children. With a devolved grant of €600,000 versus a cost of €2 million on the major capital programme, at any point Scoil Mhuire, An Gharrán, Maree, Oranmore can build the four permanent classrooms needed to meet the needs of its 208 pupils and a staff room for 16 staff - 11 teachers, one SNA and one secretary plus visiting teachers. This school has been let down since 1997. It is 12 years since its first application for a two-room extension and all it has acquired in the meantime is five prefabs.

There is a serious charge to be made against the Department of Education and Science in continuing with the five substandard prefabs for classes in the mid to high 20s. It is impossible to deliver the aims and objectives of the revised curriculum, an active discovery-based experiential learning curriculum which requires space for the children and the teachers to move. None of the prefabs is fit for more than 20 pupils, and yet all classes have numbers in the high 20s. Scoil Mhuire, An Gharrán has only three permanent classrooms that are capable of responding to the requirements of the revised curriculum, and yet all classes are expected to deliver on that goal. The Department must be responsible and accountable for what it is requiring of its teachers, if it is serious about the implementation of the revised curriculum. It is a contradiction, and unfair of the Department to ask teachers to deliver a curriculum and equally to have its inspectors inspect the outcomes of the revised curriculum, without providing an appropriate learning space in which to achieve it.

On the major capital programme, I understand Scoil Mhuire is at the design-team appointment stage. In December 2008, the principal met with the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who indicated he would be willing to allow this school on to the devolved scheme. I ask the Minister of State to indicate which option is preferable in light of the school's current needs, and if it is the devolved scheme, whether the Department will allow easy transfer of Scoil Mhuire without any disadvantage to the school or without losing further time. I look forward to hearing what the Minister of State recommends, the exact status of this school's building programme and the timeframe for delivery for the four permanent classrooms and staff room.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, 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 position on an application to the Department of Education and Science from the school for large-scale capital funding.

This school has applied to the Department for an extension to the existing school building. The brief for this project is for an extension which will result in a school large enough to provide sufficient accommodation for a long-term projected staffing of a principal plus ten mainstream class teachers plus ancillary staff. The project was assigned a band rating of 1.1, which reflects the rapid population growth in this area of Galway. I have no doubt whatever of the value of the project when it is completed.

Due to competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it has not been yet possible to progress this project through architectural planning and into construction. The Senator will understand that it is not possible to progress all projects at the same time as the resources must be in place to complete the project.

The school verbally contacted the Department in November 2008 to discuss the possibility of providing the four classroom extension via a devolved grant and the school was advised to submit a formal written proposal to the Department for consideration. The school, along with a number of other schools, met with the Minister in December 2008 and proposed that four additional mainstream classrooms and some refurbishment could be provided via a devolved grant of approximately €500,000 to €600,000. Officials from the Department will be in contact with the school authorities regarding their proposal.

All applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department against published prioritisation criteria, which were formulated following consultation with the education partners. The assessment process determines the extent and type of accommodation needed based on population growth, demographic trends, current and projected enrolments, recent and planned housing developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet the demand for pupil places. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under the prioritisation criteria, which I have already mentioned. There are four band ratings in all, with band 1 being the highest and band 4 being the lowest. Band 1 projects, for example, include the provision of schools where none currently exists but where there is a high demand for pupils places while a band 4 project makes provision of desirable, but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities.

Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need, and this is reflected in the band rating assigned them. In other words, a building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it and as it is ready to proceed.

The Senator will be aware that, in February of this year, the Minister for Education and Science 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 the school in question was not included in this announcement, therefore, it will not be proceeding in 2009. The project will, however, be considered for the Department's 2010 capital programme.

The Senator will appreciate that the extent of the demand on the Department's capital budget is enormous providing, as it does, accommodation for new communities, additional accommodation for the unprecedented number of extra teachers which the Government has put into the system and modernising existing schools. However, huge inroads have been made into addressing these needs and under the last national development plan alone, 7,800 school building projects were delivered.

As I said, the Senator will appreciate that it is not possible to advance all the projects needed at the same time. The Minister for Education and Science would like to assure the Senator, however, that all school building projects, including that for the school in question, will be advanced incrementally through the system over time and as funding is available. I thank the Senator for raising this matter and wish her progress in achieving finality in the matter.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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So it has the Minister of State's blessing. I thank him.