Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Schools Building Projects
I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. I hope he can help me to achieve my goal this evening by liaising with his colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. He should ask him whether Coláiste na Coiribe, Galway city, will be included in the next public private partnership, PPP, bundle and when this is likely to happen in order that the school may proceed to meet the large pupil enrolment on waiting lists for accommodation. In order to paint a picture, I have to hand a letter the Minister has sent to the Minister who represents the constituency of Galway West, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, to the effect that the school will be considered in the next round of allocations for a PPP project in November. My job is to impress upon the Minister of State the importance of ensuring the school is not just considered but designated as one of the aforementioned schools.
The Minister of State may be aware that Coláiste na Coiribe still functions in wholly inadequate temporary accommodation on the Tuam Road, Galway city. The conditions under which it is operating are incredible. It comprises an old primary school, ten prefabs, a converted industrial unit, as well as borrowed and shared rooms at other off-campus locations. The provision of a quality education in these circumstances is a strong compliment to the teaching staff. Moreover, loath though I am to say it, I read regularly that in many cases, children in the school achieve the highest points each year. I am loath to state this because that is not the only reason children are due a decent education in a decent building.
The purchase of Coláiste na Coiribe's site in Knocknacarra for the new school has recently been completed but no date has been given by the Department of Education and Science for the next stage of the project, namely, the placing of Coláiste na Coiribe in the next available public private partnership bundle. The PPP will design, build and maintain the new school which will accommodate either 550 or 700 students according to the Department's records. I note that the school has 1,400 children on a waiting list for enrolment between 2010 and 2021. It is imperative that the Department considers the school from the perspective of a 700-student, rather than a 550-student school. However, this is subject to the Minister's final designation of school size. When the new facility is completed, the school expects to be in a position to accept either 90 or 120 first-year pupils each year but this is entirely in the hands of the Government.
It is wonderful that so many parents seek to offer second level education through Irish. During the recent Lisbon treaty campaign Members will have noticed how many used this argument as a means to hold on to our national identity. These parents are actively and genuinely doing so. While it is one matter to send one's child's to a gaelscoil at primary level, to continue doing so at second level is wonderful. My job is to convince the Minister of State and ask him to convince the Minister for Education and Science to include Coláiste na Coiribe in the next available PPP bundle in order that the school may proceed without delay to tender, full planning permission and construction stage for a school size of 700 pupils. I look forward to hearing his response.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Minister for Education and Science's strategy for capital investment in education projects, as well as the current position on Coláiste na Coiribe, in particular. The allocation of funding for school buildings in 2009 is €614 million. This represents a significant investment in the school building and modernisation programme. This level of funding, at a time of great pressure on public finances, is a sign of the Government's commitment to investing in school infrastructure and it will permit the continuation of progress in the overall improvement of school accommodation.
All applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Science. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of the 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. The 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. Projects move through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned when they are ready to proceed. Under the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects, 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 and where there is a high demand for pupil places while a band 4 project makes provision of desirable facilities that are not urgent as mainstream accommodation, such as a library or new sports hall.
The proposed new building for Coláiste na Coiribe has been assigned a band rating of 1.1, the highest band rating possible. In determining the long-term projected enrolment of a school on foot of an application for major capital works, the relevant section in my Department must consider such factors as population growth, demographic trends, current and projected enrolments, recent and planned housing developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet demand for places. In that context a long-term projected enrolment of 550 pupils was proposed for Coláiste na Coiribe and a schedule of accommodation was drawn up and agreed with the school authorities. The school authority recently advised the Department of Education and Science that this long-term projected enrolment is no longer sufficient to meet demand.
The schools capital appraisal section in the Department of Education and Science intends to review the long-term projected enrolment of 550 pupils and will revert to the school authority on the matter shortly. The 2008-09 enrolment was 315 pupils. The school currently has a staffing of 26.75 whole time equivalent teachers. In September 2005 Coláiste na Coiribe was listed as one of the schools to be procured via public private partnerships but it was not possible to consider the school for inclusion in any of the three school bundles already under way as the purchase of a suitable site had not been completed.
City of Galway VEC identified a suitable site and funding for the purchase of the site was approved in February 2009. Contracts for the purchase of the site were signed in March 2009. The Department is now in the process of identifying what school projects are eligible for consideration in the fourth bundle. The other issues that must be considered in the timing and bundling of schools include outline planning permission being secured, geographical spread and the total committed cost of the proposed bundle. Over €1 billion has been identified under the national development plan for the provision of public private partnership projects at first, second and third levels.
The current public private partnership programme identified a total of 27 new schools and 16 new third level projects. The Department is responsible for all aspects of the assessment and approval of project bundles, including the decision to procure via public private partnership, the setting of project budgets, output specifications and other service requirements and agreeing the public sector benchmark compiled with the assistance of the National Development Finance Agency.
Once the Department has carried out these functions and handed a bundle over to the National Development Finance Agency, the latter is responsible for procuring the project. The National Development Finance Agency hands back the bundle to the Department after construction is complete and the schools are operational. The indicative timeframe for the delivery of a bundle of public private partnership schools currently stands at approximately four years from the date the bundle is announced. I thank Senator Healy Eames for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House how the Department of Education and Science intends to address the needs of Coláiste na Coiribe.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I realise that no decision has been made on the allocation of the next bundle. My fear is that the revised long-term enrolment projections will be used as a reason to defer an allocation next autumn. Is there a possibility that this fact will be used against the school? The school has a band rating of 1.1 and is in the highest category possible. This is urgent.
The school has the highest possible rating and I understand there is interaction between the building unit of the Department and the college concerning the higher than originally estimated enrolment. Progress can be made between the authorities at the college and the Department.