Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 January 2010

3:00 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator Pearse Doherty, who will speak for a minute and a half or so. Ba mhaith liom an cheist seo a ardú i gcomhairle le mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Ó Dochartaigh. Tá na húdaráis i Scoil Chonaill Naofa i mBun Beag, i bparóiste Ghaoth Dobhair, ag iarraidh cead ón Roinn dul ar aghaidh leis an forbairt atá beartaithe acu. This is not the first time my colleague, Senator Doherty, or I have raised the matter of the Scoil Chonaill Naofa building project on the Adjournment debate.

The issue is to seek approval to go to the next stage. I refer to the background, although I do not wish to cover what I have said previously in the Chamber. The planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Science organised workshops to brief schools and their design teams on the requirements of new contracts, including the Scoil Chonaill Naofa board of management and its quantity surveyor. They met Department officials to discuss and revise the required documentation and to outline the timeframe for the submission of completed tender documents. They went through this process. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, with whom I have liaised many times on this project, has advised me in recent days that the Scoil Chonaill Naofa building project is included in the process. The Department met representatives of the school on 26 November last in Tullamore. Thereafter, the school was authorised to complete the necessary revisions to the tender documentation and the schools stage 2b submission was received by the Department of Education and Science on 18 December last, some 34 days ago. This submission is currently under consideration according to the Minister and the school will be notified shortly of progress.

The issue of concern to the school is that subsection (k) of the design team procedures 2007, practice note 1, states, "where approval to go to tender is delayed more than 1 month after the submission of the Stage 2b report, it will be necessary for the Quantity Surveyor to up-date the cost-check prior to issuing tenders". Given that 34 days have elapsed since the required documentation was submitted on 18 December, the school authorities and the board of management are acutely concerned that they may need to revise the costings again and that this could delay the project further.

I understand the Minister and his officials are currently assessing all projects under consideration for the 2010 capital programme. I further understand it is his intention to announce the list of successful projects in the coming weeks. I wish to ensure the Scoil Chonaill Naofa building project is included in the list when it is announced and that as part of the announcement, approval would be granted to the school board of management to seek tenders and to begin construction, which is very important.

To be fair, the school board of management has been very co-operative with the Department. It has done all that has been requested, including attendance at meetings and so on. It has liaised with public representatives, including us. There is a need to have in place a new, modern facility available at the school to provide for the projected, long-term teaching staff of a principal, four mainstream teachers and ancillary staff. This development is required and all the stages have been crossed. Time is elapsing and we are concerned about the 30 day issue, but if the announcement were to materialise the school would be posed and ready to proceed with the development immediately. We trust that given the competitive tenders available at present, a good price, even lower than what was originally anticipated, could be attained. This is what I wish to convey today. l appreciate there may be no announcement today but I call on the Minister for State, Deputy Brady, to speak to the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, to underline the urgency of having the project included in the capital envelope for this year.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Ó Domhnaill as ucht a chuid ama a roinnt liom. I appreciate the opportunity to share time with Senator Ó Domhnaill and the arrangement shows the importance of this issue in the community. I outline my interest in this matter. I am a former student of Bunbeg national school. My sister teaches in the school and come September it will be the school that my eldest son will attend. I know this school very well. My uncle is a former head master and a cousin of mine teaches there. As a former pupil, I recognise the difficulties and the situation in which the school finds itself. Senator Ó Domhnaill, some other elected representatives from the area and I have attended meetings in the school. It is possible to see the unsafe nature of the school environment. Items are stocked in areas, basically because of a lack of space. An electrical contractor's report indicates the school does not have trip switches and smoke alarms, a very serious issues in today's environment given there are in excess of 100 pupils attending classes.

This is a matter of fairness for those pupils such that they can be given the best space available to absorb the curriculum and for the teachers to be given the space necessary to teach the curriculum. As Senator Ó Domhnaill has remarked, there are two questions at issue. First, the 30-day rule in the technical guidance notes should not apply in this matter. At this stage, the 30 days is up. We have no wish for a situation whereby the Minister will inform the school that it must re-cost the plan because of some technicality. I understand this is the third time an application has been made. I am aware from speaking to Department officials that the application is valid. All i's have be dotted and all t's crossed and we cannot allow the rules to delay it further. We seek a guarantee that this will not become an issue. I am aware from speaking to officials this will not be an issue.

Second, the school has sought this extension for the past ten years. There are competitive prices and the works are necessary. I believe they will take place. Senator Ó Domhnaill and other elected representatives believe they will take place. I recognise there has been a substantial cut in the primary school building allocation this year but this school is ready to proceed. We can get people back to work by building the school and this is a very important matter in the heart of the Gaeltacht area of Gaoth Dobhair. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could shed some light on this matter, confirm that the technicality of 30 days will not be used as a blocking mechanism and that in the coming weeks, if not days, the Minister will make an announcement to allow this school to go to tender, as I am led to believe.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I am happy to respond on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who, unfortunately, cannot be present. I thank Senators Ó Domhnaill and Doherty 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 the current position in respect of Scoil Chonaill Naofa, Bunbeg, County Donegal, roll number 18219F.

Modernising facilities in our existing building stock and the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth present a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and 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 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 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. The original criteria were revised and refined in 2004. 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 there is none currently but where there is a high demand for pupil places, while a band 4 project makes provision for desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities such as a library or new sports hall. The proposed building project for Scoil Chonaill Naofa has been assigned a band 2.1 rating.

All major projects in the Department's capital programme progress through the same structured process of architectural planning which is divided into clearly defined stages. The stages of architectural planning are set out in the Department's design team procedures and are necessary to comply with Department of Finance guidelines which require that capital projects be fully designed prior to going to tender. They also ensure proper cost management of capital projects and facilitate compliance with statutory and publiic procurement requirements.

There are five stages involved in the progression of major school projects through architectural planning. This project is at an advanced stage of architectural planning and has almost completed stage 2(b) of the process. Last year the Minister met a deputation from Scoil Chonaill Naofa. He welcomed the cost saving proposal for decanting pupils which was presented at the meeting and it was subsequently approved by the Department following an inspection of the premises.

In September a letter issued to the chairperson of the board of management, requesting the design team to begin work on revising the stage 2(b) documentation for submission to the Department. These revisions are required in order to ensure the contract is in line with the new Government construction contracts committee, GCCC, forms of contract. Representatives from the board of management of Scoil Chonaill Naofa and their design team attended a briefing in the Department's offices in Tullamore on 26 November. The briefing was held for a number of schools at a similar stage of the architectural planning process to fully explain what was required in revising tender documentation to take account of the requirements of the new forms of contract. Subsequently, in December, a revised stage 2(b) submission, including comprehensive tender documentation, was received by the Department and is being considered. The Department will revert directly to the school when that consideration is complete.

The Minister is reviewing the Department's school building and modernisation programme with his officials in the context of the allocation for 2010. The project for Scoil Chonaill Naofa forms part of that review. The Minister has indicated that he intends to make a further announcement on the school building programme when that review has been completed.

I again thank the Senators for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position on the school building project for Scoil Chonaill Naofa, Bunbeg.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State.