Seanad debates

Thursday, 14 October 2010

1:00 pm

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to highlight the concerns of the authorities at St. John the Baptist national school, Midleton, County Cork, which urgently needs a new building. I am normally disappointed when the line Minister is not present to respond, but the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, knows this area and many of the parents involved and is aware of the need for new, modern accommodation at the school as soon as possible. I appreciate that, prior to the Minister of State's attendance to listen to my comments, he received a ready-made answer from his Department. I ask him to take the opportunity at his convenience during the coming weeks to meet the school authorities, examine the situation at first hand, determine what the possibilities are and make progress.

I will for the House and the Minister of State briefly outline the background. I understand St. John the Baptist national school has eight teachers and an enrolment of 218 pupils. It is almost unable to cater for the number of pupils wishing to attend. There are already 67 new applicants for next year. All three of the permanent classrooms need refurbishment and there are five prefabs. Given that three full-time special education teachers also work out of these prefabs, they house a total of eight teachers. An application to the Department of Education and Skills for major building works was lodged in 2005, but no response was forthcoming until recently when the Department's building section gave the standard reply of a lack of funding, etc. It was disappointing news for the board of management.

I have been asked by the school authorities to bring to the Minister of State's direct attention that the prefabs are costing €40,000 in rent per annum, a situation that is replicated throughout the country. At a time when we are discussing how to make a new beginning for the country and its economy, we must consider why such money is being spent on prefabricated accommodation that is fit neither for need nor for purpose.

It is also important to note that the prefabs in question are present under temporary planning permission from Midleton Town Council. The council has indicated to the school authorities that when the temporary permission expires, it will not be renewed. I am not attempting to scare the Department into action. It is a matter of fact that, bad and all as the prefabs are, it might not be possible for them to remain in place. Action is urgently required.

The board of management and the parents proposed a plan whereby much local assistance and labour would be made available if some type of public private partnership could be initiated. The €40,000 being used for rented accommodation could be used to repay a loan. When the education portfolio was held by the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, he tried to introduce a number of pilot schemes. The town of Millstreet comes to mind, although I am unsure whether that project has come to fruition. Under the scheme, money would be put in place to build permanent classrooms instead of renting prefabs. We must be flexible where our school building needs are concerned. We all recognise the lack of national resources, but we also recognise the need to provide appropriate permanent accommodation. Tens of millions of euro are being wasted on rental accommodation per annum.

I look forward to what will be the Minister of State's standard answer. I appreciate how these matters work. As someone who comes from a parish that is only a few miles away from the school in question, I am sure children from his parish of Glanmire attend it. Will he take a personal interest in the project? Midleton is a long way from County Donegal, the home patch of the Tánaiste, and even the home patches of her Ministers of State. As the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, is present, we would like him to take an interest in the issue and determine whether a funding mechanism could be used to provide a better result. Spending €40,000 last year, the preceding year, next year and the following year to prop up structures that are beginning to fall down is a wanton waste of taxpayers' money. Would it not make sense to devise a formula or strategy, be it public or private, for this and other schools that would provide sufficient flexibility to allow works on permanent buildings to commence?

While I am not expecting miracles, will the Minister of State take a personal interest in the matter and, if he has not already done so, visit the school during the coming week or two to meet its authorities? As more than enough ground is available, no site is required. The board of management and parents' association are committed and many people are willing to volunteer their designing and engineering help. We should be able to bring them all together to resolve the problem. I look forward to the Minister of State's-----

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade and Commerce, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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Standard reply.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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-----unscripted remarks in addition to what he is supposed to say.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade and Commerce, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, sends her apologies. I thank the Senator for raising this matter and acknowledge his deep interest in the school in question as well as in the broader Midleton area. If I received an invite from him or the board of management, I would be delighted to visit the school. As he knows, we are always reluctant to trespass on other people's areas. If I can, I will use my position as a Minister of State to assist schools in County Cork and elsewhere. I am aware of the problems of St. John the Baptist national school as I know one or two people whose children attend it.

Modernising facilities in our existing building stock, as well as the requirement to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth, are significant challenges. 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 planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Skills 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. There are four band ratings in all, with band 1 being the highest and band 4 the lowest. For example, band 1 projects include the provision of schools where none currently is available but where there is a high demand for pupil places while a band 4 project provides for 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. This is reflected in the band rating assigned them. A building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it and as it is ready to proceed.

The school to which the Senator referred has a staffing level of a principal and eight mainstream teachers. The school also has the services of two learning support-resource teachers and a resource teacher. In 2009, the school had an enrolment of 219 pupils, representing a 22% increase in enrolments in the past five years. The school applied for the provision of an extension to the existing school building in 2005. The project was assigned a band rating of 2.2, which reflects the fact that there is a deficit of mainstream accommodation that constitutes a substantial and significant proportion of the school's overall accommodation needs. The Senator referred to the number of prefabs, some of which only have temporary planning permission. This matter is taken into account when considering the criteria. Owing to competing demands on the Department's capital budget, it has not been possible to progress the project through architectural planning.

The extent of the demand on the Department's capital budget is enormous, providing as it does for accommodation for new communities, modernisation and extending existing schools. However, huge inroads have been made in addressing these needs. In this regard, the Senator will be aware that in February the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, announced details of 52 major school building projects to proceed to tender and construction. In recent years a further 22 major school building projects were approved to enter architectural planning, while this year a further 29 high priority projects will begin the design process and appoint design teams. It was not possible, however, to include the project for St. John the Baptist national school in the announcement and, therefore, it will not proceed this year. However, it will be considered for inclusion in the Department's 2011 programme and future capital programmes in accordance with its band rating and the availability of resources.

The Senator will understand it is not possible to progress all projects at the same time, as resources must be in place to complete a project. This is a critically important point. For many years schools were allowed to enter the schools building programme when there was absolutely no hope of the projects proceeding because no financial resources were made available to ensure school building projects could be funded. Now they progress only if there are commensurate resources available to meet the cost of their development. All school building projects, including that of St. John the Baptist national school, will be advanced incrementally through the system over time as funding becomes available.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. If the school, local Senators and Deputies contact me, I will be delighted to visit the school.