Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Adjournment Matters

Schools Building Projects

4:05 pm

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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Senators are expected to cover the whole country, not just constituencies. This Adjournment matter concerns the community school in Clifden and the need for the Minister for Education and Skills to address the shortfall in suitable permanent accommodation for Clifden community school. I ask for an update on the proposed timeline of the provision of a new school to replace the existing community school. I had been pestering the Minister for Education and Skills for a meeting on the topic and thank him for meeting representatives of the community school, through Councillor Eileen Mannion, when he was on holidays over the summer. The Minister kindly agreed to meet the representatives of Community School Initiative: Clifden and I thank Councillor Eileen Mannion who intervened in the matter.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Was the Senator there for the summer?

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I was. There is no better place to be for the summer. I thank the Minister for giving of his time. The meeting was a positive step and put the topic on the table. It has been on the agenda for over ten years. The current school was designed to accommodate 250 pupils in 1974 but the original design was never completed. The school is in poor condition. A detailed technical evaluation showed that the school building was unsuitable. Two independent studies were carried out in 2000 and in 2003. The second study concluded that the problems identified with the building were such that they could not be resolved except through the provision of a new building. The conclusion was accepted by the Department of Education and Science in 2003. The problem is not resolved. Following on from the meeting between Community School Initiative: Clifden and the Minister, there is a new plan for special consideration for school projects in isolated areas, as opposed to areas with population growth. The Minister mentioned a plan to take into account schools in isolated areas so that criteria can be used for selection and advancement on the five-year list for schools in isolated areas. Does the Minister of State have any news on this?

We are living in unprecedented economic circumstances but a new school for the area is a priority. If one uses the criteria for population growth to get new schools on the list, one will be waiting forever for Clifden. With unemployment, emigration and location on the western seaboard, the existing criteria alone cannot be used. I ask the Minister to take into account criteria other than population growth. He should also consider the isolation of the area and outline the new criteria used.

I ask the Minister of State to explain the timeline of when this project will be realistic. Plans come and plans go and five-year plans are developed. This project is not currently included in the five-year plan. Some projects may be cancelled or will not go ahead and if other criteria are used now that were not used in the past, perhaps the Minister can explain the timeline envisaged for the commencement or completion of the new school. I do not want it on the back burner. I thank the Minister for meeting Community School Initiative: Clifden but meetings are one thing whereas actions are another. I want to see some follow-up. I ask the Minister of State for a timeline and hope he has the information in time to respond to this Adjournment debate. If not, perhaps he can e-mail or write to me.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank the Senator for raising the issue relating to Clifden community school and welcome the opportunity to clarify the current position on the new school building project for Clifden.

Clifden community school is the only second level school in the Clifden post-primary feeder area. There are 14 primary schools in the feeder area. The enrolments at primary level have remained stable, with 656 pupils in 2001-02 and 654 pupils in 2010-11. The Department's projected enrolments show a slight decrease over the coming years, with a projected figure of 627 primary level pupils in 2017.

The design of the proposed new school building for Clifden community school has been developed based on a long-term projected enrolment of 425 pupils. The current enrolment is just over 400 pupils and enrolment levels have been relatively stable in recent years. Full planning permission for the new school was granted in February 2011. The school's design team have recently submitted the stage 2(b) reports that include the detailed design of the school and tender documents. The submission is under review by the Department.

In view of the need to ensure that every child has access to a school place, the delivery of major school projects to meet the demographic demands nationally will be the main focus for capital investment in schools over those years. Total school enrolments are expected to grow by around 70,000 students between now and 2018 - by over 45,000 at primary level and 25,000 at post-primary. Second level enrolment is expected to continue to rise until at least 2024.

Recent birth rate data published by the CSO show that there were nearly 20,000 births registered in the first quarter of 2011, the highest number of births registered in a quarter since the series began in 1960. It is vital that the schooling system be prepared to cope with these increasing numbers. Therefore, the Government's priority is now to focus on major school projects to meet these demographic demands. In order to meet the needs of our growing population of schoolgoing children, the Department must establish new schools in addition to extending or replacing a number of existing schools in areas where demographic growth has been identified. The delivery of these new schools, together with extension projects to meet future demand, will be the main focus for the Department's capital budget for the coming years. In March 2012, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, announced a five-year construction programme as part of a ¤2 billion capital investment programme, which outlined all the major school building projects at primary and post-primary levels which had been scheduled to commence construction over the timeframe. The project announced will account for the bulk of the capital funding available each year from 2012 to 2016. In that context, it was not possible to advance all applications for capital funding concurrently.

All other schools building projects within the architectural planning process, including the project for Clifden community school, will continue to be advanced incrementally in the context of the funding available. However, in light of current competing demands on the Department's capital budget, it is not possible at this time to progress the project at Clifden community school to tender and construction stages. I understand the Minister attended a meeting during his summer holiday period in Clifden with members of CSI Clifden and the board of management. Officials of the planning and building unit in the Department held a meeting last July with a delegation from the patron body and the board of management in which the current position was fully explained to the delegation. I thank the Senator for allowing me the opportunity to outline the position as it stands.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. I did not expect him to come in this evening with the school in his back pocket. While one should not believe everything one reads or hears, I must draw attention to the Minister of State's allusion to the possibility of establishing a new category of school, namely, "isolated school". When might this be defined by his Department? Will it mean the school in Clifden could receive funding in this context to build the new building that is so badly needed? Could he return to the Department, albeit not tonight, define "isolated school" with the Minister and revert to me with information by e-mail?

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I will undertake to do so.