Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Adjournment Matters

Schools Building Projects Status

6:50 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills to the House and I call on Senator Moran to commence.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I wish to express my sympathy on the death of former Fianna Fáil Senator Jimmy Mulroy who served from 1987 to 1989. He sadly passed away this afternoon. As a colleague from County Louth I would like to express my sympathy.

I welcome the Minister of State here. I wish to raise the matter of a primary school in Dundalk who first applied for an extension 20 years ago. Finally, in 2009 it was added to the Department's list for an extension and the school has already completed stage 1 of the plans for the extension to the Department's satisfaction.

The school personnel, board of management, parents, parents' council, teachers and pupils have reported their dismay to me after they were advised earlier in the year, by letter, that their school had not been included in the five year plan for school extensions and have no guarantee that the project will be completed. I have many years of teaching experience. I have taught in old schools, new schools and in several schools that were hundreds of years old. I can assure the Minister of State that in my experience the environment in which a child is taught is vital to his or her learning experience.

The school building to which I refer is several hundred years old. While the principal and the staff do their utmost to brighten up the classrooms and the best that they can, I know from visiting the school that their job is made much more difficult because of the current state of the building and their limited space. I find it very difficult to comprehend that in 2013 a school which has no staffroom, no computer room, no staff toilet and no resource room can justifiably be excluded from the Department's list and that they have no guarantee when they will get a badly needed extension.

It must be recognised that all schools are vying for students now. Every school holds an open day to attract students and the numbers of pupils dictates the number of teachers required. The state of the school is detrimental to its bid to attract pupils to the school because it is not on the same playing field as other schools who have been granted extensions and have the resources that they need. The school has two classrooms and three prefabs which have greatly reduced the play area. Despite this there is another building on the site which is hundreds of years old and has now gone into total disrepair. It is dilapidated. In my opinion it would have been better to use the dilapidated building rather than pay the astronomical cost to install prefabs. I appreciate that is not the fault of the present Government and that the prefabs have been in situ for years. I acknowledge that the Minister for Education has done a great job on ensuring that prefabs are being replaced.

On my last visit to the school I had to conduct my meeting with the principal in the schoolyard. As a teacher I found that unbelievable. I had to meet her in the schoolyard as all of the classroom space was occupied. When it began to rain we had to conclude our meeting in her car. If one read about this in the 1940s and 1950s one would wonder what was going on. I was dismayed when the principal told me that this is what happens when she needs to conduct meetings and resource teaching is taking place because the school does not have a resource room. I commend the principal and her staff who do an exceptional job with limited resources.

The school is significant because it caters for a diversity of religions. As a parent I feel that parents and pupils deserve the right to send their child to a school which they feel caters to their religious preference. I am concerned that the lack of facilities available at the school could deter parents from sending their children to it. I ask the Minister of State to convey my concerns to the Minister. I also ask that the Minister visits the school in Dundalk and reassesses his decision in order to give all children of all religions equal facilities and equal access to education.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter of the building project for Dún Dealgan national school, Dundalk, County Louth, as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects over the next five years and to clarify the current position of the project.

I shall first set out the context within which decisions have been taken and in which the meeting of accommodation needs of schools must be considered over the coming years. Overall enrolment figures are expected to grow by around 70,000 students between 2012 and 2018 - by over 25,000 at post-primary and 45,000 at primary level. Post-primary level enrolment is expected to continue to rise until at least the year 2024. In order to meet the needs of our growing population of school going children, the Department must establish new schools as well as 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 of the Department's capital budget for the coming years.

The five year programme was announced in March 2012. It will provide over 100,000 permanent school places, of which over 80,000 will be new school places. The remainder will involve the replacement of temporary or unsatisfactory accommodation. The project for Dún Dealgan national school entails the construction of an extension to the existing school of approximately 495 sq. m plus associated refurbishment and site works. The school is a four teacher school which has seen enrolments remain relatively consistent over recent years with 87 pupils enrolled in 2000-01 and 96 pupils in the current school year. The school has also received sanctions amounting to ¤175,000 under various summer works grants over that period.

The project is at an early stage of architectural planning. The project design team was appointed in early 2012 and the board of management was authorised to commence architectural planning. The stage 1 report, which is the initial sketch design stage, was completed and reviewed late last year and the project was authorised to complete stage 2A which is the developed sketch design. In the approval letter which issued on 1 October 2012 the board of management was informed that: "[A]s this project is not on the 5 year construction programme, the Department would advise the Board of Management against entering into arrangements which are time bound until authorisation is given to proceed to tender following completion of the Stage 2B report". My Department is awaiting submission of the stage 2A report from the board of management and its design team. Due to competing demands on my Department's capital budget imposed by the need to prioritise the limited funding available for the provision of additional school accommodation to meet increasing demographic requirements it was not possible to include the project in the five year construction programme announced earlier this year. Schools which have not been included in the five year programme but which had previously been announced for initial inclusion in the building programme will continue to be progressed to final planning stages in anticipation of further funds being available to my Department in future years. The project for Dún Dealgan national school remains available to be considered for progression in that context.

I thank the Senator for allowing me the opportunity to outline the position and I will pass on her concerns to the Minister.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I shall allow Senator Moran to ask a brief question.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I appreciate the Minister of State's comments but he has not given me new information. He gave me information that I already knew or discovered. The argument stands because he said that enrolment has remained static. The enrolment has remained static principally because the school cannot cater for any more students because the buildings are bursting at the seam. From my experience of other schools, and other schools in Dundalk who deservedly got their projects, this school has been seriously curtailed. It is a minority religion school. It has been in Dundalk a long time and has a proud tradition. I ask that the Minister visit the school and reassesses his decision not to include it in the five year plan. There is a case for its inclusion.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I suggest that the Senator extend a written invitation to Minister to visit the school.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I have done so.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I do not want to give a sense that somehow the pause button has been pressed on development in Dún Dealgan and other schools. There are a number of schools across the country who are in similar circumstances. The process whereby they reach the point where they are ready to go to construction will continue. The school has not been set aside because of the five year programme and the demands being placed on the resources on the Department in completing the five-year programme.

These other schools which are outside the programme at present will be progressed to the point at which they are ready to go to construction on the basis that we may be able to look at another iteration of the programme in the years to come or that other funds may arise in circumstances of which we are not aware to allow us to begin that development.

Let me assure the Senator that the school will be progressed along that parallel process to bring it to the point at which it is ready to go for construction. However, as I said in my reply, at this point the pressure on the building unit of the Department is to deliver on the five year programme to meet the major demographic challenge of 75,000 new school entrants in the next four to five years. That is what the unit must respond to at this time and I hope it will get to schools such as Dun Dealgan and others that are in similar situation as soon as possible.