Thursday, 10 April 2014
School Health and Safety Issues
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, for coming to the House to respond to this Adjournment matter on the need for the Minister for Education and Skills to provide enhanced safety measures for pupils of schools accessed by roads not taken in charge by local authorities.
This is an issue prevalent across the country, particularly at many of the new schools built over the past number of years. An example in this regard is Skerries Educate Together national school, on which I will provide some background. The school opened in 1 September 2008 with 34 pupils enrolled. There are now 234 pupils attending the school and it is expected that by 2014 there will be 460 pupils enrolled at the school. The school serves the greater Skerries-Balbriggan-Balrothery-Lusk-Rush area and is a busy school. The Minister of State may be familiar with the Fingal schools model whereby the council sources land from developers, a school is constructed and then passed on to the Department of Education and Skills, which has been very successful.
While Skerries Educate Together is going well, there is a major road safety issue at the school. The school has requested on a number of occasions of Fingal County Council that a traffic warden and fully accessible crossing point, similar to those provided at other schools, be provided at the school. The school caters for children from five years upwards. However, the council response has been that this location was examined on a number of occasions and it was noted that the area immediately adjacent to the school is in private ownership and the school warden service is not provided by the council on private lands. I hope we will not have to wait for a tragic accident at the school before this matter is dealt with.
The principal and board of management at the school have been in contact with the developer of the adjacent site, who, with the council, has been endeavouring to have the road taken in charge. I will provide my notes on this to the Minister of State later. I am using Skerries Educate Together as an example of similar situations at other schools around the country. The council will not even have proper road markings put in place around the school. The owner of the road cannot understand the reason the council will not take it in charge. The school now finds itself in the position of being unable to provide for the safety of its pupils due to circumstances beyond its control. It is not in a position to compel the council to take the road in charge. The matter is now left up in the air. While the school fund-raised to pay for road markings, it is unable to have this done because the work is not covered by the insurance of the owner of the road.
In the local authority's view, this is not its problem. I have written to the Department, which has stated that it cannot do anything even though the issue is one of safety of pupils at school. I have given the example of Skerries Educate Together national school. As I said, there are other schools in similar situations. I believe a directive on this matter needs to issue from either the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government or the Department of Education and Skills. Surely the safety of school children is paramount and the council should be directed to take the road in charge, perhaps by way of a caretaker's agreement initially while the outstanding issues are being dealt with, and to appoint a school warden and put in place a crossing point to ensure the safety of the children.
I hope I have adequately outlined the issue which is prevalent in Skerries and at many other schools across the country. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.
As the Senator's matter as drafted does not provide the level of detail which he has just provided, which detail is always important, I would appreciate if he could pass on his notes to me later. I know from my experience at local government level for many years that there are always issues in regard to taking in charge, etc.. The local authority needs to be certain it will not ultimately be held responsible for obvious defects and in this regard needs to sort out all of the issues before taking roads, etc., in charge. As stated by the Senator, this is not an issue for the Department of Education and Skills but more appropriately the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. However, local authorities cannot simply wash their hands of the need to address safety issues, which in this instance happens to relate to a school but could well be in relation to access to a housing estate and so on.
I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, who thanks the Senator for raising this matter. In regard to sites for new school provision, of which many have been built owing to the increase in our population, which is good for all of us, there are a range of factors which are taken into account in assessing the suitability of a particular site, including safe access, traffic management and mobility issues. Considerations include safe circulation on the school grounds, such as appropriate provision for school buses, pedestrian and bicycle access, staff and visitor parking, car set down and pick up provision and also safe access to the grounds.
With regard to the site layout and road safety provisions, safety in accessing the school by road can be improved by managing the traffic away from the routes used by schoolchildren, promoting diversity of modes of transport to reduce vehicular congestion and the provision of traffic calming measures. I acknowledge this is not always possible where there is only one entrance to a school. Access roads to school sites are governed by the planning requirements set by the local authority. This is the situation regardless of whether or not the road is subsequently taken in charge by the local authority or remains in the ownership of the third party on whose lands it has been constructed.
As part of the planning process, the design team engaged to design the school site layout consults with the relevant local authority. It is a matter for the relevant local authority as part of the statutory planning process to set out its requirements in relation to the provision of appropriate road safety measures. In most cases, the preplanning consultations would identify issues such road signage or traffic calming measures which the local authority might require to be incorporated into the design and construction of the access roads. Like the Senator, I am surprised this was not done in this instance. In those instances, the Department of Education and Skills would take the requirements of the local authority into account when making the application for planning permission for the project. Similarly, where a local authority conditions certain elements of a road design or additional infrastructure to deal with health and safety concerns or to facilitate pedestrian or cycle access, the Department would, in all instances, comply with such conditions.
In regard to the Senator's concerns about the health and safety of a school community he should advise the school to contact the planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Skills to discuss those concerns. I agree with the Senator that this is also an issue for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. I did try to be more specific in the motion tabled but it can be difficult to have adjournment matters selected if they are too specific. As requested, I will provide the Minister of State with the details and will take up the matter with the building control unit. The Minister of State outlined in her reply the guidelines in regard to what needs to be governed in planning terms in regard to the location of a school. In this instance, the local authority has not done its job properly. It has now an opportunity to rectify this. At the very least, it should give priority to this matter, particularly as what is involved is the safety of children.