Seanad debates

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Commencement Matter

Schools Building Projects Status

10:30 am

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, to the House.

This Commencement debate follows on one I raised a number of weeks ago about the Holy Family school in Cavan, the building project and the funding requirements in order to get it to move on to stage 2(b). It follows on the response I got that day and the questions raised in regard to demographic need, population growth and how the Department bases its funding allocations on those criteria. I want to highlight the plight of the Holy Family school in Cootehill and to deal more substantively with the particular issue I raised regarding the criteria.

After 15 years and numerous education Ministers, the Holy Family school in Cootehill is still in limbo in respect of the provision of funding for the new accommodation. This is an outstanding school with a committed staff, a supportive board of management and an active parents' association. I have been very impressed on numerous occasions by the commitment of the school's staff and parents. However, the urgent need for a new school is obvious to any visitor to the school who has seen the cramped conditions with which both adults and children must contend. Since the start of this month, the school is at the architectural planning stage, but it is not on the five year programme for investing in infrastructure or jobs package. When I looked at the responses to recent parliamentary questions on school funding, it was on the last status list. The school is currently in the process of moving from stage 2(a) to 2(b) and, hopefully, that process will be completed shortly.

Unfortunately, since I came to this House and since this issue was first raised by me and other representatives, we seem to get the same response and there seems to be no commitment to making funding available for this project. The stock answer we have been getting from the Department is that priority is afforded to where population growth has been identified and that there is a demographic challenge facing the education system. As I am sure the Minister of State is aware, the Holy Family school in Cootehill caters for people with severe and profound learning disabilities, moderate and multiple learning disabilities and for people with autism. Reports forecast that this coming September, the student population is set to increase from 143 to over 155 for the first time ever.

If we look at the growth in the school figures over the past number of years, we see the figures have been steadily rising each year. The school does not want to turn children or parents away when they apply for a place. In terms of planning for a new school, the school has had to change the goalposts repeatedly to keep up with the increased demand for places each year. What needs to happen so that this project can progress to funding stage? What is the definition of "demographic need" and what kind of population growth does the Department consider necessary?

In these circumstances, in particular, parents do not have the luxury of being able to pick and choose where to send their children. The catchment area for this school is beyond just a parish, town or county. The school caters for a number of counties and parents must send their children here to avail of the high standards the teachers and staff there provide. This is a particular demographic with a real and pressing need and, as I said, there is growth in the population that needs to attend this school. The Department and the Minister must consider the need for wheelchairs and other specialised equipment required to be used by pupils in the school. The current space is being used to the maximum and it is unfair on the children that they must endure their cramped environment.The teachers, staff and parents are doing their best but it is now time for the Department to step up. There is no more time for excuses or dragging heels. When the project reaches stage 2B, it needs to be prioritised for funding as matter of urgency. The project meets the criteria concerning population growth and demographics, although perhaps not according to the standard understanding thereof. There is a demographic that needs the school and the population is growing. There is no choice available to parents. They have to send their children to school here. The catchment area for the school is very wide and the school services a number of counties. The demand is increasing every year. The school needs to rebuild and this must not be put on the long finger. I encourage the Department to act on this.

Photo of Ann PhelanAnn Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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I thank the Senator for raising this extremely important matter. I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, who cannot be here this morning. This opportunity allows me to remind the House of the significant challenges facing us in terms of meeting increasing demand for pupil places throughout the country in the coming years in addition to clarifying the position on the matters the Senator has raised.

The Senator will be aware that the country has experienced an unprecedented population increase in recent years. This demographic growth has posed a significant challenge for the provision of school places, and the challenge is set to continue.

The Senator will also be aware that over €2.2 billion in funding is being invested by the Department under its five-year school capital investment plan for the period 2012 to 2016. Over €1.5 billion of this is being allocated for the funding of major schools building projects. The balance is being used for the additional accommodation scheme, the prefab replacement initiative, the emergency works scheme and the acquisition of sites.

The primary focus of the plan is on meeting demographic demands to ensure every child will have access to a physical school place and that our school system is in a position to cope with increasing pupil numbers. The Department continues to review the most up-to-date demographic information to ensure any emerging school accommodation shortfalls are identified and met in a timely manner. In this regard, the Department is currently carrying out a nationwide demographic exercise to determine where school places might be needed from 2017 onwards. On foot of this review, arrangements will be made to provide additional accommodation where this is needed.

Total pupil enrolment in both primary and post-primary schools is expected to grow by around 108,000 additional pupils between 2012 and 2019. This is over 70,000 at primary level and almost 38,000 at post-primary level. The continuous feeding of the significant expansion of primary school pupils from primary to post-primary level will see a shift of pressure for school places to that sector up until 2026, at least. Between 2011 and 2016, some 53 new primary and post-primary schools will have been established to cater for the substantial and continuing demographic surge that commenced in the last decade.

In tandem with this, however, the Department has been able to accord priority to the provision of capital funding to schools for other purposes which I will now outline. Under the Department's prefab replacement initiatives for 2012 and 2013, approval was given to 217 schools - 209 primary and eight post-primary - nationwide to replace 614 prefab units with permanent accommodation. That was welcomed by teachers and the whole school community. In excess of €57 million has been allocated for these initiatives, of which €46.5 million has been paid to date. Of the 217 projects approved, 168 projects have been completed and a further 14 projects are on site. In addition to the prefab replacement initiatives and as part of the Department's large-scale schools building programme, prefab accommodation continues to be replaced with permanent structures on an ongoing basis. This is to be welcomed very much. It is open to schools to submit applications for funding under the Department's additional accommodation scheme to meet an immediate accommodation requirement because of increased enrolments and where an additional teacher is being appointed.

Another important investment is the summer works scheme. The Senator will be aware of the announcement in March 2014 of almost €72 million for school improvements under the first round of the summer works scheme for 2014. Earlier this year, the Minister announced a further €36 million investment in the final part of the scheme, representing a total allocation of almost €108 million in the 2014-15 period. The purpose of the summer works scheme is to devolve funding to individual school authorities to undertake small-scale building works that can be carried out mainly during the summer months. Furthermore, the payment of the minor works grant for the period 2014 to 2015 of €28 million last December facilitates primary schools in prioritising capital works they wish to undertake to the structure and site. For the first time last December, the issue of the minor works grant was extended to primary schools with provisional recognition.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I have two comments on the Minister of State's contribution that I would like her to relate to the Minister. The Minister of State said, "The primary focus of the plan is on meeting demographic demands to ensure every child will have access to a physical school place". Anyone who has visited the two campuses of Holy Family School in Cootehill will see the physical school space there is very cramped. As I mentioned in my contribution, with the addition of wheelchairs and specialised equipment, access to the physical school place is becoming very difficult. Every available space is being used. When I state the school is using every nook and cranny, I mean it and am not exaggerating.

Second, the Minister of State mentioned a demographic exercise to determine where school places might be needed. I hope this takes into account the special status of the school and those children with special needs for whom the school provides. Places are needed and the number increases every year but, unfortunately, the space is not getting any bigger. There is real demand.

I thank the Minister of State for responding on behalf of her colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, to whom I ask that my views be relayed. I will probably keep raising this issue on the Commencement debate in one guise or another because I want to keep it on the agenda.

Photo of Ann PhelanAnn Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Of necessity, the delivery of new schools, together with extension projects, to meet future demand has been and will continue to be the main focus of the Department's capital budget for the coming years. The Department's overriding objective is to ensure every child will have access to a physical school place nationally. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the position to the House. I will relay her concerns to the Minister.

Sitting suspended at 10.50 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.