Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Commencement Matters

Schools Building Projects Expenditure

10:30 am

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 and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Damien English, to the House.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. On 30 September 2015, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, was in this House to speak on the budget. On health, education and social protection he said, "Our commitment to our citizens in these areas requires that we consider these trends into the future and make plans accordingly." Later in his speech, on the education brief, he spoke of, "our prioritisation of special education needs".

Last week, the Government announced €3.8 billion in capital funding for education. The document "Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021" notes on this funding that, "The key objective of this investment is to meet the demographic demand for school places, which will impact on the primary and post primary school sector during the period of the Plan and feed through to the further education and third level sectors thereafter." The purpose of this capital allocation under this plan at primary level is to fund the delivery of a further 19,000 primary school places required by 2018.

From previous Commencement matters that I have raised, I am acutely aware that in terms of funding allocation priority is afforded to where "population growth has been identified and that there is a demographic challenge facing the education system".Over the past couple of months I have repeatedly raised in this House, including as recent as last week, the 24% increase over the past five years in enrolment at the Holy Family school in Cootehill, County Cavan. The school is not included in the five-year construction plan announced in 2012. All going well in terms of progression of this project to the conclusion of Stage 2B, detailed design, including completion of the tender documents, will this school be allocated funding for the provision of new accommodation? I am aware that increasing demographic demand is a consideration in terms of funding allocation but there is a real and pressing need for new accommodation at this school given, as I said, enrolments there have increased by 24% over the past five years. The parents of children attending this school do not have the luxury of being able to pick and choose where their children go to school. As I have repeatedly stated, the catchment area stretches beyond the town and village to the county boundaries. As such, there is a demographic need for provision of this new accommodation. Taking into account the need for wheelchair and other specialised equipment in the school, increasing enrolments and the fact that current space is being utilised to maximum capacity, it would be impossible for anybody to deny that in providing funding for this project we would be addressing the challenge facing the education system.

What are the priorities of the new capital investment programme? Will projects outside the five-year construction plan be allocated funding under the new capital investment programme and, if so, what criteria will apply in respect of eligibility for that funding?

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Reilly for raising this issue, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy O'Sullivan, who cannot be here today.

In responding to the issue raised by the Senator I take this opportunity to remind the House of the significant challenges with which we are faced in terms of meeting increasing demand for pupil places throughout the country in the coming years and to clarify the position in relation to the Department's priority for school infrastructure from 2016-2021.

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 across all needs. This challenge is set to continue. The demographic projections show that enrolment at primary level will continue to increase substantially until at least 2019. Primary school enrolments, which stood at 509,652 in July 2011, are expected to increase to 570,000 by 2018, which equates to an increase in enrolments of over 64,000 since July 2011. Post-primary school enrolments, which stood at 317,432 in July 2011, are expected to increase to 385,000 by 2022, which equates to an increase in enrolments of some 68,000 since July 2011. The demand for additional school places in the post primary sector will continue to increase until at least 2025 when enrolment figures are expected to reach in excess of 400,000.

In reviewing the need for additional school places, the approach taken by the Department is to identify the need for additional school places and then to examine the capacity of existing schools in the area to cater for the overall level of demand. Decisions are then taken in relation to the need or otherwise for an additional school or the need to expand existing schools. The Department is in the process of concluding an exercise to determine where additional school accommodation will be needed from 2017 onwards. The demographic exercise encompassed all areas of the country.

The Senator will also be aware that significant capital funding will be invested in our education system through the Government's €27 billion capital programme announced on 29 September last. Over the next six years, some €3.8 billion in direct funding will be invested in education projects. By comparison, the initial allocation under the previous five-year capital programme was €2.2 billion. This means there has been a significant increase in funding to match demand. This level of allocation allows the Department of Education and Skills to deliver some 19,000 additional permanent primary school places, required by 2019 and 43,000 additional post primary school places required by 2022.

The six-year plan prioritises new building projects as well as major extensions in areas where significant demographic need has been established, including special schools, which will provide for significant additional capacity to meet demographic growth. The plan also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms for schools outside the plan where an immediate enrolment need such as the appointment of an additional teacher has been identified. It also prioritises projects that have a major deficit of mainstream accommodation capacity in respect of current enrolments, require major refurbishment and replacement of poor accommodation and which will also provide additional accommodation to meet increases in enrolments. In addition, the plan includes funding to replace prefabs with permanent accommodation.

I am not in a position to give the Senator an answer today in regard to the particular school project she raised. However, she will appreciate all of these issues are being examined and properly analysed, following which decisions will be made based on evidence and facts. Most people would agree that the resources available under the five-year construction plan, which does not expire until end 2016, will be utilised to address demographic demands. The school project referenced by the Senator will be examined in that context. I reiterate that provision is made in the plan for special education needs demand.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response and welcome the clarity provided therein. I welcome in particular that the approach taken by the Department is to identify the need for additional school places and then to examine the capacity of existing schools in the area to cater for the overall level of demand. I welcome also the Minister of State's clarification that the plan will prioritise new building projects and extensions in areas where specific demographic demand has been established, including special schools.

On each occasion this issue has been raised evidence of increased demographic demand has been provided. Only last week, the Minister advised that such is the demographic need and demand an application for five additional classrooms has been added to the current plan. I welcome the Minister of State's clarity on this issue and ask that he relay to the Department the need for prioritisation of funding under the new plan for the Holy Family school project.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I will relay the Senator's concerns in relation to the school mentioned. The overriding objective of the plan is to ensure that every child has access to a physical school place, including, where possible, through the replacement of poor accommodation. The areas in respect of which demographic demand has been identified are the areas on which we need to concentrate.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to the House.