Thursday, 26 October 2017
Schools Building Projects Status
St. Molaga's national school in Balbriggan has 463 pupils. Balbriggan is the fastest growing town in Ireland and it has the youngest population in the State. Since 2000, the school has been accommodated in 16 prefabricated buildings because of its growing population. They were to have been a temporary solution, but 17 years later they are still there. Three extra classrooms are needed now, plus special education rooms. The drop in the pupil-teacher ratio as announced in the budget means that extra classrooms will be needed next year and in the following years. The projected enrolment will increase the need for more classrooms year on year. The feeder school is Sts. Peter and Paul junior school. The pupils there will go to St. Molaga's. They are not just names on a waiting list.
A total of 52% of the pupils are educated in prefabs, and 56% of the teaching staff work in prefabs. Those students and staff are isolated from the main building. They are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. They walk to the main school building in all kinds of weather, which is not satisfactory. They cannot engage in interactive learning because the prefabs are too small for the kids to spread out on the ground. The windows in the prefabs are leaking which creates a fire hazard because there are electrical items plugged in there. It is very unsatisfactory. This school has been on the Department of Education and Skills major building works list for 2019-21 but it has not received any correspondence from the Department. At what stage is the planning process? Where will the building be and when will the first sod be turned? This is needed urgently in St. Molaga's. I would appreciate an update on that.
I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for sharing her time. I raised this issue on the Order of Business yesterday. This situation is intolerable for the children and the teachers. I will not reiterate Senator Clifford-Lee's words which so clearly outlined the problems. Yesterday, I visited the school after I left here. The portacabins or prefabs are in a desperate state. They have been repaired, patched up and repainted numerous times. As Senator Clifford-Lee has pointed out, we know exactly how many people will come from Sts. Peter and Paul junior national school as it is a feeder school for St. Molaga's senior national school. On top of that, there is already a waiting list. Balbriggan is an area that will grow further so we need this school. The building project has been left on the long finger since 2000. The portacabins were erected as temporary structures in anticipation of a new school.
I had a discussion with the school principal, Ms Pauline Costello, yesterday. I learned that the school has contacted the Department of Education and Skills and been informed that despite the fact that the school is on the building list for 2019-21, no imminent action is anticipated. Therefore, no design team will be put in place and there no possibility that planning permission will be sought. I hope that the project will be addressed in a speedy and aggressive fashion.
Yesterday, I stood at the entrance of the school. In one corner of the entrance, which is a drafty area every time the door is opened, two special needs children were being taught by a teacher. The location is utterly unsatisfactory. The other corner of the entrance is supposed to house the quiet area and sensory room. That cannot be provided in such circumstances. There is also an open site with no security.
We welcome the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio and new changes in terms of special needs. All of that is to nought in St. Molaga's national school as it cannot cope with what it has. The school has not got the facilities to deliver the excellence that the teachers are capable of delivering and want to deliver. The teachers want to give our children who are our future the best possible start in life.
The Minister sends his apologies for not being here this morning.
I thank Senators Clifford-Lee and Reilly for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline the current position in terms of the accommodation needs of St. Molaga's national school, Balbriggan, County. Dublin. As both Senators will be aware, St. Molaga's is a co-educational national school that caters for pupils from third to sixth class. The school has a current enrolment complement of 462 pupils and a mainstream staffing complement of 17 mainstream teachers. In addition, the school has seven special education support posts and two special classes approved by the National Council for Special Education that cater for pupils with specific learning disabilities.
As the Senators may be aware, in order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. The Department regularly carries out nationwide demographic exercises at primary and post-primary levels to determine where additional school accommodation is needed.
St. Molaga's national school is located in the Balbriggan school planning area. The area is comprised of 11 primary schools with ten catering for junior infant intake. St. Molaga's national school is a senior school that caters for boys and girls from third to sixth class.
The demographic data for the Balbriggan school planning area, as with other school planning areas nationwide, is constantly kept under ongoing review by the Department that takes into account updated child benefit and enrolment data. It is anticipated that decisions based on these exercises will be announced before year end.
In that regard, the Department's six-year construction programme 2016-21 aims to prioritise new building projects and major extensions, including special schools, in areas where demographic need has been established by the Department. In addition, the construction programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms for schools, including special schools, where an immediate accommodation requirement has been identified, or where an additional teacher has been appointed. In this regard, a project for St. Molaga's national school is included in the Department's construction programme to primarily replace existing temporary accommodation with permanent accommodation. In that regard I understand that the Department is currently preparing a project brief. This process will include consultation with the relevant stakeholders, which includes the school authorities and the school patron, regarding the extent of the accommodation required to meet the needs of the school. The completion of the project will facilitate the project to be progressed into the architectural planning stage, which now includes the appointment of a design team.
I thank both Senators for giving me an opportunity to outline the current position regarding the proposed major school project at St. Molaga's national school. I also confirm the Department's commitment to progressing the project for the school.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Before I start, I wish to acknowledge the presence of Debbie Lynch and Sineád Creamer who are seated in the Gallery. They are parents who have children attending the school and are very involved in this project.
St. Molaga's school has educated generations of children in Balbriggan. The school has built up a great history and culture. It has an excellent reputation and excellent school results. We acknowledge that there have been a lot of new schools built in Balbriggan. However, it is essential that St. Molaga's, which has existed for a long time, is not forgotten in the mix.
The Minister of State has stated that a consultation will begin but did not stipulate a timeline, which is the problem. The people in St. Molaga's need a definite timeline so they can plan and structure activities. His response is unsatisfactory and I would like him to address the actual timeline.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing the debate. I also welcome our guests in the Gallery from St. Molaga's who are parents.
I wish to say three things. One line in the presentation stuck out. It reads: "In that regard I understand that the Department is currently preparing a project brief." That information has not seeped through to the school, which has been given a flat nothing and as recently as a few days ago.
I call on the Minister of State and his Minister to get the building section in the Department to immediately engage with St. Molaga's on the timelines, design and consultation for the project, and to proceed as quickly as possible to the appointment of architects.
Finally, I will bring the following issue up with the Minister at a meeting that I anticipate will happen shortly in the context of other schools in Fingal. St. Molaga's requires urgent action to be taken. We are supposed to be living in a republic of equal opportunity. The children at St. Molaga's are not getting the same opportunity as other children in Balbriggan and elsewhere where new schools have been completed. I congratulate the Government on the school completions. St. Molaga's has been left for far too long. The children and their parents deserve better.
The Department is currently preparing a project brief. To be quite frank, I do not know when the brief will be completed but I have been told that it will be put in place by the year's end.
I can say that officials from the Department contacted the school's principal during the summer months about the project brief for the school, the school's long-term project and projected staffing requirements. I am not sure why that information did not filter through to the Senators.
In the context of increasing staffing at the school, the Department has advised the school that it would be open to dealing with any application for immediate needs.
It is anticipated that the decisions based on the exercises, that I mentioned earlier, and criteria laid down would be in place by the end of the year. The Department has said that the school is included in its construction programme to primarily replace existing classrooms. The Department is in contact with the school. If the Senators need a further update either the Minister or myself will be delighted to do so in the next couple of weeks. My information, having spoken to the officials, is that the school is seen as a priority and the officials have been in contact with the school to deal with such a priority.
The Minister of State has said that the school can submit an application if there is an immediate need. The people concerned do not want a temporary solution. They got a temporary solution 17 years ago and now need a permanent solution.
This debate reminds me of a situation I dealt with in west Cork nearly 20 years ago when I was a Deputy. At the time I was told by a certain Minister that the provision of portacabins and temporary accommodation would never be seen again and they would be done away with. In one situation, a cost-benefit analysis showed that renting 14 portacabins over 12 years almost cost the same as building a new school.
It is economic nonsense. In my position, I cannot say too much. I thank the Minister of State and both Senators for their comments. This issue will come back again in January or February if we do not have progress for the school and for the two Senators in question. I thank the two Senators for sharing time.