Tuesday, 20 February 2018
I welcome the Minister. An uncompleted school in County Carlow was promised facilities over ten years ago, but it is still waiting. Those involved in the school in Bagenalstown feel very let down by the Department of Education and Skills, especially in the light of all the promises made in the national planning framework on its release last week. In 2006 Presentation De La Salle in Bagenalstown was promised funding for a PE hall. The Government has been in power for seven years, but the school still has no PE classroom for nearly 700 students. It is the only school in County Carlow without this vital room. An outdoor general purpose area is being used for PE classes, but it is unsuitable when it rains and the students cannot exercise. There has been a lot of talk recently about rising obesity levels and how each young adult needs 30 minutes of exercise each day, but the students feel salt is being rubbed into their wounds because on a rainy or freezing winter's day they cannot go outside and have the recommended amount of exercise they are told they need for their health. The best time to use the general purpose area is in the summer, but the school is closed then. On any one day in this excellent school more than 11 prefab rooms are in use to ensure students are provided with an education. The staff and management are doing their level best, but they are really feeling the pinch. How can we say we value a child's education if we fail to provide proper facilities to inspire learning?
The school is included in a building programme for the period 2019 to 2021, but it has not heard anything about the appointment of a design team or plans. Student numbers have risen from 350 in 2009 to 692 today, with further projected increases to 720 in 2018-19 and 745 in 2019-20. Where will the school put the extra students? The conditions in which the staff and students find themselves are demoralising. Are there plans to proceed with the project? The Government likes to launch ambitious plans, but it often fails to follow through on them with action. That is clearly evident in the fact that five new schools announced in 2013 have yet to be delivered. Every year since the number has increased. Furthermore, sites have not yet been found for the new schools announced by the Government in its school building plan for 2015. The Minister launched a new programme, but sites have not yet been found for the schools he thinks will be built. How can those involved in one school in Bagenalstown have faith that the promises made will be kept?
Already the schools which were scheduled for completion by the collapsed company Carillion are unfinished or lying idle with no staff. Parents and students are wondering what will happen at Tyndall College in County Carlow. Where does Presentation De La Salle sit in the Minister's ambitious school plans? Will he or someone acting on his behalf meet the board of management and the principal? The school has tried on numerous occasions to have a meeting with him, but it has net been successful and no one from the Department has visited it. What is the position on the school project? Can the Minister understand the urgent need for the PE hall, given that in 2018 the school has over 700 students? It is demoralising. We are very lucky that there are two excellent secondary schools in Bagenalstown, one of which was known as the vocational ETB school and is now called Coláiste Aindriú. The Minister needs to make sure what is in place is fixed for the students in the school.Why is the Minister building new schools when other schools do not have the conditions they should have?
I will give a bit of context to the Senator's question. Since 2011, despite very difficult economic conditions, my Department has built 200 new schools and provided 120,000 new school places. We are providing school places at a rate of 20,000 per year because we are in the fortunate position of having a demographic bulge going through our schools. We are working very hard to meet needs but these needs are growing continuously and we need to plan ahead. The 2016-2021 plan to which the Senator referred, and in which her school is included, anticipates the needs of the future with a rolling programme which develops according to those needs. The Senator referred - rather critically - to having a national framework which looked forward ten years but she should support this process as it allows us to plan for the things that will be needed in the future, like laboratories and PE provision which we simply have not been able to provide on a stand-alone basis in recent years.
I am please to tell the Senator that we have committed to the school in Bagenalstown which she mentioned, and we have committed to include a PE hall in the new build. We will not follow through on the very strict approach there has been to PE halls. Presentation De la Salle is a co-educational school which has had a significant growth in enrolments, from 470 to 691 pupils. We have provided additional accommodation for the school on a temporary basis across a range of needs such as home economics, science and woodwork, but the long-term plan is to construct a new school. A school site visit by my Department's architectural staff has taken place as part of the preparatory work which is required to initiate the architectural planning process for the project. The next step includes devising the schedules of accommodation for the purposes of the schools project brief, and this process is in train. When the schedules have been finalised, my Department will be in further contact with the school authorities and, as I said, pending construction of additional accommodation my Department has provided temporary accommodation to cater for its interim needs.
The fact that a long-term planning process is in place shows that we anticipate the needs of schools, such as the one in Bagenalstown referred to by the Senator, and that we are in a position to plan. Every school would love its needs to be met yesterday but we are managing a tight capital budget at a time of a rapidly growing population and growing pupil numbers. We have to manage it to the best of our ability. I hope the information is of some help to the Senator.
I welcome all the new schools that are being built but I am concerned about the excellent schools we already have but which we are not looking after. There are 700 students with no PE hall and this is unacceptable in 2018. It does not matter what plans the Minister puts in place, our existing schools have to be fit for purpose but some of them are not. That is a major issue but the biggest issue is the lack of communication between the Department and the school, although I welcome the fact it is addressed in the plans. Can the Minister give a commitment to have more meetings with the school and communicate better with the board of management and the principal? The parents do not know what is going on with the Department nor does the principal, which is unacceptable and unfair. I ask the Minister to get in contact with the school to let it know what is happening.I ask that he will liaise with it.
I take the Senator's point but as the reply states "a school site visit by my Department's architectural staff has taken place". The next step is the drawing up of the project brief and there will be further communication with the school.
There is a process in place.
On the wider issue, it is important we try to give a better view of the future for all the projects because when people see a school appearing on the list they tend to think that is an automatic commitment that it will be built-----
-----but that signifies it is entering into a planning phase at that stage and there is a process that follows that. We can communicate better; the Senator made a fair point in that respect. Efforts will be put in place to try to manage that better and in that way people would have a clearer view of the path ahead.
This is an important project for the school. On the Senator's point about whether we are neglecting matters, a fair balance has been struck. Of the roughly 120,000 new places, a little more than half of them have been in new schools and the rest have been in existing schools, either by way of expansions or refurbishments. There is not an emphasis just solely on the new growth areas to the exclusion of others. There is a balance in the approach taken by the Department to ensure all needs are accommodated. Apart from these major programmes, there are other programmes that try to support existing schools.
A positive aspect is that we can look forward in the future to growing provision to meet the needs in areas such as digital science, physical education and so on, which I believe most Senators would agree are areas for which we need to be planning.