Tuesday, 19 June 2018
School Accommodation Provision
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I want to draw his attention to a little school in rural Carlow. Fr. Cullen Memorial school in Tinryland is a digital school of distinction, a fair trade school, a green school, and a school which excels in sports, academia and extracurricular activities. It had an enrolment of 161 students for the past year but the numbers are growing. Fr. Cullen Memorial school has an autistic spectrum disorder unit catering for 12 students. When the school contacted the Department about its desire to have a proper autism spectrum disorder unit it was given sanction for two classrooms, which were listed on the Department's website for intake last year. When the school wrote to the Department asking for help in building sufficient accommodation for this sanction it was asked about renting the local hall or inquiring about a vacant shop across the road. None of these ideas was suitable because a sizeable amount of work was necessary to bring them up to scratch. Meanwhile, the school was offered someone else's Portakabin. Now it has 12 lovely children, four SNAs and two teachers working in hand-me-down Portakabin.The area is too small and the children are stressed out and deserve so much better from the Department of Education and Skills. Following on from an inspection earlier this year, the report states that the school's policies and provision for pupils with additional learning needs should be comprehensively reviewed to ensure more effective programme planning and implementation. The Department has been made aware of the need for more effective implementation yet the school believes it has been left to its own devices. In 2018, a portacabin is not sufficient accommodation. There are no changing facilities and this is a major challenge for a child on the autism spectrum who is non-verbal and has toileting issues. There is no withdrawal space, which is key in the correct education of children in this spectrum. The unsuitable accommodation is putting a massive strain on staff and an unnecessary strain on already struggling families. There is no reason these children should be taught in unsuitable accommodation.
We have to start showing that we mean it when we say all children are equal. It is distressing for young parents and families when their children do not get the support they need. If we aim to look after all children then we need to show it. This is a terrific school with a terrific principal who is doing her very best despite the fact she does not have an office. It is unacceptable that in 2018 this principal does not have an office. This school deserves better. It needs additional accommodation and it should have the opportunity to pitch for it. Enrolment at the school is predicted to increase in September. While the school has the necessary staff to meet this demand it does not have sufficient classrooms to accommodate it. In addition, parking at the school is so tight it is unreal.
Where on the schools building programme list is this project? It is important that the school is granted funding for the provision of these two additional classrooms. The school is creaking at the seams and it needs a little help. We need to know when this urgent accommodation will be provided. It is unacceptable that in 2018 children are still being taught in portacabins. It is not good for them, teachers, families or the school environment. These children are our future. I plead with the Minister to urgently address this issue.
By way of background, over the last number of years we have been running hard to accommodate the additional 100,000 pupils at primary and secondary levels, which is a staggering number of additional school places that we have had to provide. This task has dominated our capital budgets and this has meant that some of the refurbishment and upgrades we would like to be able to do have not been possible. On a positive note, the national development plan provides for €8.8 billion investment in school infrastructure. We plan to start a prefab replacement programme in 2019. Beyond this, we intend to have a deep refurbishment of all schools over ten years old, including energy retrofit. There is a very strong pipeline of investment for the future. We are nearing the end of real pressure on our budgets to in the future being able to do more.
As mentioned by the Senator, in 2017 the school was approved by the NCSE for an ASD unit, for which the school sought commencement in September 2017. In the intervening period, the school was granted temporary accommodation to enable the ASD unit to get off the ground and provide the service needed. Earlier this year, the school submitted an application for capital funding for not only the two ASD classrooms but additional mainstream classrooms which it considers will be required into the future on the basis of the schools projected enrolment. The school has gone beyond the original application in respect of the ASD unit, which the Senator referenced when she said it wanted the opportunity to pitch for additional accommodation to develop the school. Those two issues will be looked at slightly differently within the Department. The ASD unit is clearly necessary accommodation. We always want to move to try to upgrade those facilities. Officials are working closely with the principal and they will be looking at this specific application. A response to the school is imminent and I have been given an assurance that it will be before the end of this school year. While facilities are there and are providing accommodation, we are assessing the application made by the school and we will get back to it as soon as possible.
I thank the Minister. It is good news that the school is a priority. It is an excellent school but it is unsuitable that 12 young students are in a portacabin. It is crucial that an ASD unit is up and running as soon as possible. I know it is a priority and that the Minister will be back to us. I will not leave that door alone until he gives word to the school.
It is not a decision that I make. The inspectorate will look at the accommodation currently available and the merit of the application against the ability to deliver the progress that needs to be delivered. The decision will be made on that fair and equal basis. Senator Murnane O'Connor has to bear in mind that capital funds are still under pressure. We have continued growth at both primary and secondary levels this year, with roughly 10,000 extra students to be accommodated at each level. That is the reality of the present climate. Most countries in Europe would give their right arms to have such strong growth in pupil numbers. It is a sign of a young growing population.