Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Schools Refurbishment

10:30 am

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House this morning and I thank him for taking the time to be here. St. Aidan's comprehensive school, Cootehill, is a stand-alone, post-primary school built in 1996. That school has had no refurbishment to the fabric of the building since that date, apart from some works that were done on foot of a health and safety audit, when some works were done as a result, including the upgrading of the heating system, the addressing of some lighting issues and roof repairs.

St. Aidan's is a progressive school. There are currently 506 students attending with a teaching staff of over 40 and ancillary staff of ten. Student numbers have increased and, thankfully, are increasing, with an extra class in first year this year and a further additional first year class projected for next year. It is worth noting that it is the only post-primary school located in the town of Cootehill.

An application was made to the Department of Education and Skills in 1998, updated in 2014, and again in 2019. Unfortunately, nothing has been forthcoming to date. The application includes a gym and a socialisation area for students to have a place to sit, eat and relax during breaks. Currently, students are sitting on the floor to eat their lunch, which is totally unacceptable. The application includes an upgrade of practical rooms, including two woodwork rooms, one art room and one engineering room to meet current health and safety standards. It also includes an upgrade of the inefficient heating system and an upgrade to the facade of the building to deal with serious leaks, moulds, brickwork deterioration and lack of insulation. Fire doors are required in all classrooms and offices need to meet current fire and health and safety regulations.

Contact has continued through the years with the Department's building unit and architects have been engaged to draw up a detailed plan and costings in line with the Department's regulations. Due to their frustration at the lack of movement on this issue, parents have formed an action group to lobby for the delivery of this project and have sought the services of the building unit of Cavan and Monaghan education and training board, ETB. The board is providing much-needed support and advice on the application.

Practical rooms are in serious need of upgrade to meet the Department's own technical health and safety guidelines. As I said earlier, students deserve a place to sit, eat and socialise. A fit-for-purpose socialisation area is required because, as I said, children currently have to sit on the floor to eat their lunches.

At a time when Departments are rightly concerned with health and safety, being active, mental health and well-being and at a time that the Department is introducing physical education, PE, as a leaving certificate subject, St. Aidan's has no gymnasium. The school has a strong sporting tradition with many staff coaching teams after school. However, if it rains, teams cannot play. With increased numbers seeking to use the school hall for PE at the same time, some of the group are forced to go to a classroom to study as there is no space for them.

St. Aidan's is a school that has embraced well-being, creating awareness of the need for a healthy lifestyle and encouraging active participation by all, especially girls, yet their PE classes frequently have to take place behind desks in a classroom. As an inclusive school, St. Aidan's opens up its facilities, such as they are, to the local community and many groups, including the Holy Family school, with which I am sure the Minister of State is familiar from his visit to the area, use the facilities on a weekly basis. Local football teams and organisations frequently have to use the school facilities in the evenings. Proper gym facilities are needed to develop even stronger links with the clubs and local groups in the community. The town of Cootehill has no indoor facility and this would be a significant contribution to the resources that are available to the people of Cootehill, which is located in a disadvantaged area.

The school does not close its facilities at 4 p.m. It opens its doors 24-7 to the entire community and the community at large would benefit if the funding was allocated so that they can upgrade their building to a decent standard. It is clearly a progressive and fast-moving school with many more students hoping to enrol. Very little investment, if any, has been given to the school since it was built back in the early 1990s. I had the pleasure of visiting the school last week and I was hugely impressed by the principal, Mary Ann Smith, the staff and the students. The staff are totally dedicated to their students and their working conditions are an insult to them as professionals and, indeed, to the students who have to put up with them. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could bring back the message to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, that serious consideration should be given to providing much-needed funding for this school.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue as it gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the plans of the Department of Education and Skills for upgrading school buildings including St. Aidan's comprehensive school, Cootehill, County Cavan. St Aidan's is a co-educational comprehensive school under Catholic patronage. There are currently 493 pupils enrolled in the school. I know, from what the Senator has said, that it is an inclusive and progressive school that deserves our support.

The Department's planning and building unit received an application from St Aidan's seeking funding for a new PE hall, socialisation space and extension to woodwork construction room and this application is being considered. The immediate priority of the Department is providing 20,000 new and replacement school places each year to ensure that every child has a school place. As the Senator is aware, the Department will be investing €8.4 billion in school buildings over the lifetime of Project Ireland 2040. This investment will see a 70% increase in the school building budget which will be targeted at delivering on the twin objectives of catering for the continued increase in demographics and a greater focus on refurbishment and upgrade of existing school stock.

The Government remains committed to delivering on existing projects on the school building programme. Project Ireland 2040 provides the investment necessary to implement the commitments in the Action Plan for Education to reform and modernise the school curriculum by committing to a PE hall build and modernisation programme, starting in the second half of the Project Ireland 2040 period, that ensures that students in all post-primary schools have access to state-of-the-art facilities to support PE provision, particularly in the context of the roll-out of PE as a leaving certificate subject.

During 2018 and 2019, the capital budget is facilitating extensions and new schools being delivered as part of the roll-out of Project Ireland 2040, which involved overall construction activity during 2018 and 2019 of approximately 130 large-scale projects ranging in value from €1 million to projects in excess of €20 million.There was also in excess of 280 projects with a project value of less than €1 million at construction during this period. All of these projects are expected to deliver more than 40,000 permanent, additional and replacement school places and replace about 600 prefabs. This will make significant progress in terms of providing modern, energy efficient school facilities and the replacement of temporary accommodation.

In addition, in April 2018 the Department of Education and Skills announced that 42 new schools would be established between 2019 and 2022 in areas of population growth. The focus in 2019 is on start-up interim accommodation for the 19 schools opening in September 2019.

I can also confirm to the Senator that the Department is in receipt of an application from the school for the summer works scheme 2020 onwards for category 9, fabric defects. Commensurate with the level of funding available for the summer works scheme 2020 onwards, all applications will be assessed on a top-down basis in accordance with the prioritisation criteria outlined in the governing circular letter for the scheme. The circular letter is available on the Department's website .The Minister for Education and Skills intends to publish a list of successful applicants in quarter 4, 2019, for works to be carried out in summer 2020. I will convey the requests made by the Senator concerning St. Aidan's school to the Minister.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response and I would be grateful if he corresponded with the Minister on this issue. As the Minister of State can see from my presentation, there has been little or no investment in the school since it was constructed in 1998. Therefore, it is past time that the school was considered for funding. I request that serious consideration is given to the school. It has waited too long for assistance and the children of Cootehill and the surrounding area deserve facilities as good as elsewhere in the country. I ask the Minister of State to convey my serious concerns about the school to the Minister at the first available opportunity and ask him to consider the school's application for funding.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I take the point made about little or no investment being made in the school since 1998. Schools like St. Aidan's need extra things to facilitate their students. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the position of the Department of Education and Skills to the House. I understand that the application from St. Aidan's is under review and the Department will be in contact with the school shortly. I know, having listened to what he said, that St. Aidan's is a great, inclusive and progressive school. These are the kinds of schools that we should support.

Sitting suspended at 11.13 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.