Seanad debates

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

10:30 am

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House today to respond to my questions. My Commencement matter is on Clonturk Community College, a new secondary school in Dublin 11. The school has enjoyed phenomenal success since it was established a short number of years ago, where demand far exceeds supply and there has been a large expansion in the number of places offered by the school year on year. There is a real concern, however, with the accommodation at the school. It has already needed temporary accommodation for this school year and it is seeking temporary accommodation for next year. The key issue is that the school cannot continue to ask the Department for temporary accommodation. We need a clear commitment to have a permanent building for this school provided for the start of 2021.

The crucial matter is that it is extremely costly for the Department of Education to provide temporary accommodation and it is places stress on those involved in the school to be continually worrying about school accommodation. We cannot allow a situation where the school building effectively defines, limits or constrains learning outcomes. I know the school staff are extremely committed to making the existing arrangements work but the school is under significant pressure. We need a clear commitment for a new school building sooner rather than later. I am appealing to the Minister of State to relay to the Department the need to have the school building project completed in a timely and straightforward fashion. I am extremely frustrated with the school buildings section of the Department.

I am dealing with two other schools. Pelletstown Educate Together national school is a new school in a similar situation. It has no certainty about securing a permanent school building and we are told there are delays. I am also dealing with a school in Dublin 1, Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire. We are told the Department is in negotiations to give away part of the school yard to an adjoining building in the city centre for use as a right of way.I wrote to the Minister and the Secretary General of the Department over two weeks ago but have received no reply. There are very distressed parents and a board of management with no clarity on what is happening in the school.

The planning of schools must be done in a far better manner. We cannot set up schools but have no clarity for those schools as to when they will get proper accommodation. I particularly ask in the context of Clonturk Community College that an immediate plan be put in place for the start of 2021 to progress the development and delivery of a new school building.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Sherlock for raising these matters. I am here on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Foley, who could not make this morning's discussion. She apologises for that as there was a clash in her diary with other meetings. I am very happy on her behalf to respond on the matter raised by the Senator relating to Clonturk Community College. I am conscious she raised matters relating to two other schools but I do not have details on those because I did not know they would be raised. I will relay them to the Minister, Deputy Foley. In fairness to the Minister, although the Senator said there was a delay of two weeks in responding to the matter, we recognise the pressure on the Department and how the Minister is on the front line trying to deal with how schools cope with Covid-19. It is a priority but I have no doubt she will respond to the Senator as quickly as possible. I will certainly liaise with the Senator and we will contact the school as well.

We must recognise how busy the Department is. One of the good news stories of the Covid-19 pandemic is how well the education system is responding and how schools are reopening. I compliment everybody involved, including the teaching community, the support staff and parents, as well as the Department and its agencies. They have successfully managed to keep schools open over the past couple of months and will do it in future.

Clonturk Community College is a multi-denominational school under the joint patronage of City of Dublin Education and Training Board and Educate Together. It was established in September 2016 as a "start-up" second level school to meet the needs of a growing population in the area and the demand for a multi-denominational second level school. The school opened with an enrolment of 48 pupils in 2016. In September 2019, the school had an enrolment of 343 pupils. It is envisaged that Clonturk Community College will accommodate 1,000 pupils when at full capacity.

In January 2019, the Department approved a devolved grant for Clonturk Community College for the purchase of a modular building that is now in place. This has provided an additional eight general classrooms, four pastoral offices, three guidance rooms, two special educational needs classes, two computer rooms, one art room, one science laboratory, one general purpose room, one principal's office, one staff room, one staff workroom and all the necessary toilet facilities, changing rooms, circulation, lifts and staircases required. This, together with existing accommodation, provides the school with mainstream classroom capacity to cater for 750 pupils.

While awaiting the delivery of the modular building, interim temporary accommodation consisting of nine rented prefabs was installed and remain on the site. The school authorities have expressed the need to retain these to cater for the current cohort of pupils. Officials from the Department provided the necessary forms to the City of Dublin Education and Training Board in order to assess the need for the retention of these prefabs and any other deficits of specialist accommodation. This documentation was recently received by the Department and it is being assessed.

In addition, the school authority is seeking an increase in specialist accommodation to be on the site for the 2021-22 school year. This application is currently under consideration with a view to catering for the school's long-term needs.

In quantifying the specific requirements for September 2021 and future years, the Department is in the final throes of concluding its nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary level across the 314 school planning areas through a geographical information system. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including child benefit data from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department's own school enrolment databases, as well as local information provided by the school community, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise.

The process has been strengthened this year through three specific initiatives. These include enhanced engagement with local authorities on the information on residential development incorporated in the analysis process and additional engagement with patron bodies and their local knowledge on school place requirements. Education and training boards, diocesan offices and national patron bodies such as Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta and others can be an important source of local knowledge. The process has been strengthen this year through three specific initiatives: enhanced engagement with local authorities in respect of the information on residential development incorporated in the analysis process; additional engagement with patron bodies in respect of their local knowledge on school place requirements, education and training boards, diocesan offices and national patron bodies, such as Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta, etc., can be an important source of local knowledge - this will add to information also provided to the Department by local authorities or individual schools; and, in order to aid the planning system, the Department will also be utilising the information gleaned from schools under the national inventory of school capacity completed by individual schools last year as part of the primary online database, POD, and post-primary online database, P-POD, return processes.

As Senator Sherlock will be aware, capital planning and budgeting is undertaken on a multi-annual basis. Under Project Ireland 2040, the education sector will receive approximately €12 billion over the period 2018 to 2027. This includes €8.8 billion for the school sector and €2.2 billion for higher education infrastructure. A significant amount of money has been provided by this and the previous Government for education and rightly so. The specific allocations in each area are closely monitored and may be adjusted from year to year to take account of project progress and other factors.

Since 2018, in excess of €1.2 billion has been invested in capital infrastructure under the school building programme. A further €725 million is allocated for investment in 2020. The roll-out of Project Ireland 2040 in the school sector has involved overall construction activity during 2018 and 2019 on 139 projects ranging in value from €1 million to in excess of €20 million. There were also 401 projects with a value of less than €1 million in construction during this period. The completion of these 540 projects is expected to deliver more than 40,000 permanent additional and replacement school places and to replace approximately 600 prefabs.

The Department has a large pipeline of projects for delivery under the school building programme. The main elements of this pipeline currently involve 372 large-scale projects and approximately 800 projects for delivery under the Department's additional school accommodation scheme. While good progress continues to be made with the roll-out of projects, the enhanced funding levels envisaged under the national development plan, NDP, will be key to ensuring the successful delivery of the remaining elements of the pipeline of projects during the period of the plan, namely, up to 2027.

Again, I thank Senator Sherlock for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to outline the position on behalf of the Minister. I assure her that the application for capital funding for Clonturk Community College for specialist accommodation is being assessed and the school authorities will be notified of a decision as quickly as possible. The planning system and the method for providing additional accommodation for schools throughout the country has greatly improved in recent years and the Department is very responsive in terms of providing places at both primary and secondary level as quickly as possible when they are needed. We can all see the benefits of that. Sometimes schools begin in temporary accommodation but that is replaced with permanent accommodation very quickly.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. In response, I should point out that Clonturk Community College has proven that it will be a 1,000-student school. There is no question over the future growth of the school or whether it will reach those enrolment figures. Based on its current numbers and the excess of demand over supply of places, it is very clear that this school will meet the 1,000 student capacity mark in a very short period. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Department to provide a date or precise timeline for the completion of the nationwide demographic exercise. The information contained in the response is very useful in terms of how that data is compiled but I would reiterate that the school's view that there is a proven demand for a permanent school building. I take on board what the Minister of State has said about the Department being very responsive in recent years and would point out that in this particular instance, space is not an issue. There is plenty of land on which to develop a school building. I hope the Department will move sooner rather than later in terms of its commitment to deliver a permanent building on that site.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to clarify that the Department's aim is to complete the demographic exercise as soon as possible, although I do not have a precise date. It will feed into the capital spending plans for 2021 and beyond. It will also feed into the review of the NDP, in which education features very strongly. I understand that the aim is to have it ready for next year.It will be involved in that process as well. Having been in that Department for a few years, I know how important that piece of work is because is provides the evidence needed to secure the budget the Department needs to invest in schools in the communities.

I have tracked the commitments made over the years, based on that demographic, and they are delivered on. It is the right way to plan and deliver schools, based on evidence and research. The Senator says the school to which she has referred needs approval for a capacity of 1,000 students. The Department has recognised that and when the school was planned in 2016 it was announced that it would eventually be a 1,000-pupil school when at full capacity. It is nowhere near that at this moment in time. It has just over 343 pupils, with accommodation for 750. I am sure the Department will ensure things are developed in time but it is recognised that it will be a 1,000-pupil school. There is no dispute about that because that is what the Department planned for when it announced the school in the first place.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking those Commencement matters and I thank the Senators for putting forward their questions.

Sitting suspended at 11.51 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.