Seanad debates

Friday, 6 November 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Schools Building Projects

9:30 am

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is welcome and I thank her for being here. I rise to raise with her the important topic of St. Mary's Special School in Navan. It has a requirement for a new building. A promise was made to provide one. It has been in existence for 43 years in Johnstown in Navan. The school has had a long-running battle to acquire this purpose-built building to educate the near 100 children who attend there from all across Meath and different counties. These children face the greatest challenges in life and have to rise early in the morning to ensure they are transported to their place of education. They were overjoyed in 2011, nine years ago, when the school was at last sanctioned for a purpose-built building to meet the needs of the pupils. Nine long years later they are still in temporary accommodation.

What makes this worse is that St. Mary's Special School was to be part of a three-school educational campus in Johnstown. It was an ambitious plan by the Department and a welcome one. What is annoying is that the other two components of that educational campus, the primary school and the secondary school, accommodate 1,000 students each. They flew through the planning, approval and architectural processes in the Department in Tullamore. They are built and open, thank God. What does it say that, nine years later, the most urgent component of the campus, St. Mary's Special School, is nowhere on the radar of the Department? Those students are being left behind.

A year and a half ago in March 2019 I stood on this spot to raise this particular issue with the then Minister of State, Jim Daly. It is frustrating that, a year and a half on, we are no nearer completion. The Minister of State at the time, Mr. Daly, referred to how it was part of the Department's six-year capital programme from 2015-21. Even at that, we should be welcoming the opening of the school next year but we are nowhere near there.

Let us roll back two years ago to 2018. The then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, led a troop of Ministers to the site. He met students and there were colourful pictures on the front page of the newspaper - fair play to the Meath Chronicle - and calls to build the school immediately. They have been listening to this for nine years. Yet, two years on from that visit there is still no movement on this particular project.

The parents of the children there now know their children will never see or realise the dream of being educated in the new facility. Hundreds of children, unfortunately, have gone on during the past nine years. They have been unable to enjoy a proper educational facility. I think of the many children over 43 years of the existence of this school. They are angry. They do not believe what is said anymore. They are looking for hope. Their children might not get the opportunity to enjoy this facility.

I hope the Department will not toy with the emotions - I am directing this to the officials - of the people involved anymore. They have had enough of that. They are looking for a clear pathway with a timeframe on when this will be delivered.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Cassells for raising this issue. I understand his frustration. I have heard him raise this issues on many occasions previously. I hope I will be able to give a little clarity on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, who is unavailable and unable to be here this morning. I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position relating to the major building project for St. Mary's Special School in Navan, County Meath. The new school, when complete, will be part of a shared campus with Coláiste na Mí and the already completed St. Stephen's National School.

The project will deliver the phase 2 completion for Coláiste na Mí and a new 11-classroom special school building for St. Mary's with associated ancillary accommodation to cater for pupils with a range of learning disabilities. Senator Cassells referred to the almost 100 children we are talking about.

In December 2018, the project completed stage 2(a), developed design, and was subsequently authorised to proceed to stage 2(b), detailed design, which normally includes the applications for planning permission, a fire certificate and a disability access certificate as well as the preparation of tender documents. Planning permission for this particular project was sought earlier than usual in the architectural planning process during stage 2(a) as a means to identify any potential planning issues which might arise.

Earlier this year, the Department reviewed and approved a brief change request relating to traffic management and this has now been incorporated by the design team into the tender documentation. In June 2020 the Department received further brief change requests and the stage 2(b) submission for this project. The review of the stage 2(b) tender documentation is currently nearing completion. When this review is complete, the project will be progressed to tender and construction stages.

In order to expedite the progression of this major building project, the Department has authorised the school and its design team to commence the pre-qualification process to select a shortlist of contractors while the Department is reviewing the stage 2(b) submission. The design team submitted a draft pre-qualification report to the Department last week and the Department has this week authorised the design team to complete the pre-qualification process. Subject to the review of the stage 2(b) submission, no issues arising and completion of the pre-qualification process, the Department of Education, on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, will contact Louth and Meath Education and Training Board and the board of management of St. Mary's Special School with regard to the further progression of the project to tender and construction stages.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for the response. I am sure that she can understand my frustration when one looks at the detail in the reply from the Department and the painstakingly slow progress that it has taken in respect of this matter, including the referenced to the move to phase 2 of the secondary school that is on the campus for Coláiste na Mí. Meanwhile,43 years later these children are still in temporary school accommodation and many thousands of them have passed through.

I welcome the advancement whereby the design team submitted its report to the Department last week. However, I will not let up on my pressure on the Department. I will liaise with the Minister of State because through her portfolio she has a particular interest in this issue, and with the Minister for Education to make sure that this project receives priority, as promised, and is delivered in the coming year and that we are not back here in a year awaiting an update from officials.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has articulated the position clearly and passionately. I understand his frustration and that of the hundreds of children, their parents and guardians on a daily basis, especially as other schools on the campus have been completed. I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister and speak to her about it.

I reiterate that to expedite the progression of this major building project, the Department authorised the school and its design team to commence the pre-qualification process. Unfortunately, it is a slow process, which I know having been involved in many building projects. I have no doubt that the Senator's commitment and drive, and I am happy to meet him at any time. As the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, I am aware that school accommodation has a knock-on effect on children and parents alike.