Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation

10:30 am

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In 2019, the then Department of Education and Skills entered into an agreement with Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board to provide seven classrooms and ancillary accommodation at Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg in Ennis at an estimated cost of €3 million. The project had been agreed, a design team was put in place and plans were drawn up, the normal procedures for the development of such a school.

I express my appreciation for the work the team in Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg in Ennis has achieved over the years. In 2006, the school was the fastest growing Gaelscoil outside of Dublin with an enrolment of 190 pupils. In 2020, a total of 481 pupils are on the roll. It is a fast developing school and has played into the development of the Irish language in County Clare and the wider area. That has been well recognised with further investment in the Gaelcholáiste in Ennis Community College. The school has provided a seed for the rebirth of the Irish language in the area.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the plans have been drawn up and an agreement is in place, there is no provision for an adequate sports hall and assembly area. That is a major deficit from the perspective of the Department. It would make sense to include a sports hall and assembly area as part of the overall investment. The Minister knows that the economy of scale achieved in doing this type of work when builders are on site far outstrips trying to do work at a later date. A two-stream school needs those kinds of facilities. There is inclement weather in the west of Ireland, similar to the weather in Dublin today. That is a regular feature of life in the west and it would be inappropriate for children not to have the necessary facilities. I appeal to the Minister, notwithstanding the protestations from the Department, to have another look at this project and try to provide the appropriate infrastructure to a school like this. It educates our children and develops the Irish language.

There is a wonderful team in the school, under the principal, Mr. Dónal Ó hAiniféin, and a fantastic board of management which has put a lot of work into this project. Let them get on with their job of running the school, rather than having to continuously deal with the Department and argue over whether a sports hall and general purpose area should be included in the project. They have done so much to get the school to this point. I appeal to the Minister of State to put in place, or add to the agreement that is already in place, provision for a sports hall. It is needed and is important. I hope the Minister of State can advance the case as soon as possible.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Senator Dooley on his appointment to the Seanad and thank him for raising this matter. It allows me to clarify the current position on Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg which, as the Senator said, is a Catholic co-educational school with an emphasis on the Irish language. I understand it has 471 pupils; the Senator said there are 481. Either way, it has a large school population.

I will outline some of the background to this matter. In 2014, the school authority applied to my Department for capital funding under the additional school accommodation scheme. The Department subsequently approved an extension to the existing school building comprising five mainstream classrooms and two special education tuition rooms, on which I commend the school. Delivery of the project was devolved to Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board.

At that time, the school authority was requested to manage its enrolment and not grow beyond the principal and 18 mainstream teachers in line with the approved accommodation. Following the appointment of the design team to the project in 2015, a master plan for the project was submitted to the Department for consideration. It outlined accommodation for a principal and 20 teachers and included a substantial new physical education, PE, and general purpose area, along with ancillary and administrative areas which were not approved as part of the project brief and would not qualify for funding under the terms of the additional school accommodation scheme.

At a meeting with officials from the Department that year, the school authority signalled its intention to reject the devolved funding offer. However, in 2018 a further meeting between officials and the school authority was held and agreement was reached to increase the scope of the project to include two additional mainstream classrooms, in effect raising the long-term projected staffing for the school to one principal and 20 teachers. At that meeting, the matter of a new PE and general purpose area, to which the Senator referred, was also discussed.

My officials once again informed the school authority that the provision of a PE hall did not form part of the additional school accommodation scheme and could not be considered for inclusion in the accommodation brief for the proposed extension. The school authority was advised at that meeting that it was open to it to apply for this accommodation under the major capital programme to be considered in future years. The approved building project is, as the Senator knows, currently in the early stage of the architectural design process.

A stage 1 submission was approved by the Department in April 2020. The school authority had again requested that the brief be amended to include a sports hall and had submitted drawings showing a sports hall included. The position of the Department, from my instructions, remains unchanged and it is not possible to fund a PE hall or general purpose room under the additional school accommodation scheme.

As the Senator will be aware, capital planning and budgeting are undertaken on a multi-annual basis. Under Project Ireland 2040, the education sector will receive approximately €12 billion between 2018 and 2027. This includes €8.8 billion for the school sector and €2.2 billion for higher education infrastructure. 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 has been allocated for investment in 2020.

As the Senator knows, the Department has a large pipeline of projects for delivery under the school building programme. The main elements of the pipeline currently include 372 large-scale projects and approximately 800 projects for delivery under the Department's additional school accommodation scheme, which includes the additional accommodation project for Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. The effort made by the board and principal of the school at the time to get the development that was needed was substantial. The school was working out of temporary accommodation. The only option available to the school was the additional school accommodation scheme, which is what the authority was told. Regardless of what scheme the project fell under, there will be 20 teachers, associated classes and a two-stream school when the structure has been completed.

I know full well what goes on in the Department from having dealt with this issue year after year in respect of other schools. It has a rigid silo approach. That will have to be dismantled a little bit. I know the Minister of State is committed to that kind of work. We will have to tear down some of the silos. Schools have been told that they can only get X if they are in scheme Y. If the project proceeds, there will be 20 teachers and 16 mainstream classes, but no sports hall. That will have a negative impact on the education of the children in the school.

We all recognise that a sports hall will have to be built under some scheme at some stage, which will cost a lot more money. I am hopeful that some of the people in the bowels of the Department can start to think more broadly and outside of the box on schemes they have developed. With the political leadership of the Minister of State, I have no doubt that some consideration will be brought to bear in due course.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. I will bring his comments and contribution to the attention of the MinisteR.We would be ad idemabout having a sports hall in a gaelscoil. We want children to be able to partake in physical exercise but there is certain criteria for certain schemes. In this context, the application for Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Chíosóg for a PE room will be considered under Project Ireland 2040 funding and that is open.

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, for the period 2018 to 2027. I can assure the Senator that it is very important to the Department of Education that all children will be in a position to avail of sports and exercise within school buildings as opposed to just outside.