Tuesday, 8 December 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Pyrite Remediation Programme
The need for the Minister for Education to make a statement on pyrite remediation works at St. Patrick’s National School in Diswellstown, Dublin 15. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is taking all the Commencement matters today.
I welcome the Minister of State. More than 40 families living in the Carpenterstown area of Dublin 15, including some with older siblings already at St Patrick's National School in Diswellstown, found out last week that their children will not be starting in the school in September 2021. Many of the disappointed families live very close by and obviously have not been offered a place because it is oversubscribed. I have two children aged six and eight. If I were told that my younger child could not go to school with their older sibling, I would be devastated.
This is as a result of the new admissions policy the archdiocese imposed on the school where the date of birth must be taken into consideration for children with siblings already in the school and children living in the parish.This has resulted in the school only being in a position to offer places to children born on or before 18 November 2016, which is really early. This leaves a number of children who have siblings already in the school and who will be nearly five in September 2021 without a place in the school. In fact, they do not have a place in any primary school because their parents believed they would be prioritised as the family is already part of the school community. In addition, these children are not eligible for a third year of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, so they are in a very difficult position. Does the Department have a plan as to where these children will go in September 2021? The school's sister school, St. Mochta's National School in Clonsilla, is also oversubscribed.
Two new estates were built in the area in recent years. Out of a total of 120 available spaces, 50 were taken by children from these new estates. Was this development monitored by the Department, perhaps through child benefit or ECCE grants paid? There will be more development in this area. The school was built as a three-stream school but, in the last three years, it has taken four despite a chronic lack of space. This time last year, the Department and the school came to an agreement that the school would allow for four streams on the condition that the Department would purchase the neighbouring field and expand the school. There has been no progress on this to date. In fact, the people who own the field have said that, since there has not been any progress, the licence the school has to use it for play space might be revoked. The purchase of the field is now extremely urgent. It would be great to get an update in that regard.
Capacity is not the only issue facing the school. It has also experienced serious pyrite issues since opening. Fixing this issue is an ongoing process which is resulting in hefty costs for both the Department and the school itself in terms of the time and effort involved and the constant health and safety checks. The school also tells me that an average of two children in every class have complex needs. The pupil-teacher ratio is 28:1 but the school is taking in more pupils as a result of the capacity issues in the area, for which it does not have the resources.
Despite the pyrite issue, the health and safety works, the expansion issues, the admissions challenges and space restrictions, it is a wonderful school to which people want their kids to go. It is a fantastic school in the community. Can we please get an update on the field? It is urgent. The Department had committed to the expansion of the school. Is that even enough now to deal with the number of kids who need school places? I also highlight the school's need for support within the new special education model.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I will outline to the Seanad the current position in respect of pyrite remediation at St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown, Dublin 15, and the purchase of the adjacent field to accommodate remediation works and expansion of the school.
St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown was constructed under a design-and-build contract with the Department of Education as the direct employer. As the Senator will know, the school was completed in 2006. In March 2010 the Department engaged a firm of structural engineers with specialist expertise to report on the presence of pyrite in the building. The engineers' report confirmed the presence of pyrite and recommended total removal of the hardcore infill from all areas of the building and surrounding external areas to achieve a permanent remediation.
The Department sought legal advice as to how to proceed with the remedial works and how to take a legal case, if required. Following advice from the Chief State Solicitor's office, a number of steps have been undertaken. In January 2012 the Department requested that the Chief State Solicitor's office initiate legal proceedings against the main contractor and the infill sub-contractor supplier immediately. Plenary summonses issued against both in March 2013. In early 2014 the Department engaged a design team to scope the extent of the works necessary to remove the pyrite at St. Patrick's. Planning permission was also obtained for the temporary accommodation that would be required for the school to decant on a phased basis while remedial works were being undertaken. In early 2014 the Department commenced the process of tendering for contractors to carry out the remediation works on the school. However, one of the companies that expressed an interest in carrying out the work was the original contractor on the project.Following consultation with the Chief State Solicitor's office, it became clear that it would not be feasible to invite tenders from a contractor, against which the Department was also pursuing a legal action. As a result, the project did not proceed to tender at that time. Also in 2014, progression of the Department's legal case became dependent upon another legal case involving the infill subcontractor. In early 2015, the Supreme Court referred matters relating to this other case to the European Court of Justice. This effectively suspended the legal action against the two contractors involved on St. Patrick's National School. The matter was resolved in 2019 with a referral back to the Supreme Court and the Chief State Solicitor's office advised that the Department's legal case could proceed. A meeting between officials from the office and the Department took place in July 2019. The Chief State Solicitor's office recommended going to mediation with the contractor in an attempt to reach an agreed settlement. This resulted in an exchange of legal correspondence between the parties. A meeting was held between the Department officials and the Chief State Solicitor's office on 17 November 2020, where it was agreed that the mediation process should proceed. The Chief State Solicitor's office advises that mediation can be speedy and flexible but requires co-operation from all parties. If this is proving difficult to achieve, the Department will instruct the Chief State Solicitor's office to set the case down for trial and will again consider progressing the remediation works in parallel with the legal proceedings.
In regard to the proposed purchase of the field adjacent to the site, officials in the Department are working closely with officials from Fingal County Council under the memorandum of understanding on the acquisition of the adjacent field to accommodate remediation works and the expansion of St. Patrick's National School in Diswellstown. I can confirm that discussions are ongoing with the landowner with a view to acquiring this site. Due to commercial sensitivities relating to site acquisitions generally, I am not in a position to provide further details at this time.
I confirm to the Senator that the Department is working closely with the Chief State Solicitor's office with a view to getting the legal situation sorted out in order to get the pyrite problem at the school rectified as quickly as possible.
I thank the Minister of State for the update but it was not the one I was hoping for. The school faces very real challenges, as do the families, and a commitment was given by the Department a year ago that a field would be bought. Now the people who own the field are saying they are going to revoke the licence. We need the field to extend the school. The area needs additional primary school places and we are seeing the acute impact it is having on families with children who cannot go to school with their siblings. I bring this back to the school. I underline the urgency of the situation to the Minister of State.