Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Schools Building Projects
I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to take this Commencement matter. We are very fortunate that she announced we would have approval for a third new second level school in Gorey. I know from engaging with her that she took an interest in this issue. Educate Together became the patron body for the school. We are now fortunate in Gorey to have three excellent second level schools, Creagh College, Gorey Community School and the new Educate Together school, under a great team led by principal, Conor Berry. I was fortunate to have visited the school. It has a student council up and running, even though it is only in its first year. It has a very active school community.
As the Minister knows, the difficulty is that the school is located in a temporary site in Creagh in Gorey. That means the current students are disadvantaged in that they have no, or very limited, access to practical classes. In science, technology and home economics the students are not getting the full experience they should get. This was accepted when the school year began in September. It was known that the school would be located in a temporary site, but commitments were given that this issue would be addressed.
I am happy to say that there is a strong demand for places in the school. We are fortunate to have a young and vibrant community, and there is significant demand for school places. It is a very good school, but it is unfair on the students concerned that they do not have access to practical spaces and that there is a lack of certainty around the location of the school site. Wexford County Council, local public representatives and anybody living locally who wants to help the Department would, as the Minister knows, be more than happy to do so. It is a question of urgency as to where the site will be. We need a permanent second level Educate Together school to be constructed. It is to be hoped that by next September the students will know will exactly where they are going.
I thank the Senator and acknowledge his very positive and proactive engagement regarding all issues in the education sector in his constituency. He has been particularly vocal regarding this matter. I acknowledge his positive engagement and interaction with me. He is personally invested in seeing this advance.
I appreciate having the opportunity to update the Senator on where we are at in this point in time. The site acquisition process has been progressed in respect of the requirement in question and in line with standard acquisition protocols, as the Senator will appreciate. The Department is liaising closely with Wexford County Council under the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of school sites, with a view to securing a suitable site for Gorey Educate Together Secondary School. The Department has engaged the services of a site acquisition manager in order to shortlist potential sites.
Following an extensive site identification and assessment exercise to identify a permanent site location for Gorey Educate Together Secondary School, a number of site options have been identified and investigated by the Department, in conjunction with, as the Senator referenced, officials from Wexford County Council. As part of our standard general procedures following technical assessments of the site options, valuations were carried out on a number of preferred site options.
Negotiations are ongoing with the landowner of one of the preferred options. However, these negotiations have proven to be protracted to date despite the best efforts of officials in the Department of Education. The Department is now opening negotiations with a landowner of another of the preferred site options. The Senator will appreciate that commercial sensitivities are attached to site acquisitions such as this. Given that negotiations are at a critical point, I am not currently in a position to disclose further information in regard to that. I assure him that the work is ongoing, has priority and will be continue to be prioritised by the Department. Should agreement on the proposed acquisition be reached, the process will advance to the conveyancing stage when draft contracts are prepared and legal due diligence is undertaken in respect of the proposed transaction.
I thank Senator Byrne for giving me the opportunity to address the issue and I assure him that the school authorities will be kept apprised of the situation and informed of a permanent location for the school as soon as it is possible to do so. I again assure him that this is a priority for the Department.
I thank the Minister. I appreciate that there are commercial sensitivities involved and that this involves the expenditure of public money. We have to ensure we get value for money. However, I am concerned about what the Minister described as the protracted nature of some of the negotiations. If one side is not deemed to be suitable or a commercial agreement cannot be reached, other potential sites have been identified. As the Minister said, Wexford County Council and people locally are more than willing to work with the Department to assist in this process.
I am seeking certainty for students, teachers and parents that this matter will be addressed in the coming months. I would not like to move into the new year without agreement having been reached on a site. We owe it to the students and school community to get an answer.
I thank the Senator. I want to articulate my understanding of the dynamism that operates within the school and the provision of excellence in education. I am very impressed that all of the benefits are in place for students in terms of creating a school environment, including the establishment of a student council, to which the Senator referred. I am a great admirer of the operation of school councils in our schools. They are proactive and positive contributors to school communities. I appreciate all that is being done on the ground.The Senator said that when engagements with landowners become protracted, we need to move elsewhere. I confirmed in my answer that a significant number of potential site options were considered as part of the site acquisition analysis. Each of those sites was technically analysed and assessed. The assessment involved considerable technicality and complex work, but the work was done. I acknowledge the role of Wexford County Council. The Senator will appreciate that the work takes time because of the arrangements that have been set for what has to be done.
The original discussions and engagement with the landowner have proven to be protracted, but we have now moved on. That can be reassuring. We have now moved on to engage with another landowner to advance this. I appreciate the urgency with which the Senator views this. I assure her that I view the matter with a similar lens in respect of the urgency and the provision of the accommodation. We will do all that we can to expedite the process as a matter of priority.