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Adjournment Debate. - Schools Refurbishment.

Tuesday, 3 December 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 558 No. 4

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Ms Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright Zoom on Olwyn Enright Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to raise this matter.

We can all recall last April when people in every constituency were angered – I would not say shocked because many people were aware of the state of many of our school buildings – by the results of an INTO survey which showed that the accommodation in some 100 schools was unfit for students and teachers. At that stage the election campaign was under way and we were gearing up for our day out. In every constituency Government candidates made promises about primary schools. People were left with a strong expectation that local schools would be completed. This was not done solely via word of mouth, but also on local radio and in local newspapers throughout the country.

The position today is very different from the expectation created last April and May. At meetings held during the election campaign significant pressure was placed on all candidates. People were told their school was on the list, there was no cause for concern and their local school would be built. Nothing has happened since. The Department's website, to which we have been directed recently instead of receiving detailed replies to parliamentary questions, lists 27 projects as recently completed. We are not told how recently they were completed. It also states that a further 24 projects have gone to tender and 401 projects are at various stages of architectural planning. None of these 401 schools knows when its case will be dealt with or how soon the work will commence. This is a major problem.

In the Estimates much play was made of the fact that extra funding has been provided to appoint more resource teachers. While this is welcome news, resource teachers cannot work unless they have a place in which to work. One cannot overstate the problem we are facing in this regard. On a visit to a school in my constituency last week, I had to jump from the school gate into the school yard because it was so flooded. The children had nowhere to go on their break apart from the school yard. They are neither tall enough nor old enough to do the jump I did.

I asked to be directed to the staff room. On stepping into it, I discovered there was no space for me to stand. Two teachers were seated having lunch and there was another seat for a further teacher, but there was no room for anyone else. This is where the teaches eat their lunches. Some people will have no sympathy for teachers having to take their 30 minute lunch break in those conditions. The room in question is also the work [965] space of the resource and remedial teachers. Students who need to go to resource or remedial teachers are already in a more difficult position than other students and have more to cope with. It is unacceptable that they are being placed in such conditions to get the extra help they need.

We should commend teachers on enduring the conditions in which they work. It is a miracle they remain in their jobs. I would not be able to work in the conditions under which they work. It is not an exaggeration to say some schools are rat infested and damp. Some have cracks in the walls, leaking toilets and corridors filled with coats, books and art equipment. This is illegal and breaches all health and safety regulations. If a fire broke out in one of these schools, I do not know what would happen. The teachers and principals have no choice other than to store things in corridors because there is no other physical space.

We have to decide how we will proceed with schools building. It must be prioritised and we must get value for money. Tubbercurry school, which opened yesterday, is a fine example of a public private partnership. However, the Minister must face the reality that private investors will not want to operate public private partnerships in small, rural, one or two teacher schools. They want a return for their money and will not get it in these types of facility.

Allowing 401 schools to proceed to the architectural planning stage when the reality is that they will be stuck in that stage for time immemorial constitutes a huge waste on the part of the Department. These schools do not know when they will proceed to the next stage. Principals and teachers are wasting their time preparing submissions and meeting and paying architects because the schools will not make progress. This is not acceptable. The building programme must be prioritised and funding allocated because primary school children cannot be allowed to continue to attend school in the current circumstances.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Gallagher): Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher Ba mhaith liom mo buíochas a chur in iúil don Teachta Enright as ucht an cheist seo a ardú ar an athló agus deis a thabhairt dom an méid dul chun cinn atá déanta ó1997 a chur os cómhair an Tí.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the substantial progress that has been made in recent years in the primary schools building area. In 1997 a total of €43.4 million was available for first level capital spending. Expenditure in 2003 will be €172.6 million. As a result of the Government's commitment to funding educational infrastructure, in excess of 120 major capital projects in the primary sector have been recently completed or are under construction at a cost of €187 million. Many of these projects will continue in construction into 2003.

On behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, I want to dispel a misunderstanding that [966] has arisen in relation to the 400 major primary school projects in architectural planning listed in one of today's newspapers. The majority of these projects were never intended to start construction in 2002 and were consequently not included in the 2002 construction programme.

Mr. Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore That is not what they were told before the election.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher Because they are major projects, they have to go through a detailed process of architectural planning which can take a considerable period of time to complete. The financial commitments to be met from building projects already in construction are also an important factor in determining the number of projects that may proceed at any given time. It is the Department's intention to release the projects in architectural planning to construction on a phased basis over a number of years. All applications to the Department for capital funding are subject to a detailed process of prioritisation.

Priority is given to the following broad categories of projects: new schools to cater for substantial increases in enrolments in rapidly developing areas where no other primary school exists; accommodation which is urgently required for children with special needs, such as autism, speech and language disorder, severe and profound mentally handicap etc.; the replacement-refurbishment of very poor buildings, including old prefabricated buildings, an example of which would be a structurally unsound building; and the provision of accommodation which is necessary to facilitate agreed amalgamations.

The primary responsibility for health and safety in school buildings rests with the school management authorities. The Department of Education and Science will assist schools in fulfilling these obligations. In addition to the capital grants made available to schools under the grant scheme for minor works to national school properties amounting to €18 million annually, a further 1,700 grants for national schools have been sanctioned this year amounting to €61 million. About one third of these grants were in respect of health and safety works to school properties. The remaining grants were for temporary accommodation and the purchase of essential furniture and equipment.

The Minister for Education and Science intends to examine the potential for using PPP mechanisms and the concept advanced in An Agreed Programme for Government of a multi-annual programme schools' modernisation fund to be financed through the National Development Finance Agency. The Minister for Education and Science intends publishing his expenditure proposals for primary school buildings in the new year. The Department's website will be updated at regular intervals from that point on.

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