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Topical Issue Debate - Schools Building Programme

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 765 No. 3

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Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Clifden community school serves a very extensive area of west Connemara, from Maam Cross to Clifden and from Roundstone to Leenane. It is now the only second level school in this area with the closure of Kylemore Abbey school.

In the school catchment area, there are primary schools in Roundstone, Ballyconneely, Aillbrack, Clifden, Cashel, Kingstown, Claddaghduff, Cleggan, Letterfrack, Tully, Eagles Nest, Inishbofin and Lettergesh. Virtually all of these schools saw upgrades in the standard of their accommodation in the term of the Fianna Fáil Governments of recent years through the devolved schemes, the summer works scheme, and the emergency works scheme. This included [278]major works on Cashel, Cleggan, Claddaghduff, Eagles Nest and Inishbofin schools. We had on completion of this programme proceeded to the progression of the building of a replacement building for Clifden community school and had made significant progress on it before leaving office. To be honest, I thought we had brought this project to the point of no return. How wrong could I be in underestimating the anti-rural bias of this Government?

On 7 February, nearly a year after coming into office, the Minister for Education and Skills informed me in a parliamentary reply that:

The major building project at the school referred to by the Deputy is at an advanced stage of architectural planning. The design team are currently working on finalising the stage 2(b) submission (detailed Design and Tender Documents) which will then be forwarded to my Department for review. Thereafter, officials from my Department will be in contact with the Board of Management with regard to the progression of the project.

The Department will shortly publish an outline five year programme on the projects to be constructed in that time. The school building projects currently in architectural planning, including the project at Clifden Community School will be considered in the context of that programme, taking into account the funding available, the building costs involved and the progression of other major projects required to meet demographic needs.

When I got this reply my antennae immediately told me that we were heading for trouble and that the Minister was about to put this file in what the late Monsignor Horan used to refer to as the “MAD file”. The acronym MAD stands for “maximum administrative delay” and means that files are not rejected outright but they never progress either. I alerted the school authorities and the parents organisation, CSI, immediately to inform them of my concerns in the vain hope that the local Government Oireachtas Members could persuade the Minister to include this school in the five year building plan.

When the Minister announced the five year plan, Clifden community school had disappeared off the radar for the next five years. On examining the criteria for selection laid down by the Minister, as outlined in a recent freedom of information request, the priority for new builds of schools are “projects that will provide for significant additional capacity to meet demographic growth.” Amazingly in this prioritisation there is no mention of sub-standard buildings or unsuitable prefabricated buildings, both of which exist in Clifden. In a reply to a question from me on 18 April, the Minister clarified that as far as he is concerned there is no minimum standard laid down for school buildings by his Department. In simple terms, if there is a roof over their heads, the Minister did not even consider the unsuitability of the building or otherwise.

I call on the Minister today to redress a wrong done by him and his Department to this school, its pupils, teachers and parents, and to reverse his unjustifiable decision not to proceed with the building of a new school at Clifden community school. I also call on him to have the common decency to meet a delegation from the school, something he has refused to do and something I and others will continue to pursue through the elected Government Deputies in the area.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Ciarán Cannon): Information on Ciaran Cannon Zoom on Ciaran Cannon I am taking this topical issues debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue relating to Clifden community school, County Galway. I welcome the opportunity it affords me to outline to the Dáil the Government’s strategy for capital investment in major primary and post-primary education [279]projects in the coming five years. It also allows me to clarify the current position of the new school building project for Clifden community school.

The Deputy may find it helpful if I first set out the context within which decisions relating to meeting the accommodation needs of schools must be considered during the coming years. Total enrolment is expected to increase by approximately 70,000 students between now and 2018. This will involve an increase of more than 45,000 pupils at primary level and 25,000 students at post-primary level. Thereafter, enrolment at post-primary level is expected to continue to rise until at least 2024.

On 12 March this year the Minister, Deputy Quinn, announced details of 219 new, major school building projects which will proceed to construction during the next five years as part of a €2 billion capital investment programme. These new projects are in addition to the 56 major school building projects already announced for 2012. The projects announced will account for the bulk of the capital funding available each year from 2012 to 2016. Many of these schools will serve a significant rural hinterland.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív In east Galway.

Deputy Ciarán Cannon: Information on Ciaran Cannon Zoom on Ciaran Cannon To meet the needs of our growing population of school-going children, the Department must establish new schools as well as extending or replacing several existing schools in areas where demographic growth has been identified. The delivery of these new schools, together with extension projects to meet future demand, will be the main focus for the Department’s capital budget for the coming years. The design of the proposed new school building for Clifden community school has been developed based on a long-term projected enrolment of 425 pupils. The current enrolment is a little above 400 pupils and enrolment levels have been relatively stable during recent years. Full planning permission for the new school was granted in February last year. Currently, the school’s design team is working on finalising the stage 2(b) submission, which includes completing the detailed design of the school and the preparation of tender documents. This will be then forwarded to my Department for review.

Given the need to ensure that every child has access to a school place, the delivery of major school projects to meet the demographic demands nationally, as well as demands in Galway, will be the main focus for capital investment in schools in the coming years. The five year programme is focused on meeting these demographic needs. In this context it was not possible to advance all applications for capital funding concurrently. All school building projects, including the project for Clifden community school, will continue to be advanced incrementally over time within the context of the funding available. In light of current competing demands on the Department’s capital budget, however, it is not possible to progress the project at Clifden community school to tender and construction stage at this stage.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Before he became a Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, stated his wish to eliminate prefabricated buildings. The Minister of State is aware, as is the Minister, even more so because he visited the school to announce the leaving certificate results last year, that totally sub-standard prefab buildings are in use in Clifden community school. I put the following questions to the Minister of State and if he cannot give me the answers today perhaps he will get them for me again. Is there an objective building standard which the Department considers unsuitable and which, if met, the building is deemed to be in need of replacement, irrespective of the demographics? The question applies to prefab buildings as well. How many schools are at stage 2(b)? What is the total cost involved in allowing schools that are at stage 2(b), schools that have progressed that far and which have received planning permission, to go to construc[280]tion in the coming five years? Will the Minister of State indicate how many schools are included in the five year plan within a ten mile radius of Athenry, County Galway?

Deputy Ciarán Cannon: Information on Ciaran Cannon Zoom on Ciaran Cannon The Deputy referred to prefab buildings and their replacement. He may recall that recently the Minister, Deputy Quinn, announced funding to the tune of €35 million to begin a prefab building replacement programme throughout the country.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary That was in place already.

Deputy Ciarán Cannon: Information on Ciaran Cannon Zoom on Ciaran Cannon This was the first time such funding was committed and it will help towards eliminating the significant stock of prefab buildings that grew up during the last Government’s tenure.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary No, it was not.

Deputy Ciarán Cannon: Information on Ciaran Cannon Zoom on Ciaran Cannon I undertake to respond to Deputy Ó Cuív directly when I have the detail to hand on the responses sought in terms of the minimum standard of accommodation and other such questions. As Deputy Ó Cuív pointed out earlier, Clifden community school is the only second level school in that area, which has a large geographic footprint. There are some 14 primary schools in the feeder area. The question of whether there are sufficient census data and other school enrolment data to warrant Clifden community school being included on the original five year capital programme is difficult to assess.

The conclusion drawn by the building unit, however, is that the census data and school enrolment numbers for all feeder schools for Clifden community school do not warrant it being on the list at this stage. It is the Minister’s intention that all school building projects, including the project for Clifden community school, will continue to be advanced incrementally over time within the context of the funding available. I thank the Deputy for allowing me the opportunity to address the matter.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív They call it the MAD file.


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