Dáil Éireann - Volume 623 - 05 July, 2006
Adjournment Debate. - School Accommodation.
Mr. O’Connor Mr. O’Connor
Mr. O’Connor:I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue. I am glad to join my colleague and neighbour, Deputy Crowe, in doing so. I am particularly pleased that the Minister has been good enough to attend to the issue herself at this strange hour. That we are here discussing the issue highlights its importance.
This relates to St. Mark’s schools in the Springfield estate in Tallaght, where I live. They were founded in 1974 and opened by Mr. Richard Burke, the then Fine Gael Minister for Education, on the day Erskine Childers died. These schools have a fine history and have educated young people in the parish during that period, including two of my three sons.
There are currently 440 pupils enrolled in the senior school and 550 in the junior school. The Minister will know those figures, as Deputy Crowe and I have previously raised this matter on  a number of occasions. Over 400 of those young people are what we might term “newcomers” or from the international community.
This debate takes place after South Dublin County Council on Wednesday initiated discussions on the Tallaght area plan report at its Tallaght area committee. I mention this because we have often stated that Tallaght has developed tremendously over the years. Many of the schools in Tallaght have had falling numbers, as the Minister knows and may tell us. That trend is now changing.
Going around Tallaght today one may see politically-motivated posters indicating that a large number of new apartments is being built. This is adding to the burden which the schools are dealing with throughout the Tallaght region, and particularly in St. Mark’s parish and its local schools. It is causing many problems. The principals, who do a tremendous job, must deal with parents on a daily basis who cannot understand why their child cannot be guaranteed a place and are being told they may have to go elsewhere. The difficulty is that parents do not wish to do so. I understand this plight as I hope the Minister does.
Many of these parents have other children in those schools. There is now much pressure on accommodation. Deputy Crowe has recently pointed out, through a Dáil question, the particular accommodation pressures being experienced by the schools. There will be more challenges for the schools next year. The physical education hall and other facilities will have to be used to cater for classes. Teachers and parents have been telling me that this will mean children will have less than 30 minutes of physical education per week. That will cause its own problems.
There has been much talk about two prefabs which are 20 years old and which are clearly not fit to be used. We are asking the Minister to consider the crisis accommodation needs of these schools. They have made it clear to us that six prefabs are required as quickly as possible. If the schools are not able to provide the additional accommodation in September, they will literally be turning children away. The schools have served the community well, with approximately 1,000 pupils. They are now packed to the door and they are under much pressure.
Particular pressures are caused because it has such a large international aspect to its population. I have heard others speak on other constituencies, but in Tallaght it is unique. That population will continue to rise.
I know the Minister has an interest in education in Tallaght and I look forward to welcoming her to Tallaght next Tuesday when she opens the VEC offices. I ask her to give special consideration to this issue and help my local schools.
Mr. Crowe Mr. Crowe
Mr. Crowe:I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording us the opportunity to speak on this  issue. I will begin by describing the location of the school, which is at the edge of a RAPID area. As Deputy O’Connor has stated, its catchment covers an area which contains hundreds of apartments, and people are still moving in at the moment. The area has seen significant changes in recent years, and one in three of the houses in the area is rented.
The school is a microcosm of the community, which has itself been through significant change. Some of the changes have been positive, others have been negative. We have heard much about the new challenges facing Irish society and the education system in particular. We have heard talk of multiculturalism and a plural society, integrating people from different cultures, etc. This process needs extra resources and commitment.
I am asking for a commitment from the Minister to consider the special circumstances of this school. What happens in this school will reflect on the relationships both within the school and without. I am not trying to create a scare, but that is a factor which must be taken into account by the Department.
Approximately 50 countries are represented in the school. Six of the 24 classrooms have been divided. Deputy O’Connor spoke of the two prefabs, but these were closed down by the Health and Safety Authority — not the school — because of their condition. The authority stated that the prefabs were unsafe.
Much money has been spent on the school in recent years, but there is talk of converting the music room into a classroom, not specifically for music. There is also talk of putting a false ceiling in the school. The library has been removed, and pupils are being taught within the library space itself.
Will this case be like the school I mentioned before in Donegal, where children with special needs were being taught in an adult toilet? Will that scenario face the children in this school? Parents have asked us as local representatives to do everything in our power to stress to the Minister over the coming period, before September, that there will be no room in the school for their children.
It has been suggested that these children should go to other schools in the area. The problem for the parents is to get the children to the alternative schools. Many of the parents who have approached me have lived all their life in the area and attended the school themselves. They feel they have some rights, as taxpayers and as people who have been committed to that community all their lives. Is it too much to ask that their kids be allowed go to that school?
There is an accommodation crisis in the school and it will get more difficult as the years go by. Certainly, there is a need for extra classrooms. It will affect not only the junior school but also the senior school because there is a roll-on effect.
 While this is called the Adjournment debate and no doubt the Minister probably has her answer written out in front of her, this matter needs to be looked at seriously. If at all possible, someone should speak not only to the school principal and the board of management but to the people who live in that community and have a role in the future of the school.
There is significant support for these new families. Like everyone, I am worried about the effect that this may have on community relationship in the school. That is not posing threats or anything else, but dealing with the reality of what is there at present.
Ms Hanafin Ms Hanafin
Ms Hanafin:I thank Deputies O’Connor and Crowe for raising this matter on the application by St. Mark’s Junior School for additional accommodation and the position in general on primary provision in the Tallaght area.
I am sure the Deputies will appreciate that in providing educational infrastructure, the Department’s main responsibility is to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all eligible pupils seeking places. This may result in pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice, but ensures that at all times the use of existing publicly-funded accommodation is maximised. This approach also ensures that the development and support of one school over others does not occur. Schools in an area are expected to implement enrolment polices which complements this position.
In the circumstances, when any school submits an application for capital funding, this is not considered in isolation from the circumstances prevailing in its neighbouring schools. If a school enrolls over and above what it can accommodate while there is vacant accommodation in other schools in its area, an application for capital funding cannot succeed. This is the practical application and implication of my Department’s policy as outlined.
Earlier this year, St. Mark’s junior school in Tallaght submitted an application for capital funding under my Department’s 2006 additional accommodation scheme. At the time it sought the provision of two extra classrooms to cater for increased enrolments. This application was refused on the grounds that my Department is satisfied that there is considerable spare capacity in neighbouring schools.
The school subsequently appealed this decision and increased its application to six extra classrooms, for both it and St. Mark’s senior school, but in addition, for the first time, the issue of the need to replace two old prefabs was raised. If there are problems with the standard of accommodation which might require replacement, sin scéal eile. Immediately, the Department contacted the school authority for a report which it commissioned in this matter. This will be exam ined when it is received as part of an assessment of the school’s appeal.
As Deputy O’Connor stated, there are significant developments planned for the greater Tallaght area and my Department is aware of this. The school planning section is liaising with South Dublin County Council on future school requirements for the area in this regard.
Furthermore, the Department of Education and Science will review all existing provision to determine its long-term needs to meet the challenges presented by the proposed developments. It will do this in consultation with the local  schools inspector. The Department has already asked St. Mark’s to submit an application for permanent accommodation. This will kick start the process from its perspective.
While we accept that the Tallaght area is growing, there appears to be adequate provision in the area for the number of students coming forward. There are two separate issues. On the first, we have asked the school to make the application for permanent accommodation. On the second, we will take a careful look at the standard of the school’s temporary accommodation as soon as it sends us its report.
The Dáil adjourned at 12.25 a.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 6 July 2006.
Dáil Éireann 623 Adjournment Debate. School Accommodation.