Dáil Éireann - Volume 677 - 11 March, 2009

Adjournment Debate. - Schools Building Projects.

[826]   Deputy Richard Bruton: I regret the Minister of State in the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey, is not present as he has a unique insight into Mount Temple Comprehensive School which is located in the constituency he and I represent. Without wishing to denigrate the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, I hope she will convey to the Minister my concerns about the school in question.

Mount Temple Comprehensive School is a unique school on the north side of Dublin. While it emerged from the Protestant tradition, it has always been much more than this, having fostered a broad pupil mix from the outset. Members will be aware of the famous book by Christopher Nolan entitled, Under the Eye of the Clock. Mr. Nolan, who was severely disabled, achieved tremendous things and the eye of the clock of the title refers to the clock tower in Mount Temple school where he was educated. The school has always reached out to children with special needs and children who need a different type of education. It is unashamedly different in its approach to providing education, for which it should be cherished and valued.

Places in Mount Temple Comprehensive School are in huge demand, with three children waiting for every place. Built originally to accommodate 450 pupils, the school currently has 850 students. This expansion has only been possible by pressing into service preserved old buildings such as the manor house and using prefabricated buildings. The school consists of a patchwork of seven buildings, none of which even remotely reaches acceptable standards in energy efficiency or in terms of the type of building one expects in a modern school.

The tragedy in this case is that the school has been trapped for eight years in the labyrinth of the Department’s building pipeline. I defy anyone to explain to me how this pipeline works. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Wall, may have experienced this process but it is the most mystifying system I have come across. It appears to be designed to hand-trip schools which are making honest endeavours to provide for pupils rather than to facilitate the progression of building projects which have been recognised as needed.

Several years ago, the Department acknowledged that the school needed to be completely rebuilt. The school is located on an exceptional, wonderful and large site in the heart of the city. With its preserved buildings and additional features, it is a unique asset which should be developed. It is particularly galling for the school to see the charmed approach the Department has taken to a squash facility with a small membership which happened to be built on the same land as the school and has, over the past 15 years, probably received €1 million in support to keep it going. Meanwhile, a school with 850 pupils is struggling to survive.

What are the next steps in the building project? What timeframe can one reasonably expect for completion of each phase? Is it a question of waiting for cash approval to enable projects to be released like a flood and inform us where we stand? The process is frustrating for schools. In this case, the school has committed to fund the statutory process and provide €1.5 million towards the cost of the new building. There is major commitment behind the school, which is a unique educational facility. As well as the traditional Protestant schools, all the Educate Together schools in the local area feed into Mount Temple. Its special worth should be recognised by the Department.

  Deputy Mary Wallace: I thank Deputy Bruton for raising this important matter and I will endeavour to demystify the system and explain the steps taken as part of the building process. This debate provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the Department’s strategy for capital investment in education projects and the current position with regard to the building project for Mount Temple Comprehensive School on the Malahide Road in Dublin 3.

[827] All applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity, etc. This leads ultimately to an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners.

To demystify the process, as requested by the Deputy, one must explain the band rating process as this helps establish the current position of a project. Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project. In other words, a proposed building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it. There are four band ratings overall, of which band 1 is the highest and band 4 the lowest. Band 1 projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists but there is a high demand for pupil places, while a band 4 project provides for desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities such as a library or new sports hall. The building project for Mount Temple Comprehensive School has been assigned a band rating of 2.4 under these criteria.

All major projects on the Department’s capital programme progress through the same structured process of architectural planning, which is divided into clearly defined stages. The stages of architectural planning are set out in the Department’s design team procedures and are necessary to comply with Department of Finance guidelines which require that capital projects be fully designed prior to going to tender. They also ensure proper cost management of capital projects and facilitate compliance with statutory and public procurement requirements.

Deputy Bruton asked what are the next steps in the project for Mount Temple Comprehensive School. There are five stages involved in the progression of major school projects through architectural planning. The project for Mount Temple Comprehensive School is currently at the first stage of this process.

A submission for the early stage of architectural planning was submitted to the Department in September 2008 and is under consideration. The Department expects to respond to the school shortly with its comments on that submission. Once the preliminary stage is approved, there are four remaining stages in architectural planning. The next stage of the process is divided into stage 2a, which involves a developed sketch scheme for the project, and stage 2b, which brings the project to detailed design. It is at this stage that a project has reached the point at which it can apply for planning permission. Stage 3 of the process involves tendering the project and stage 4 sees construction start on site. There are no timescales set for the completion of each of these stages.

The Deputy also asked about the availability of cash. The Government has dramatically increased investment in the schools building programme to €656 million this year. This is an unprecedented level of capital investment which reflects the commitment of the Government to continue its programme of sustained investment in primary and post-primary schools. It will underpin a particular emphasis on the delivery of additional school places in rapidly developing areas, while continuing to develop on the Government’s commitment to delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary accommodation throughout the country.

More than 140 major projects are in architectural planning, including the project for Mount Temple Comprehensive School. In addition, more than 100 projects are in construction or have been approved to proceed to tender and construction. The progression of all large-scale building projects, including the project for Mount Temple Comprehensive School, from initial design [828] stage through to construction is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available under the Department’s capital budget. The project in question will continue to be considered for progression in the context of the Department’s multi-annual school building and modernisation programme.

The allocation for school buildings in 2009 is €656 million. This represents a significant investment in the school building and modernisation programme. This level of funding for the building programme, at a time of great pressure on public finances, is a sign of the commitment of Government to investing in school infrastructure and will permit the continuation of progress in the overall improvement of school accommodation.

I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House how the Department intends to address the needs of Mount Temple Comprehensive School. In light of current economic circumstances and with competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the further progression of the project at this time.

  The Dáil adjourned at 9.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 March 2009.