Seanad Éireann - Volume 102 - 07 December, 1983

Adjournment Matter. - Ballygunner (Waterford) School.

Mrs. Bulbulia: I should like to thank the Cathaoirleach for acceding to my request to raise this matter on the Adjournment and to thank the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Donal Creed, for coming along to hear what I have to say.

I raise this matter of Ballygunner national school in Waterford because of the intense public disquiet in Waterford at what appears to be an unacceptable delay in allowing this to go to tender. In order to make my case and to point out the deficiencies which exist in this national school I will go over the history and origin of the difficulties which parents, pupils and particularly staff are experiencing in this school, which is about two miles from the centre of Waterford City.

The original school at Ballygunner is situated opposite the parish church and it was built in 1843. It served generations of Ballygunner children for about a period of 100 years. In 1941 the old school ceased to function because a new school was provided to cater for about 90 children. In 1966, due to pressure and demand for places, another classroom was added to this building along with six toilets, two for boys and four for girls. Things proceeded happily enough and in 1977 there was again a demand for extra places so two prefabs were erected in the school yard to cope with the increased demand for entrance to this school. At the time, the Department of Education, when sanctioning the provision of the prefabs, insisted that they should be secondhand because a new school was to be [893] built. The prefabs came to Ballygunner from Wicklow and are now 15 years old. They are in a rotten condition, and I mean that quite literally. There are gaps in the floor and gaps in the walls. The rain is coming in and, as a result of the damp, the electric wiring has become quite dangerous and only one heater at a time can be used, which makes for acute discomfort in cold weather for children and staff. In 1981 the original old school — that built in 1843 — had to be reopened because there was pressure of numbers. It was opened to accommodate another class. Two portakabin toilets were erected to serve this room. These toilets drain into a septic tank located in a nearby field and there had to be an agreement made for the use of the field for this purpose. This agreement was made for three years and is due to expire in June 1984.

The school at present has an enrolment of 249 boys and girls. I have seen these conditions. I visited the school on Monday morning and I was quite shocked and dismayed at what I saw. The six toilets in the main school are used by over 200 children. There are four toilets for 86 girls — when I visited only three of those toilets were actually functioning — and two toilets for 143 boys. I have more than that number of toilets in my house for my family. That indicates the difficulties the teachers and the children are experiencing. I was very taken aback when one of the infant teachers said to me that one little boy was so upset and distressed at the conditions he found in the toilets that he had regressed to infant behaviour in his toilet habits, and she felt he was an intelligent, bright little fellow but that so unhygienic were the conditions, despite the best efforts of the staff, that one could not blame this little boy for the effect this had on him. If this has happened to one child whom she knows about it is not surprising that others should experience the same distaste.

There is a problem of sharing classes because of accommodation difficulties. We have third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes taught by three teachers in the following groupings: all of third class and some of fourth are together; some of [894] fourth and some of fifth are grouped together and some of fifth and all of sixth are grouped together. As a teacher myself I realise, and anybody who seriously considers the problem will realise, the difficulties that this poses for teachers. It means that you have to set one group working quietly on a project while you teach the others and then swing around and teach the ones who have been working away quietly and give the others some work to do. It does not create good classroom atmosphere and is not the way you would choose to arrange the teaching of any subject.

The Department of Education recognise the difficulties and the growth in numbers because they sanctioned the appointment of an eighth teacher and the advertisements for this post were put in the papers last week. But when this appointment is made there is going to be a further problem of where does the new teacher go with his or her class. When I visited the school on Monday they were talking about dividing up a pre-fab, putting a partition there in order to create the space necessary to allow this teacher to teach a class. A partition is paper thin and children will recite things and there will be a certain amount of noise in a class, so I think that both from the point of view of physical comfort and of sound this is not going to work at all. Yet they badly need this extra teacher.

The history of representations goes back a long way in relation to this school. They were first made concerning the provision of a new school as long ago as 1979. Its provision was agreed to by the Department of Education at that time. In July 1981 the Department of Education instructed the Commissioners of Public Works by way of a letter to treat the plans for the proposed school as a matter of top priority. I would emphasise that that was as long ago as July 1981. On 24 February 1983 — this was quite a red letter day for Ballygunner, for parents, children and staff — the grant towards the provision of the new building was sanctioned by the Department. The latest position is as given in a reply to a Dáil Question, that the question of authorising [895] the invitation of tenders is being considered at present and that at this stage it is not possible to say when building may commence.

The parents appreciate that there are difficulties in our public capital programme and in finance nationally but they felt that when the grant was sanctioned on 24 February, it was not too much to expect that in November it should have been possible to give the green light to seeking tenders so that building could start so that by next September there will be some classrooms on site in order to allow this school to expand. Because they have been getting answers in the vein of “as soon as is possible” and “we will do our best to expedite this” and “we are not yet in a position to inform”, they are not happy. There is a volume of anger, resentment and frustration about this. The parents have formed an action committee. The priest, quite uncharacteristically, from the altar the Sundary before last, feeling defensive, no doubt, felt that he should state that both he and the board of management and the parish priest had done all in their power to bring this plan to fruition, but that the blame lay with the Department of Education. There has been a public petition signed, a public meeting is planned and the issue has made the headlines in the local newspapers so all in all there is quite a storm of resentment, anger and deep bitter frustration building up.

Many people sent their children to that school last September on the understanding and knowledge that there would be a new school. In fact, a rather curious thing happened in that the site is already in existence for the new school and it is to be shared with Ballygunner GAA. Work started on the preparation of a pitch for the hurling and football activities. When many parents saw the earthworks and the general activity on the site they assumed that this was the construction of the school being started. From February until the end of August or September many of them were happily under the impressive that the school was being constructed. So I suppose their irritation is [896] all the greater when they realised that, in fact, what they saw was not the school but the GAA pitch.

I will refer to some difficulties which staff and pupils are experiencing as a result of the cramped and overcrowded conditions. On Thursday, 24 November, the school had to close early because the water pump was not working properly and so there was no water. The few toilets that are there could not be used. The fire brigade had to be called to refill the tank and the principal had to make five telephone calls to the corporation to have a team sent up to look at the pump. He could not make these telephone calls from the school because such a luxury as a phone does not exist there. He had to run down to the village to use the public call box. Again this is a deficiency. I imagine that at this stage most primary schools in the country have a telephone. To date my information is that there is still no drinking water in the school. When I visited it on Monday we were able to have our cup of tea courtesy of a neighbour. The teachers went across with a kettle and had it filled.

The old school which was built in 1843 and which is now in use again has to be seen to be believed. There is a grand young, enthusiastic teacher down there with 40 children crammed into a limestone building. There is not sufficient natural daylight so neon lights have to be used all day long. In fact during a lunch break recently one of the neon lights came crashing off the ceiling and smashed on the floor. They were extremely lucky that no child was injured as a result of this. This building is dingy, decrepit, Dickensian and, by any standard of care and education, it is not acceptable in the Ireland of 1984. This teacher is down there in isolation from his other colleagues. At break time he must march these children up the slight incline to the school in all weathers and they march down again when break is over. It is an unnatural situation to have children separated and in such appalling conditions.

The pre-fabs are now in particularly poor condition, as I have already mentioned. The windows are rotting, there [897] are holes in the dividing walls and the roof leaks. The children have to cross the play area in all weathers to go to the toilets in the main school. This area of Ballygunner, just two-and-a-half miles or so from the centre of Waterford, is a rapidly developing residential area. In fact, I had a note from the Minister for the Environment the other day to indicate that he had sanctioned 78 more local authority houses to commence in that area in the New Year. In the last four years the baptismal records of the parish show that 300 children have been registered for baptism. So these in turn will be coming on stream and will rightly look to receive their primary education in their own parish of Ballygunner. Parents are fearful that they may not be able to realise this hope.

I should like to pay tribute to the teachers who are commendably committed to and enthusiastic about their work, although they operate in such deplorable conditions. There is no staffroom. We had our cup of tea in a corner of one of the classrooms. There is no place where they can relax totally as one needs to. Teaching is very demanding, as I know since it was my profession.

When the school doctor visits to do the routine public health examination of children there is no accommodation for him, so one of the classrooms must be vacated while the doctor attends to the children. This leaves a situation of about 80 children in one class for the period while the doctor is there, usually from 10 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. or 1 p.m. No teacher can teach 80 children. The most they can do is adopt a policy of containment while the doctor's visit is in progress. Again, that is a lamentable situation.

All of this overcrowding has a most inhibiting effect on teaching. One of the teachers said to me that there is no possibility to do physical education, no possibility to have art work unless with great difficulty you carry water and mix paints at a great distance, and there is no possibility to do drama. All of these have been recognised as enriching for children and vital to their personal growth, and confidence and to making them well-rounded citizens.

[898] It is important to stress that the school administrator, Father Liddane who is the parish priest, and Father Cooney who is the curate, together with the school manager and the chairman of the board of management have over a long period been constantly in touch with the Department to have the various stages expedited. They certainly have fulfilled all their obligations in this respect. At the instigation of the school doctor a health inspector attached to the South Eastern Health Board recently visited the premises and is to submit a report to the South Eastern Health Board in due course.

Last Thursday week classes were suspended because of water problems in the school. That really in summary indicates the present situation in the school. I will be looking to the Minister in his reply to indicate to me when these schools can go to tender. It is important that there would be classrooms on site by next September. I hope that when he tells me it can go to tender he will talk about a continuous roll-on tender rather than a phased-type tender, because we do not want a beginning, a middle and eventually an end. We would like to see the whole thing roll and to see that the end is in sight.

In conclusion I would just thank the Minister once again for listening to me. I hope he will have something hopeful and positive to say, because I want to carry back news to the parents action committee and to the people of Ballygunner that he is aware of their plight and aware of the difficulties under which they labour and that he will give the green light to this school to go ahead.

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Creed): I am glad to have the opportunity of attending here in the Seanad on this Adjournment debate and to listen and take note of the points made by Senator Bulbulia.

I am aware of the difficulties in Ballygunner. Today I have had a look at the file and have had discussions with officials of my Department on the matter. I am aware of the urgency in this case.

Something that strikes me about primary schools particularly is that every [899] deputation I receive, and incidentally I cut a deputation short in relation to another primary school to attend at this Adjournment debate, regard their own case as the most urgent case and in need of special attention. This applies also to whatever public representative is involved. I want to take up just a few points that have been raised before dealing with the history of Ballygunner school. I share with Senator Bulbulia her appreciation of the work being done by many primary teachers throughout this country who are working in appalling conditions in schools that are in urgent need of repair. Teachers and boards of management and all concerned have been heroic in this regard because conditions in many of the cases are very far from adequate or very far from what the position should be. At the same time the situation in relation to primary schools in which the blame is being laid at the Department of Education is not altogether correct, because the system is of course that the building of a primary school is a very complicated and difficult development. It must be borne in mind that the responsibility for the building of primary schools and for the primary-school programme is shared with another agency, the Office of Public Works. I have regularly heard responsibility for school building being laid at the door of the Department of Education. That is not altogether the case, and I can assure the Senator that so far as the Department and the officials are concerned, we are very well aware of the difficulties involved.

There is the other factor of resources which is one that is rarely taken into consideration — the resources that are available to the Department in any particular year.

I wish to state the history of the school in Ballygunner. I appreciate that the Senator's concern in raising the question of the provision of a new national school at Ballygunner, County Waterford, is to stress the urgency she attaches to the completion of this project. Indeed I am very much aware of the problems in relation to existing school accommodation in [900] Ballygunner, of the necessity at present to accommodate classes in prefabricated rooms and in other accommodation away from the main body of the schools and also of the growing pressure of enrolments in the area. It is necessary, however, to put this project in a realistic perspective, the perspective being that national school buildings are long-lasting institutions and that when new schools are provided it is imperative to ensure that they cater not only for existing needs and immediate requirements but for the long term needs of the area as well.

I want to lay emphasis on this difficulty that the professional educationalist within the Department has in determining what exactly are the educational needs of the future in relation to any school. There are population trends which we go by and we have consultation regularly, but it is very difficult and this case in Ballygunner is no exception.

This, in fact, was the context in which the proposal to provide additional accommodation in Ballygunner was considered when it was first raised in 1977 and the relative merits of extending the existing school on an enlarged site, or of erecting a completely new school on a new site, had to be carefully examined before my Department were in a position to take a decision as to the form the project might take. Following an examination of the existing school and site, the Commissioners of Public Works reported that the site was only one acre in extent and that a suitable site extension would be required so that the additional accommodation which would meet foreseeable future needs could be built. This is what I am referring to in relation to the determination or assessing of what the education needs of any particular area would be in the future.

My Department advised the school authorities that a site of two-and-a-half acres was required to facilitate the necessary extension. It was understood from the chairman of the school board of management on 31 January 1979 that he was unable to secure a suitable site extension and that he was seeking a completely new site for a new school. In May 1979 the chairman informed the Department [901] that he had obtained an option from the county council on a site for a new school which was a half a mile from the existing school. It was agreed in the same month that a 16-classroom school would be needed to meet the long term requirements of the area, the school to be built in two stages, the first stage of which would consist of eight classrooms and a general purposes room. Subsequently, when details of the site were furnished, my Department asked the Commissioners of Public Works to furnish a report on its suitability. It was understood in May 1980, that the site had been inspected but that difficulties had arisen in relation to sewerage facilities. These difficulties were duly resolved, according to notification received in January 1981, and my Department were formally notified in April, 1981 that the site was suitable.

The Commissioners of Public Works were then instructed to undertake the preparation of sketch plans for the new school as a matter of urgency. A sketch scheme was produced for consideration but revisions had to be undertaken and a suitable scheme was eventually agreed at the end of March 1982. The question of title to the new site then arose for consideration and was taken up with the chairman of the school board of management on 23 April 1982 and title documents submitted by him were referred to the Chief State Solicitor on 5 May 1982. Title was declared to be satisfactory by the Chief State Solicitor on 30 July 1982. Agreement was then concluded with the chairman on the amount of the local contribution, on the basis of an up-dated statement of costs from the Commissioners of Public Works. A formal grant sanction was issued for the project on 24 February 1983.

Let me say also that another area which creates a quite considerable amount of negotiation is the local contribution in relation to the building of a school. It is something that is negotiable and we have between our officials and the chairman of the board of management discussions and meetings in relation to the local contribution.

[902] Anybody considering the history of this project will discern two main factors governing its progress. The first of these, and it is one which I applaud, is the effort to reconcile immediate pressures and long-term needs, and I do not think we will have to wait too long before all concerned with the project, particularly at local level, will be congratulating themselves that they did not rush into the building of an immediate and inadequate extension to the existing school and be faced still with the problem of catering for the increasing primary education requirements of a growing population which is the case in the Ballygunner area.

The second main factor is that once the basic decision had been made and a suitable site acquired, all concerned worked in harmony to ensure that this project was treated with the degree of urgency which it merited. In normal circumstances the preparation of working drawings and other contract documents does not commence until satisfactory title to the site of the proposed school has been established and a grant sanctioned following agreement on the local contribution.

In view of the urgency of this case in Ballygunner, however, planning proceeded while these matters were being dealt with, with the result that the contract documents are now virtually complete, requiring only a final check on the bill of quantities. My Department are considering the question of releasing this project for invitation of tenders and I can give the Senator every assurance that this consideration will be undertaken as a matter of urgency in the light of the capital provision of 1984 for primary school building. I might say at this stage that because of the concern of the Senator and of the public representatives in the constituency who have made representations, who have tabled Dáil Questions — I do not know how many letters have been written to the public representatives there in relation to this problem — I would like to be more specific in this particular case and say that I would be releasing this immediately. This is what I would like to be in a position to do.

On that particular note I am not aware [903] as of now what the capital allocation for primary school buildings will be in 1984. I agree with the Senator that quite a lot of expectations have been created through no fault of anybody's at times and that frustration has been created as a result of people not seeing the work in progress. I share the concern not alone of the parents and teachers of Ballygunner but of many other areas particularly at primary school level where people are pressing for new schools and extensions. I want to say to Senator Bulbulia that I am looking at this case as a matter of urgency, and I sincerely hope that in the not too distant future I will be able to [904] give more specific information as to when we will proceed to the contract stage.

Professor Dooge: For the information of Senators, I should like to say that when we meet next Wednesday, it is proposed to take the Air Navigation Bill and the Export Promotion Bill, both of which are already with us from the Dáil, and also the Transport Bill which it is hoped will pass from the Dáil to the Seanad between now and next Wednesday.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 14 December 1983.