Seanad Éireann - Volume 128 - 01 May, 1991
Adjournment Matter. - North Dublin School Accommodation.
Mr. Costello Mr. Costello
Mr. Costello: Tá fáilte roimh an Aire, ach b'fhearr liom dá mbeadh an tAire Oideachais anseo. On the last occasion I raised this issue the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, was here. She made certain commitments at the time and I would have liked to have had an opportunity of directly questioning her in relation to the progress, or indeed lack of progress, to date on the matter. On 15 November 1989, just two weeks after the new Seanad sat, I put down a motion which included a request that this House condemns the present policy of accommodating in old prefabricated buildings the primary school children from the parish of the Pro-Cathedral in the north inner city, further that Seanad Éireann calls on the Minister for Education to make a public statement about the whereabouts of the money obtained by her Department when the Model School was damaged eight years ago and, finally, that the Minister would ensure that the  children of the parish of the Pro-Cathedral are properly accommodated in permanent buildings before the next school year. In fact, none of those queries has been responded to. I asked the Minister to address the question of the old Model School in Marlborough Street which is in the grounds of the Department of Education, to look into the provision of accommodation at an early state for the children there, that the prefabricated buildings would be eliminated, that the old building would be refurbished and reconstructed as required and that the children would be housed in proper healthy and hygienic conditions.
My concern in relation to the school is personal as well as political and educational. I live in the area, the school is only a few hundred yards from where I live. I know the children going to the school and I know their parents. I know many of the teachers in the school and I have first-hand experience of the conditions in which the children are housed in the existing prefabricated buildings which were established in 1982 when the Model School was burned down. However, they are not just eight year old prefabs; they are 19 or 20 year old prefabs because they already had a substantial life span before they were acquired for the purpose of temporarily housing the children in those schools. As we all know, that is far in excess of the life span which is not just recommended but which is properly permitted for constructions of this nature. Ten to 12 years is the recommended time, and indeed in many cases that is the period of time for which planning permission is given for those type of prefabricated structures. It is totally unsatisfactory that structures of this nature should still be used to accommodate the children in the area.
The Model School is the personal responsibility of the Minister for Education. A number of those schools were set up around the country but this school is in the grounds of the Department of Education. Therefore, not only because  of that fact but because of the peculiar nature of the model schools there is a special responsibility on the Department of Education to ensure that it is properly monitored, maintained and run and that the conditions are satisfactory. That is the context in which we are discussing the Model School.
As I said, the prefabs are unhealthy — too warm in the summer and too cold in the winter. They have been subject to considerable leakage because of their age and it is very difficult to maintain them for any length of time. The toilets are very unsatisfactory, a problem which should be addressed very urgently.
This is poor school accommodation for children who, by and large, come from deprived circumstances. They come from one set of circumstances into an equivalent set of circumstances and conditions for their education. Children should not be housed in flat complexes that are at present poorly maintained by the local authority because of the cutbacks in relation to local authority funding. Influenza and bronchial problems are caused by the damp conditions in which they life and they come into exactly the same, if not worse, conditions in the educational process. It is certainly a threat to their health.
From perusing the health and safety legislation passed here last year I must say, quite categorically, that there are no circumstances in which those prefabricated buildings would pass the test. When that legislation comes into force there will be a legal onus on the Minister to ensure that those buildings are demolished; that is the only solution. There is no question of refurbishing them because that would not bring them up to the required standard. The sooner the Minister sets about reconstructing the Model School, the sooner she will be able to operate within the legislation that this House and the Government have passed.
It is difficult to see how children treated this way during a vulnerable time in their lives, will not develop a chip on their  shoulder. If this is all the State services can offer them what is there in life for them? It certainly is not the most attractive and the most positive way for them to face the future if, at the most delicate and most vulnerable stage in their life, education — one of the most important services that can be supplied by the State — is supplied in such niggardly fashion and in such an impoverished and neglected way.
The school is, of course, viable. Its numbers have been increasing over the years. There is no question of the school being in danger of closure for reasons of decreasing numbers; not only are numbers stable, they have increased. That is in line with the increasing confidence and viability in inner city living. While we offer tax incentives and concessions to developing the inner city, it is important to make taxpayers' money available to ensure that the services are there so that people living in the area are able to get a good level of education and a decent standard of living. One of our priorities now is the development of the inner city which cannot be the case unless there is community development as well as commercial development. There must be development of all services necessary for a healthy and a living city.
On the last occasion I raised this issue I asked the Minister what had happened in relation to the insurance claim and whether the building had been insured as, of course, it is legally bound to be under legislation and, if so, where the money had gone. The Minister said there was a tangled web surrounding the whole issue of insurance. Has that matter been untangled? In the intervening 18 months have we been able to recover the insurance money? Has a claim been made or was the school insured in the first place? Had the law been complied with? I would like to hear the Minister's reply in relation to that.
The Programme for Economic and Social Progress made a special commitment to disadvantaged areas and in  this instance it would be difficult to find an area of greater disadvantage, where very few youngsters go to second level and certainly even fewer go on to third level. There is a huge area of deprivation in terms of employment, and facilities in the area. For all those reasons there is great need to ensure that one focus of community is maintained at a high level and that obviously must be the educational area. If the Government are really honest in their commitment that there will be a particular emphasis on community development in the context of education, including remedial education and of relating the needs of the community to the educational building facilities and personnel, then there is a new onus on the Minister. She has dragged her heels since the last time I talked about this problem; indeed over the four years of Government nothing has been done in this area of priority. We now have a programme agreed with the social partners, the employers, the trade union movement, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Government, with a specific commitment to the disadvantaged and it is spelled out very clearly. Therefore, there is a particular obligation on the Minister to address this issue in that context.
The Minister stated on the last occasion I raised the issue that she would be addressing the future of the school in the context of the Estimates for 1990 and that she was making arrangements on that very day, 15 November, to meet representatives of the school, parents, staff and so on. Subsequently she did meet them and there is no criticism there. She and officers of the Department met them on more than one occasion. In May and June 1990 letters emanated from the Department stating that the plans had been sanctioned for construction of the school and that the refurbishment of the new school would go ahead costing £1 million. It was indicated in a self-congratulatory manner that the matter was  now resolved. Everything was in place and the assumption was that the Estimates the Minister had referred to for the coming year, 1990, had been sufficiently regulated to ensure that the money was available for the development of the school.
In September, plans were presented to the board of management from the primary building section as to how the school would be refurbished and redeveloped. A quantity surveyor was to be appointed and a bill of quantities drawn up in a very short time. A structural engineer was appointed, the drawings were lodged with the local authority in relation to by-laws and they were told tenders would go out in mid-December, 1990. They were informed that accepted of a tender would emanate from the Department for the reconstruction of the school by mid-1990 and that work would start in the middle of spring. Those were the commitments that were made to the representatives of the school authorities. Nothing happened, and maybe we should not be surprised, but nevertheless there seemed to be a substantial commitment in relation to a timescale. Then, to the dismay of everybody, when in February last they met the people from the building section of the Department they found there were a whole new set of plans for the school and that there was a vagueness as to what and when those were to be implemented. That is where we stand at present. We got a range of commitments and a time schedule was established; we have, of course, passed that times schedule in relation to the tenders and in relation to when the work was to begin and now, all of a sudden, there is a new set of plans. Are we back to square one? What stage of development are we at? What is the commitment of the Minister to the reconstruction of the school? Has she reversed her decision? That is why I raised the question here today I clearly indicated the matter was discussed at length and that very detailed commitments were made. Will the Minister  say whether those commitments will be honoured or if there is a new timescale for honouring them?
This is a fine school in the real sense of schooling. I know the parents, I know the children, I know the teachers and I have never had complaints in relation to the quality of education. There is a good staff there and a good relationship between the community and the staff. The school, of course, is far more than the building in which it is housed. That side of the equation is very good and has been developing very well but there is a question of morale. Can a staff or a community continue indefinitely if promises made are not implemented or honoured? I urge the Minister to ensure that the commitments made will be honoured and that we can tonight get a definite commitment that the money is available, that the plans are definite, that tenders will come from the Department at a specified time and that the reconstruction work will start. I would be delighted if we could get a positive and favourable answer in relation to those questions.
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. F. Fahey) Frank Fahey
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. F. Fahey): Thank you for the opportunity to outline my intentions with regard to the reconstruction and refurbishment of the Model School premises at Deverill Place. I wish to apologise for the Minister's absence; unfortunately she had a prior engagement this evening.
The Senator has outlined the history of these schools but it will be useful to go back over some of the details. The junior and senior English speaking schools have an enrolment of 242 pupils and a staff of two principals plus ten assistants, including a remedial teacher and a number of concessionary posts. The schools have, of necessity, been accommodated in prefabricated classrooms for a number of years now. A fire severely damaged the Deverill Place building in 1982. Last year the entire accommodation for the junior school was destroyed in a fire which  necessitated the provision of new prefabricated classrooms. I fully accept that it is unsatisfactory that a school should be accommodated in prefabs in the long term. I am familiar with the day-to-day problems of the schools. Both the Minister and myself have met the schools' authorities, teachers and parents regularly. As the Senator rightly points out, we have direct knowledge of the premises as they are on part of the Department's grounds.
The Senator will be aware that we have approved the reconstruction and refurbishment of the building as a permanent facility for both schools. It is my intention that building works will be put in hand at the earliest possible date. I fully accept that the architectural planning and the associated technicalities have taken longer than anticipated. This is a complex job involving a building dating from the last century, with special features and stonework. It has been necessary to engage experts to ensure that the school is restored to the highest architectural traditions and standards. The latest position on the planning is that detailed drawings, both structural and architectural, are very well advanced and discussions are taking place with a quantity surveyor in private practice in order to get the bills of quantity into being.
I am fully aware of the concerns of all involved with the school that building work should commence as a matter of urgency. I will ensure, therefore, that the remaining tender documents will be completed with the minimum of delay. The Senator will appreciate the importance of ensuring that those documents are fully in order in every detail, having regard to the importance of the project and the capital cost involved. When the tender documents have been completed I will give the matter my urgent attention and will communicate with the school authorities and all interested parties at that point.
I will respond to the points made by  the Senator by saying that I fully understand the frustration that everybody feels in relation to the delays. I replied to an Adjournment debate in the Dáil last night about the school. I want to assure the House that the Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, is most anxious to proceed as a matter of urgency with this project and has taken a very keen interest in it. I have no doubt that the Minister will ensure that it proceeds as quickly as possible. We have had a lot of pressure from everybody, especially the politicians, in particular Minister Ahern and the other Deputies and Senators in the area. We appreciate their patience and I hope that we can proceed  very quickly with the commencement of the building work.
Mr. Costello Mr. Costello
Mr. Costello: Can I get some indication of when the building will commence?
Mr. F. Fahey Mr. F. Fahey
Mr. F. Fahey: As I said, the tender documents are in the course of being completed. As the Senator is aware, once the tender documentation has been completed then the final step of approving the project to go to tender will be taken. Usually the projects move very quickly from that point. I cannot say exactly, but it is the Minister's intention that it will proceed with the minimum of delay.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 2 May 1991.
Seanad Éireann 128 Adjournment Matter. North Dublin School Accommodation.