Seanad Éireann - Volume 188 - 13 March, 2008
Schools Building Projects.
Senator Pearse Doherty Senator Pearse Doherty
Senator Pearse Doherty: The matter I have placed on the Adjournment is the need for the Minister for Education and Science to publish a complete list of all school projects in the building programme together with indicative times for completion. The predecessor of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, published lists of all school buildings, which included priority ratings and indicative dates of construction. This brought a much needed measure of transparency and openness of information into the process which, up to then, had been secretive. In general, school communities were of the opinion that the system was fair.
When Deputy Mary Hanafin became Minister for Education and Science, she abandoned this system and, since taking office, has not published a comprehensive picture of the building programme. Many schools have been waiting for years for an indication of when their projects will commence. No lists are available and there is a major lack of transparency in the issue, which leads to accusations of political interference within the schools building programme.
The neglect shown to the issue of school buildings by this Government is something which we now are seeing all too often. Schools in this country have entered into financial crisis and this is plain to see. Soaring water charges, under-resourced classes, overcrowded classrooms and the underinvestment in education by the Twenty-six Counties Government, most especially in the primary sector, are truly appalling.
I received an e-mail yesterday from a mother whose three children attend the Holy Rosary School in Oldcourt, Dublin. This school is a prime example of the incompetence of the Government to provide assistance to schools most in need. The mother’s eldest child attends class in a prefab which is freezing every morning and unbearably hot every afternoon. The child constantly suffers from a cold because of this. The home-school liaison teacher has a small desk in one of the corridors of the school due to lack of space. Most worryingly, reports were made last week of there being rats in the school and of a child stepping on one of them. This seems to be a worrying, all too frequent trend in many schools.
In my constituency in Donegal there is a school, Scoil Mhuire in Creeslough, in which children must sit three to a seat and, in some classrooms, they sit on the floor because of the simple fact that there is just not enough space for desks. The classrooms and their size are described as unsuitable for many of today’s subjects such as practical science. This school desperately needs extra space, more classrooms and a full upgrading of the existing facilities. A spokesperson for the school’s board of management has stated that it is more than three years since it first submitted its proposals for improvements to the Minister for Education and Science but, officially, they have heard nothing in return. They are left in the dark. This is a completely unfair and unacceptable way to treat pupils, teachers and parents.
These incidences are not isolated and there are many other schools in such a position. For example, the parents of pupils at Gortahork national school, also in my constituency, were forced to withdraw their pupils because of its condition. They were promised a new school six years ago but they still await the commencement of the project. Glenswilly national school, which has been seeking an extension since 1992, has called itself “Seeking a New Extension since 1992 Glenswilly National School”, as an example of their frustration with the Department and the schools building programme.
In Ballinamore, County Leitrim, the Government committed in 2001 to a new comprehensive school but, seven years on, pupils, parents and teachers are still waiting. When the Minister visited the town recently, she slated the parents and board of management for contacting her Department daily. What are parents, teachers and pupils to do if they are still waiting after seven years and have to travel in the pouring rain between classrooms for their education? It is terrible in this day and age.
Another example is a school in Galway which had to import smaller desks because normal-sized desks would not fit owing to the number of pupils in the school. There is a need to produce a list but, with no list available as to times of completion of all school projects in the building programme, these and countless other parents, pupils and teachers are completely in the dark and have no idea when improvements will be made.
Does the Minister of State think that any child deserves this ordeal on a daily basis? Does he think that any child deserves to sit in a freezing cold classroom day in, day out, where they potentially could pick up a lethal disease from rat urine should they come into contact with it? These schools and countless others throughout the country need answers. For too long they have been kept in the dark, for too long they have been left waiting and wondering, and for too long pupils have attended class in conditions not befitting an animal.
I will finish by reading a poem sent to me by an 11 year old student in her frustration at what was happening. She has now left primary education but she wrote the following to the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern:
Dear Bertie Ahern
I’m sending you this letter for your concern.
You have ignored us time after time
As if we had committed a serious crime.
All we want is a proper building for our school.
How can this be so impossible for you to do?
Our school is better than the best,
Why can’t we just have a proper building like the rest?
Next year I’ll be leaving primary school for good
And in a proper building I have never stood.
I think you should hang your head in shame
For all your excuses have been so lame.
There is one other thing that I should point out to you,
In a few years’ time we’ll be voters too.
I think I’ll be a politician when I grow up,
So my party will drive Fianna Fáil into the muck.
I’ll make sure every child has a building for their school,
That’s how my party will rule.
So come on Bertie, give us our school!
That is a poem by an 11 year old child. It shows the frustration felt by the children of this nation because they have to be taught in such conditions. I ask the Minister to address my central issue by letting us know when the schools will be built and giving us an indicative timeframe. Take schools out of the dark and publish the list, as the predecessor of the current Minister for Education and Science did, to introduce some accountability into the school programme.
Deputy Michael Ahern Deputy Michael Ahern
Deputy Michael Ahern: On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, I am glad to be given the opportunity to outline the position on the schools building and modernisation programme.
This year, more than €586 million is being provided by the Government for school buildings. This will allow significant progress to be made on new schools, extensions and refurbishments throughout the country. Commitments arising from contractual commitments entered into during 2007 and in earlier years have a first call on the capital allocation for 2008. These commitments include 67 large-scale projects that were under construction during 2007 and most of these will reach practical completion during the course of 2008. More than 100 permanent accommodation and small school scheme projects commenced during 2007 and all these projects will be completed in 2008. Commitments also arise on other programmes that commenced during 2007. These include commitments given in respect of contingency and emergency works, furniture and equipment applications and outstanding balances due on the 2007 summer works scheme.
At the beginning of February, the Minister announced the large-scale building projects approved to commence construction this year. These projects will deliver 13 new schools and two extensions at primary level, two new schools and one extension at post-primary level and a further 30 new primary schools in rapidly developing areas, planned to be in place by next September.  These schools are the first phase of the projects that are due to go to construction in 2008. The next announcement regarding projects to proceed to construction will occur after Easter. The Minister intends to make further announcements regarding projects that will be advanced through the architectural planning process during the course of the year as the school building programme is rolled out.
The Minister also confirmed in the February announcement that the 254 projects previously announced under the permanent accommodation and small schools schemes that had not at that time commenced construction, should position themselves to go on site and complete their works during the course of 2008. Throughout the year the Department will also fund a number of other important elements of the schools building and modernisation programme. These include applications received from schools relating to emergencies that arise such as roof damage and applications for temporary accommodation.
Rather than publishing one large list, the Department of Education and Science manages the schools building programme on a rolling basis, with announcements made throughout the year. The number of projects on the programme and their place on it changes constantly. It would, therefore, not be appropriate to publish one large list. The approach adopted by the Department, with progress being made all the time, is far preferable to one big bang announcement as it ensures that it helps to create a pipeline so that there is a smooth flow of projects through all stages.
I assure the Senator that the Minister and her Department are committed to providing sufficient school places in developing areas and to delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary school accommodation throughout the country. Under the rolling basis methodology, the Minister will announce further details during the year in the context of priority and budget.
Senator Pearse Doherty Senator Pearse Doherty
Senator Pearse Doherty: The Minister says it is preferable to keep pupils, parents and boards of management in the dark and not publish a large list. This is only preferable for the Department and not for parents, teachers and pupils. The Minister of State must know of the frustration among the community in terms of the schools building programme. Nobody expects every school will be modernised tomorrow morning or next week, but we need an indication to be given to communities throughout the State as to where they are on the list and when they will be provided with a timeframe for the work.
I do not believe the Minister knows the information. When my party asked a parliamentary question with regard to the number of prefabs being used as classrooms, she did not have that information. When we asked how many schools were rat infested, she could say that six were reported, but acknowledged that many more were. I question whether the information is available. Is the failure to produce a list and the keeping of schools in the dark a way of hiding the Minister’s lack of accountability?
Deputy Michael Ahern Deputy Michael Ahern
Deputy Michael Ahern: I spent 26 years dealing with problems in school and other areas and believe the Senators comments are hyperbole in the extreme.
Seanad Éireann 188 Schools Building Projects.