Adjournment Debate. - Borris (Carlow) National School.

Thursday, 12 June 1980

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 322 No. 3

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Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  I feel it is sad that I have to raise an issue of this kind in the House. I am sure we are all agreed that strikes are undesirable and should take place only when they cannot be avoided. It is a tragedy that a strike, and the bitterness of a strike, should be introduced into a small, peaceful town like Borris.

The situation there is that we have 250 children on outright strike and their [552] teachers on a one day a week strike. This strike was brought about by a situation in which the parents are not prepared to tolerate the conditions at present obtaining in Borris national school. These parents are not irresponsible people because the teachers have backed them and have now decided to go on a one day strike per week. This strike action will continue until the contractor takes up residence on the site. That is their decision. They will not be fobbed off by any promises from the Minister or the Department.

There is a long history to this school. It was built way back in 1832 as a two-teacher school for boys and girls. There were two large rooms in the school over a basement area. This was the accommodation there until some time in the 1930's when a third room was added and the two large rooms divided to make it into a five-roomed school. In 1968, with the change in the education and schools system, schools were amalgamated and, along with a lot of schools in other areas, Borris national school was the subject of this reorganisation, when Rahana and Ballymartin schools were closed. That brought 60 extra pupils into the Borris school which was already overcrowded and which had at that point outlived its usefulness. During the amalgamation negotiations the Minister of the day promised that a new school would be commenced immediately in Borris. To alleviate the over crowding at the time a pre-fab was erected on the site which was to remain while the new school was being built. In 1977 the school attendance was further expanded and another teacher was required. However, there was no place in the school to house such additional teacher. Therefore, arrangements were made for a room in the parish hall to be used and a large class has been attending this parish hall classroom over the past three years.

I inspected that room in the parish hall together with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Nolan. Senator Governey and Deputy Pattison. and we were appalled at its condition. We went there sometime after the [553] children had left the room for lunch and the stench that hit one on entering the room was unbelievable. Along with that there was located in that room all the electrical controls for this parish hall, which, in my view, are highly dangerous. There is not even a fire extinguisher sited beside them. Indeed, it would not be allowed in any factory; but here there is a large class of school children sitting on what might be described as a time bomb. That is the urgency of the situation and what has brought about a strike by the people in the area.

I should say that, 12 years later, in 1980, we still have no new school in Borris. The existing school was condemned in 1969 by a health inspector. It was condemned earlier this year, with a very strong report being issued on its condition and on how undesirable it was to have children attending the school at all. This can be borne out by the incidence of kidney illnesses being suffered by pupils in Borris school, which is unrealistically high. The local medical officer attributes this to the draught and breezes coming through the floorboards of this school. It could happen that children's health would be damaged irreparably.

Some time ago the school structure was inspected by an architect who immediately ordered that the floors be pinned. That work has been carried out with at least nine-tenths of the cost being borne by the Department. I feel the Department would be far better occupied in building a new school rather than providing this type of make-shift accommodation, propping up floor boards which have worn to a quarter of an inch thickness. Along with my colleagues I stood on the floorboards in this school, and I did not feel too happy. One felt one was on the chair-o-planes going up and down. This is the floor the Department had to have pinned instead of getting in and building the new school.

When I and my colleagues visited this school we were amazed by and very concerned at its condition. We could not credit that a school housing 250 children [554] could be in such a condition. I could only liken it to a Dickensian scene. One could almost shoot the film “Oliver” at the school. It was that type of scene. That is no exaggeration. It had to be seen to be believed.

Certainly also the toilet facilities at the school are inadequate and intolerable. The children should not have to put up with them. However, they are secondary to the general condition of the school itself.

Reverting to the situation obtaining at present, the teachers concerned issued strike notice to expire on 29 April last. They withdrew this notice when a deputation was arranged to meet the Minister, which deputation was received on 22 April last. I had a parliamentary question answered in the House in relation to the school on the same day. I attended that deputation with the Minister. Unfortunately, I received word very late and was there for the last few minutes of the meeting only. I was glad I got word from my colleague across the floor—Deputy Nolan let me know—I was glad to be there and be part of the deputation. Certainly all the public representatives did everything in their power to bring about a successful solution to this problem. The Minister was not left in any doubt about the feelings of parents, teachers, the management committee and others concerned.

Under that pressure the Minister gave a commitment that the contract would be placed and signed within two or three weeks. It is not easy for a Minister to give that type of commitment without being sure of himself, and when the Minister gave such a commitment the deputation accepted it in good faith and left in a happy mood. Unfortunately the commitment has not been honoured and we are still at the stage when there is no sign of the contract being placed. As a result, the parents have taken action and 250 children are missing classes at an important stage in their education. The teachers are frustrated.

As far as I can gather, the delay has been caused because the figures submitted by the contractor whose tender was [555] lowest were in excess of those allowed by the Department and, or, the Board of Works for school building, and negotiations were commenced with the contractor who had submitted the lowest tender to reduce his figures. This seems ludicrous. This is a responsible contractor, a large sum of money is involved, and it is obvious that the contractor did his costings carefully. Yet we had the Department saying, “We will give it to you if you reduce the amount”. This is a red herring, a delaying tactic, and I call on the Minister to enter into negotiations immediately, arrive at an agreement with the contractor and get the work under way.

The Department must be realistic and update their figures for school building. In the newspapers this week a report stated there has been a 9 per cent increase in the cost of housing building in the first three months of this year. Therefore, a contractor who submitted a tender six months ago must now add such a percentage, and accordingly the delay by the Department in finalising the matter means that the cost of building this school will be higher.

Mr. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Hear, hear.

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  In the long run the delay will cost money. A further red herring has been thrown in in another way. A bus road was to have been laid down from the public road to the school but the Department now want to cut down on the cost of that road by taking three feet from the original width and taking portion of the priest's frontage to put in a lay-by. The Department require a saving of £1,500 on the original estimated cost. The local people are prepared to pay that money to get the work under way immediately on the building of the school.

Attitudes in Borris are hardening and if there is further delay the children will not go back to the old school until the new one has been built or until the contractor arrives on the site. When the dispute began parents said their children would not go back until the contract had [556] been signed. I am asking the Minister to be realistic and to have the contract finalised immediately.

Mr. Horgan: Information on John S. Horgan  Zoom on John S. Horgan  I put down a Private Notice Question on this matter today. The children apparently will be leaving the school at the end of term and examinations are not involved. I am acquainted with the history of this dispute and I can tell the Minister that the parents and teachers have shown extraordinary restraint in the last couple of years. They deferred or cancelled action of any kind. They did not behave in any way which could be described as provocative. Time and time again they said they were prepared to accept an assurance that agreement would be reached, the contract signed and work begun. That has been almost an object lesson in restraint. Faced with a recalcitrant Department who employed delaying tactics they have shown admirable restraint and I appeal to the Minister on behalf of the community, particularly the children concerned, to get the contractor on the site so that this matter can be dealt with once and for all.

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Welfare (Mr. Nolan): Information on Thomas Nolan  Zoom on Thomas Nolan  In the few moments I have I should like to say that what Deputy Crotty has stated about the condition of the school and the other problems in Borris is correct. We all agree that the Department and the board of management would not have agreed to build a new school unless the old school needed replacement. I was on the deputation in April in connection with this matter. The Minister accepted recommendations made to him that the addition of a second story would be dangerous, and he told the deputation to get a contractor and to let him know the exact cost and that he would agree to pay the Department's share to make the second story safe. There was a promise that the contract would be signed within a couple of weeks. A few technical problems arose and Deputy Crotty will recall that the Minister told the deputation that the tender for the work, compared with other [557] such tenders, was high. I can recall his words. He said he was responsible to the Government and to the nation to get the best use he could for the money available to him.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Seán Browne  Zoom on Seán Browne  The Minister of State is speaking in the time allotted to the Minister of State at the Department of Education.

Mr. Nolan: Information on Thomas Nolan  Zoom on Thomas Nolan  A very reasonable case was made by Deputy Crotty and the other Deputies in the constituency not to deprive the children of Borris of education. There is not any doubt in my mind that a contract will be signed and that the building of the school in Borris will go ahead, but I ask the people not to wait until the contractor goes on the site because even though the contract is signed he will have the right to wait a month or two to start work on the site.

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Tunney): Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  By way of introduction and explanation and for the purpose of a clear understanding of the situation, I should say that there are three main parties immediately concerned in relation to the placing of a contract for a national school—first, the school authorities, second, the Department of Education; and, third, the Office of Public Works.

The school authorities provide the site, the evidence of title to the site and the local contribution. The Department of Education determine where the school is needed, the size of the school and provide from the Vote for Primary Education the grant for the cost of the school, apart from the local contribution. The Office of Public Works provide the professional service, examine the plans for the building, report on the tenders and certify the claims for payments as the work progresses. That has been standard procedure since the foundation of the State.

The question is not in dispute that there has been a long delay over a period of years in relation to the arrangements [558] for the provision of this new school. I agree there has been an unfortunate delay, but it is no harm to place on record the reasons for it. The proposal to replace this school was first made in 1955, but no progress was made until a site was offered in 1969. The site did not commend itself to the Commissioners of Public Works; but in 1975, in view of the fact that no other site was available, they agreed. The title to the site, which was not the responsibility of the Department of Education, was not furnished until 1979. When analysing the causes of the delay, we must remember all these factors. In April 1979 the amount of the local contribution was agreed.

In December 1979 working drawings had been received and approved by the Commissioners of Public Works. The architect representing the chairman of the school board of management was advised to proceed with the preparation of bills of quantities and the chairman was advised as regards the invitation of tenders. Deputy Crotty gave the history of tenders. I appreciate the positive case made by Deputies here today. The generosity which Deputy Crotty expects the Department to display in accepting tenders, is not what any good businessman would accept. I only say in passing that one automatically accepts the lowest as being the best.

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  A 9 per cent increase in the last three months.

Mr. Tunney: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  On 22 April 1980 the Minister met a local deputation who wished to discuss with him the matter of the date for the placing of the contract. The Minister said he was in full agreement that a new school was needed urgently but he also pointed out that responsibility for the delay over a period of years did not rest entirely with the Department. He informed the deputation that the lowest tender received for the contract for the new primary school building was in excess of the normal cost and that it would be necessary to have an examination of the documentation with a view to achieving a reduction. He also said he would be prepared to [559] authorise the Office of Public Works in due course to place the contract, subject to the agreement of the various interested parties being reached on the modification required.

A letter was addressed from the office of the Minister for Education to the secretary of the parents' action committee on 9 May 1980 informing him of the situation. The Minister understands that the Commissioners of Public Works have written to the school architect in connection with the matter and that a reply is awaited from him. It is desired that a contract for the new premises for Borris national school be placed as soon as possible. Everybody accepts that. I repeat what I said in this House on many occasions, that is, that my first priority in the field of education lies in the primary sector.

The present understandable agitation is irrelevant to what is going to happen within the next few weeks. Here I join with other Deputies in appealing to parents not to use what is commonly called the strike weapon in the hope of getting what they want ahead of their time. The Irish sean-fhocal which says you can never recover a day lost from school is very apt. Even though a parent might understandably be provoked into taking what he thinks is suitable remedial action, that will not influence the Minister to expedite the provision of this school.

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  The Minister gave a commitment of two to three weeks.

Mr. Tunney: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  I am at the disadvantage of not having had the opportunity discussing this with the Minister, but if the deputation interpreted the Minister's anxieties to proceed with this school as overlooking the necessary bureaucratic requirement——

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  They have been there for months.

[560]Mr. Tunney: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  Not during the lifetime of this Minister.

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  Yes.

Mr. Tunney: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  Rather than castigate the Minister for this, the Deputy should take it as an indication of his concern to proceed with the building of this school. I do not want to add anything further to what has been said by the three Deputies today except that this delay does not lie solely with the Department of Education. I appeal to the parents and teachers in Borris——

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  I agree with that.

Mr. Tunney: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  ——to accept that the Minister is as concerned as they are to proceed with the placing of this contract. I also ask them to bear a little longer with the bureaucratic requirements, which are always there. Deputy Crotty was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts and knows they have to be satisfied about the expenditure of public moneys. I share with the Deputies and parents the concern that this building be started as quickly as possible and that the children return to school and avail of existing facilities, albeit in a condition I would not wish to see continue.

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  Why has the contract not been signed?

Mr. Tunney: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  OPW are awaiting a reply to a letter addressed to the local architect.

Mr. Crotty: Information on Kieran Crotty  Zoom on Kieran Crotty  When that letter arrives at the Department, will it be signed?

Mr. Tunney: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  By then the Minister will have returned and the Deputy can take up the matter with him.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 13 June 1980.

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