Thursday, 30 October 1986
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Wilson: I would like to thank you, a Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment of the House. I thank the Minister of State for coming in to let us know what he can do to remedy the situation which is very serious.
This school is situated on the main road from Cootehill to Cavan. It was originally the school for the parish of Drung. The old school was sold some time ago and a large prefabricated building replaced it. Needless to say, when the prefabricated building was new it was quite presentable and looked well but the effective life of most prefabricated houses is about ten years or 12 years at the maximum. This building has been in existence for almost 20 years and it certainly shows the signs of it. Very often the Minister has to listen to exaggerated stories in this House but I visited this school last week and the people were not exaggerating. The condition of the school is appalling particularly now that we are facing the winter. The roof is leaking, the teachers have to run around with buckets to catch the rain  coming through and the rat holes are quite terrifying. I do not like rats. I can tolerate mice but rats are sinister and dangerous. The teachers indicated that rat droppings are visible all over the school each morning. They have to take home whatever teaching aids and equipment they have.
There is a strong parents association there and they are really frightened about the possibility of disease. With so many small children of four and a half and five years of age this adds to the horror. The mothers are terrified. The parents committee discussed the possibility that the Department would give them, pending the start of building, a grant to employ a company who deal with rat infestation. This would at least take the terror out of the area for a while. I am not exaggerating. These are the circumstances we found. The people are frustrated and are pressuring the board of management. The pastor, the Reverend Turlough O'Reilly, is a particularly caring man but the pressure the people are exerting on him is making him very upset.
The people applied for a new school, bought a site and collected the money. There was no humming or hawing and no neglect. They decided that a new school should be built and went about it in the right way. The first shock they got was when the local authority refused them planning permission. They did not expect that this would happen. The Department of Education advised them to appeal to An Bord Pleanála and they did this. As the House knows this takes some time. The result was that the appeal was turned down and they were then back where they started. But the people were not put off by that. They then started to look for another site and succeeded in getting one. They had the money collected, they had a site and they also had a declaration from the health authority that the building was unfit for human habitation. If the same conditions as I saw last week applied in a factory, the factory Acts would apply and a factory owner would be forbidden to conduct business in such conditions.
 I put down a question some time ago and was told that a quantity surveyor was to visit the site last February. He did not visit the site until July 1986. Admittedly, it was not a great summer but had the building started it would be well advanced by now. In the meantime, and these are the parents' words, the school became infested and the rodents ate anything that was left in the school overnight necessitating teachers to carry equipment to and from the school. If clothes or any other items are left in the school overnight they are eaten by rats. The teachers are busy keeping the rat holes covered.
The parents spoke to me about the possibility of a strike. Both during my time as Minister for Education and at any other time I have tried always to dissuade people from striking on the principle, as I said at the meeting, that whereas productivity can be made up for in a factory or a manufacturing business, in a school, and especially one where education is so necessary and is very often the only vehicle for social mobility, the time lost can never be replaced. Mention of a strike shows how desperate the parents are. They are terrified for the health of their children. They continue to emphasise that hitherto they have tried all peaceful methods. It would be a pity if the peaceful, persistent and efficient activity on the part of parents would appear to bring less success than demonstration and confrontation might bring. That is part of my basic philosophy. They tell me they have informed the Department they intend to keep their children at home from school three days per week starting on 12 November until the tenders for the school are out and sanctioned.
They were offered further prefabricated accommodation and they tell me that they have turned the offer down. I believe that in doing so they were right. I am not blaming the Minister for this, but the tendency is to let maith go leor be maith go leor if there is some temporary relief in the nature of prefabricated accommodation. They had been so busy  collecting for the school and other parochial purposes before that — I remember urging them to build a school a long time ago — and they feel that taking £10,000 out of the fund they have already for a permanent and proper school and putting it into prefabricated accommodation would be wrong. I think the Minister and the House would agree with them on that.
As I have said, it is easy to develop fears, legitimate and valid fears, but the psychology of the thing is important also. It is easy to develop an idea that somehow or other through being passive and through arguing their case in a peaceful and pacific way others who shout louder, make more noise or indulge in more violent antics, will get in ahead of them. That was one of the points raised at the meeting. They were afraid they might lose their place on the list.
I have here a copy of the letter which the secretary of the parents' association sent to the Department of Education which I quote: “We the parents wish to inform the Depertment of Education that we intend to withdraw our children from St. Mary's national school, Drung, for three days per week unless the quantity surveyor's report is completed by Tuesday 4 November and tenders are out by Tuesday, 11 November.” No doubt the Minister will tell me and the House the time scale, but my appeal is to the Minister. He is of the profession and I know he is an understanding person who would insist on the highest professional behaviour from the staff and the highest possible standard of school building. I am relying on him, that by his action he will see to it that the parents will get assurances that will be delivered on and that further drastic action will not be required from them.
I reiterate my gratitude to you, a Cheann Comhairle, for giving me an opportunity of raising this in the House. Tá súil agam go mbheidh dea-scéal againn ón Aire. Mar a dúirt mé cheana féin, is iar-mhúinteoir é agus tá a fhios aige chomh dian is atá sé ar na malraigh  agus ar na múinteoirí bheith ag obair i scoil den tsórt sin.
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Kenny): I am glad to be able to reply to Deputy Wilson who has raised this matter on the Adjournment. You, a Cheann Comhairle, have expressed an interest to me about Drung school. I think I should set out some of the background for the record of the House.
The formal application for the erection of the new three-teacher school building at Drung, County Cavan, was first made to my Department in May 1980. In October of that year my Department conveyed to the chairman of the school approval in principle for the replacement of the existing prefabricated classrooms. The question arose, however, of the provision by the school authorities of a site for the new building. The school authorities had indicated that a site was available and this was subsequently inspected by the Commissioners of Public Works who indicated that a plot of about three acres was on offer from the school authorities of which one and a half acres could be made available for school use. Towards the end of 1981 a specific one and a half acre portion of the three acre field was chosen as suitable for school building and the preparation of preliminary drawings was commenced by the commissioner's architectural staff.
Meanwhile it was necessary for the Department to enter into correspondence with the school authorities to establish that the title to the site for the proposed new school was satisfactory. This correspondence was entered into early in 1982. It transpired in July 1982 that the title furnished was not satisfactory and correspondence between the solicitors concerned ensued. It was not until November 1982 that my Department received a certificate from the Chief State Solicitor, that the title question had been satisfactorily resolved, and this opened the way for the further stages of architectural planning under the rules for national schools to be put in train.
My Department then wrote to the  school chairman indicating their approval for the sketch plans for the projected new school and furnishing cost estimates with a view to reaching agreement on a satisfactory level of the local contribution. Agreement on the local contribution issue was reached by December 1982 when the Department formally sanctioned a grant for the project.
On my Department's instruction, the Commissioners of Public Works then commenced the planning of the project in detail. During the course of 1983, however, the commissioners reported that difficulties had been encountered by the school authorities in relation to local authority planning permission and these difficulties came to a head in November 1984 when the commissioners reported to my Department that a fresh site would have to be chosen. That, in turn, necessitated a fresh title investigation by the Chief State Solicitor. My Department in October 1984 were advised by the Chief State Solicitor that he had received sufficient assurances as to the title to the new site. This, again, opened the way for the architectural planning process on the main school project to be resumed.
Meanwhile, my Department, in response to reports on the condition of the existing school building, — I share the Deputy's concern in the matter — indicated to the school authorities that they were prepared to sanction a substantial grant towards the replacement of some of the prefabricated classrooms pending the construction of the new school. In the event, this offer was declined and the school indicated that it would prefer the make do with the improvement of the existing accommodation. My Department subsequently sanctioned a fresh grant for improvements and some work has been done in that regard. It is, of course, accepted that the school agreed to this measure in the interests of saving what they considered to be unnecessary expenditure and of expediting the allocation of capital for the new school project.
The new school project has now  reached the stage where the preparation of contract documents is nearing completion. The working drawings have been completed and are in the hands of a quantity surveyor for preparation of the bill of quantities. The latter document is expected to be completed before the end of this year and the question of inviting tenders for the project can then be considered.
I want to say to Deputy Wilson that I share his concern and that of the Ceann Comhairle in this matter. In my short period as Minister of State with responsibility for the primary school building programme, some very poor cases countrywide have been brought to my attention. We are dealing in many cases with schools built as far back as 1827 and some of them are in a deplorable condition. The section of the Department is inundated with requests from boards of management, managers of schools and parents, quite rightly in many cases, about the provision of decent facilities for the children. We are dealing with over 5,000 primary schools and an allocation of £28 million this year. At any one time 700 improvement works are being carried out on schools and today there would be approximately 115 major work schemes in operation. I want to say to Deputy Wilson and to the Ceann Comhairle that I am very sympathetic to the plea of building the new national school at Drung as soon as is humanly possible. The very poor accommodation there has been adequately documented and certainly gives rise to justified fears and concerns on the part of the parents.
I share the Deputy's concern with regard to the passive way in which the parents have dealt with this matter to date. I also share his concern with regard to their comments about holding children back as from 12 November. The mechanics of the tender system are well known to the Deputy who is a former Minister himself. The tenders must be advertised in the public press. The normal waiting period of one month must elapse before examination of the tenders, and one cannot prejudice the tender system in that one never knows what contractors  might apply for a particular job. All of that is subject to the overall provision of finance being made available to place contracts.
I can assure the Deputy that the completion of the contract documentation is proceeding with all haste. Once that has been completed I will then be in a position to discuss the release for tender of the project and once the tender has been received, examined and approved, subject to cost limitations, the question of the placing of a contract arises. If the Deputy wishes, I am quite prepared to reassure the parents and the board of management on that score and, at the Deputy's request, I will meet a deputation in due course.
One other thing I might comment on is that there is no such thing as a specific list within the Department from which schools are chosen at random. Rather is it one of categories where tenders or contracts can be placed. Schools fall into  categories with regard to the different stages in the planning process. I am very concerned about this. If the Deputy wishes, I will arrange to meet with representatives of the board of management and reassure them that this matter will be dealt with as soon as I can possibly do so within the constraints placed upon me by the Department.
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