Tuesday, 3 March 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy James Bannon: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to speak on this important matter, namely, the need for the Minister for Education and Science to expedite a new school building for Forgney national school, County Longford, which was given the go-ahead in 2006, in light of the recent highly alarming engineer’s report, which indicates that the 42-year old wooden pre-fab structure in which the school is accommodated is in a serious condition and in danger of collapsing. This poses a major threat to the health and safety of the pupils and teachers.
The comprehensive report was made by Cunningham Consulting Engineering Limited and has been with the Department of Education and Science and the Minister since before Christmas. The most damning and specific finding of the report is that the temporary wooden structure in which the school has been accommodated for the past 42 years should be condemned and the site closed off.
The walls and roof are rotten, cannot be replaced and are ready to collapse on the children and teachers at any moment. The windows are single glazed, the doors are a safety hazard and dampness is rife. The structure, which I would not call a building, is similar to a slatted shed and cannot be heated because the storage heaters are obsolete and cannot be controlled. It has a BER rating of G; there are no vents and there is rot and mould everywhere. The public water supply to the building is contaminated and the wooden floors are rotten and patched.
The threat posed by fire in this antiquated wooden structure is very real. The entire wooden environment is no longer sound nor sustainable. An accident is waiting to happen but I query whether it could be called an accident if it were to happen. The Minister has been alerted to the dangerous state of the school on many occasions, so ignorance is not an excuse.
Forgney national school was given the go-ahead for a new building in 2006 by the Department of Education and Science and the Minister after 40 years of lobbying but there was no follow through. I have raised this matter on the Adjournment, both here and in the other House, most recently last October. I have made repeated representations on behalf of the school, the principal, the board of management, teachers, parents and pupils and I have worked tirelessly to achieve a safe and healthy built environment.
Last year the cost of providing a new school building for Forgney was estimated at €1.3 million. A state-of-the-art school could now be built for €850,000 to €900,000. This is a small sum when contrasted with the €113 million that has been spent on pre-fabs throughout the country from 2006-2008.
The health and safety of the 33 children and teachers is my primary concern. I ask the Minister to make it his concern and to provide the necessary funding to ensure the safety and well-being of the children of this school. Should anything happen to the children in Forgney national school the finger of blame would point firmly at the Minister for Education and Science and the Department. Condemning young children in the 21st century to a 40 year old substandard wooden structure is extraordinary and extremely dangerous, even for this Government. The report by the building energy consultant, Cunningham Consulting Engineering Limited, ends as follows:
The ball is in the court of the Minister. The safety of 33 children is in the hands of the Minister. If there is not a response that this school will be built immediately, I want the Minister to meet the board of management, the principal and the parents because they are anxious and concerned at what may happen. There may be a catastrophe if action is not taken immediately.
Deputy Eamon Ó Cúiv: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht an ábhar seo a ardú. I am happy to reply on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, who, unfortunately, cannot be present.
Forgney national school has a staffing level of a principal and one mainstream assistant. The school’s enrolment at 30 September 2008 was 26 pupils. The school authority has applied to the Department of Education and Science for capital funding for a new school building. In the context of this application, the local inspector has confirmed that the school is expected to maintain its current enrolment and staffing level. It is not, therefore, experiencing the rapid increase in enrolment that has occurred in other schools around the country.
The Department of Education and Science uses published prioritisation criteria for advancing large scale building projects. There are four band ratings under these criteria with band 1 being the highest and band 4 the lowest. Band ratings describe the type of works needed at a school and the urgency attaching to them. A band 2 rating has been assigned to the proposed building project for Forgney national school reflecting the fact that the standard of its existing accommodation is such that it needs to be replaced by a new building. The structural engineer’s report recently filed in the Department of Education and Science by the school authority concurs with this, as expected.
Modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy undertaking. The extent of the demand on the capital budget of the Department of Education and Science is enormous providing, as it does, accommodation for new communities together with accommodation for the unprecedented number of extra teachers this Government has put into the system. As well as this, much of the existing stock, like Forgney national school, must be modernised as a result of historic under-investment. This will not all be achieved overnight.
Thousands of building projects were carried out under the last national development plan, NDP, to provide new and modernised educational infrastructure and thousands more will be carried out under the new NDP. The commitment of this Government to ensuring that all children are educated in appropriate facilities to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum is evidenced by the scale of funding made available under both the former and current national development plans.
A record €656 million has been made available for the school building programme alone in 2009. This level of funding, at a time of great pressure on the public finances, is a sign of the very real commitment of this Government to investing in school infrastructure. This will not only enable the provision of school places where they are needed but it will also allow the Department of Education and Science to build on the enormous progress made in extending and modernising existing buildings.
The level of demand on the school building programme is such that not all projects can be carried out together. They will have to be carried out in a structured and coherent manner and this is the reasoning behind the Department’s prioritisation criteria. The project for Forgney, as with all other building projects, will be consistent with this approach.
In the interim, it is open to the school authority to apply to the Department of Education and Science for funding to repair the existing school building if the board of management deems this necessary.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: In this regard, the Department has no record of having received an application from the board for summer works scheme funding, emergency works scheme funding or under the small schools scheme to address its needs. Having said that, the Department is open to receiving and considering an application for grant aid to repair the building and it will be advising the school authority accordingly.
I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter and assure him that the Department of Education and Science is committed to working with the school authority to resolve the school’s accommodation needs.
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