Tuesday, 22 March 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Leyden: I am delighted that the Minister for Agriculture and Food is here as she has a great interest in and knowledge of the region in question. I seek to ascertain when the major development at Elphin community college will be approved to go to tender. Elphin has a proud record of second level education for many years. Its first school, the Bishop Hudson Grammar School, opened in 1869. Up to the late 1960s the town had three second level schools. We now have only one second level school, which cannot operate to its full potential. The school is in the unique position of being the only second level school in the school building programme of the Department of Education and Science, which operates on a split campus. From a health and safety point of view it is deplorable that the students and teachers must trek 0.4 of a mile to get from one building to the other. We need to provide accommodation for students on a single site and eliminate the problems associated with having to travel between school premises 0.4 of a mile apart.
This school is the lifeblood of the Elphin community. I ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food to provide clarification as to how decisions are made regarding schools in band 3 being included in the 2005 schools building programme. This school is unique. Education has been part and parcel of the life of Elphin going back to the days of Oliver Goldsmith, who was educated in Elphin. Bishop Hanley, the former Bishop of Elphin, was also educated there. I could give many names of people who received tremendous education in Elphin, particularly at the Bishop Hudson Grammar School, which amalgamated with the vocational school in the 1960s. The school has 116 pupils and 14 staff, including the principal. It offers a full curriculum of second level education in a very difficult situation. I visited the school last December; it has a tremendous atmosphere despite the conditions under which the teachers are working. The relationship between staff and pupils is excellent and the school has a great record of achievement.
As a parent, the Minister for Agriculture and Food will appreciate that carrying schoolbags 0.4 of a mile from one building to another on a wet, windy, cold, miserable day is not acceptable. I cannot understand the numerous letters sent by the Department of Education and Science indicating the building project is at an early stage of architectural planning. Representatives from the school met former Ministers for Education and Science, Deputies Martin and Dempsey. They have lobbied the Taoiseach, Ministers, Deputies and Senators and still the saga continues. We have a responsibility to provide quality education facilities to the families and children of Elphin. We are in the Border, midland and western area, which could not spend the funding allocated yet we cannot provide funding for this school.
I am asking the Minister for Agriculture and Food, as a member of the Cabinet and someone who has the interest of the west of Ireland and the region at heart, to personally intervene in this issue. It is not a matter of referring to these bands, which is a way of delaying projects. It is a matter of getting a Government decision to approve the building programme for the school as a matter of urgency to ensure that education can continue in Elphin and that the pupils and teachers are given proper facilities to work in good quality conditions, which we deserve in the 21st century. This school was initially built in the 1800s and conditions have deteriorated since then. I ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for Education and Science, who will be getting a full report of this debate, to give some hope to the people of Elphin that some light exists at the end of the tunnel and that approval for this project will be given sooner rather than later.
Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan): Gabhaim buíochas don Seanadóir as ucht ocáide a thabhairt dom a chur in iúl don Seanad an méid atá ag dul ar aghaidh ag an Roinn. Aontaím go bhfuil brú ar an Seanadóir ina cheantar féin agus mar gheall as an díospóireacht seo, labhróidh mé leis an Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta faoin díoma ar mhuintir Ros Comáin.
 On behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, I wish to point out that modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task given the legacy of decades of under-investment as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office, the Government has shown a sincere determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. The Minister for Education and Science recently outlined details of the schools building and modernisation programme. This year alone, €270 million will be allocated to primary schools and €223 million to post-primary schools for building works. This represents an increase of 14% on the 2004 allocation.
Elphin community college is a single centre coeducational facility with an enrolment of 116 pupils. Enrolment has remained steady in recent years. The school’s teaching staff is 11.71 whole-time equivalent posts, indicating a very generous pupil teacher ratio of 10:1. The school currently operates on a split site in the town and I can appreciate the difficulties this causes. County Roscommon VEC submitted an application to provide accommodation for all students on a single campus. Architectural planning for a project to provide an extension was initiated and is at an early stage of architectural design. Last year the VEC was given approval by the Department to purchase a portion of land to allow access to the site for the development of the proposed extension.
All school building projects in the system were reassessed last year in line with the criteria for prioritising large-scale projects, which were revised following consultation with all the education partners, and this project is rated as a band 3. The introduction of multi-annual capital envelopes requires a revised approach to how building projects are scheduled through the design process and on to tender and construction. The Minister announced details of 122 high priority major projects which will prepare tenders and move to construction in the next 12 to 15 months, and followed this with a series of announcements relating to the school building and modernisation programme. These announcements included details of an expansion of the number of schools invited to deliver their building projects on the basis of devolved funding, details of schools with projects approved under the 2005 summer works scheme to which the Department has allocated €60 million, almost twice that spent in 2004, and details of schools authorised to commence architectural planning. Further announcements will be made on projects which will be allowed to progress through the architectural design process and Elphin community college will be considered in this context. In thanking the Senator for raising this matter, I will bring his concerns to the attention of the Minister for Education and Science and I will ask that the Department might be able to initiate stage 2 of the project.
Mr. Leyden: I am grateful for the Minister’s reply. I am disappointed this project is not making the progress it deserves in a rural area where we need education. This school is the lifeblood of the town of Elphin. Elphin community college must be given the priority it deserves and I appeal to the Government to progress the matter.
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