Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
I recently received correspondence from the chairperson of the board of management of Glenswilly national school, Letterkenny, County Donegal, regarding its attempts to secure an extension to the school building. I hope the Minister is also aware of the representations made by the school’s principal because it is an ongoing issue. The principal has written to the Department of Education and Science seeking to change the school’s name. The exact name the school has proposed is, “Seeking An Extension Since 1992, Glenswilly National School”. It is not facetious but a genuine attempt to highlight the need for extra classrooms. There is nothing underhand about this. The school only wants to highlight the lack of space in the building.
Glenswilly, the general catchment area for the school, is a satellite area of Letterkenny which has experienced much development in recent years. As a result, more young people are growing up in the area, a similar experience to many other areas. There are 226 pupils at the school and next year it is envisaged there will be 235 pupils. The school-going population has risen but the school building remains the same size.
On Monday evening, along with my colleague Councillor Noel McBride, I was shown around the school by the principal. The general purpose room is actually used as a staff room to accommodate the teachers on their breaks. The caretaker also uses the room for storing his tools, which raises health and safety concerns. It also prevents proper physical education classes from being held. There is only one toilet to accommodate 18 members of staff. The school has no secretary because there is no space for an office to accommodate one. The extra rooms are necessary to create a proper learning environment. It is not healthy when educational activity is confined into such limited space.
The school buildings are in excellent condition due to the thorough work carried out by its excellent caretaker. The teachers themselves were involved in painting it two years ago. Although it is in excellent condition, its lack of space is the main problem.
The positive side to this issue is that as more young people live in the area, the more vibrant the community will become. This vibrant community has decided to stand up for itself and believes the time has come for action. The solution must be long term, not short term.
I emphasise the importance of the need for more rooms in the school. The Department of Education and Science has identified the need for 12 classrooms. I ask the Minister for Education and Science to directly intervene to expedite the resolution of this situation. I am delighted she attended the Chamber this evening and I look forward to her response.
Minister for Education and Science (Ms M. Hanafin): Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil don Seanadóir as ucht an cheist a ardú. I am familiar with the case of Glenswilly national school since Deputy Keaveney also raised the matter with me. If I were Senator McHugh, I am not sure I would be highlighting the fact the school first applied for its extension in 1992, given that his party was in Government since then. The project did not progress in that period because the school’s application was not for extra classrooms but for ancillary accommodation. When money was not as plentiful for the school building programme, priority was not given to ancillary accommodation but to classrooms.
However, as the Senator stated, enrolment has increased substantially in recent years. There is a staff principal and eight mainstream assistant teachers, two school-based learning support teachers and two resource teachers, a large complement of staff. This has put pressure on schools throughout the country in its own way because since we made so many resource and special needs teachers available, they all now need space. It was as a result of a positive policy decision that there is increased pressure on schools for space and Glenswilly national school is in that position. Having recognised the extra teachers and increased enrolment, it was important that the planning and development unit would look at the numbers in the school at present and, given the rate of development of the area, that it would plan for future enrolment so that capital funding provided now would meet the school’s needs into the future.
That assessment has been completed and the long-term projected staffing figure has also been determined and notified to the school authority, which has agreed it. The next stage is the drawing up of the accommodation brief, which will require a site visit, the next stage in the process. I assure the Senator that will get under way immediately.
This year we are spending almost €500 million on schools, with at least 1,100 school building projects being undertaken. In playing catch-up, as we are with 4,000 schools, and added teacher investment and increased enrolment, we are trying to spread the money as best we can. The school may say it has been waiting since 1992 but the application it submitted at the time was not for classrooms.
Progress has been made at the Department. Enrolments and staff requirements have been agreed and we will now arrange a site visit and I will then look at the school in the context of the next building programme.
Mr. McHugh: I welcome the Minister’s response and appreciate her intervention. I hope the visit to school will be expedited. Irrespective of the timeframe and who was in Government in 1992, I was struck on Monday by the principal telling me he had been seeking improvements for the 33 years he has been in the job. We must examine the situation in the current context.
Mr. U. Burke: I also welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for taking this matter. The school in question is St. Catherine’s national school, Aughrim, Ballinasloe, County Galway. The school has run into a difficulty causing an additional delay, although the school authorities agree with the Department officials that it is necessary.
St. Catherine’s national school was built in 1949 and has had no major refurbishment since. It is a five teacher school with an enrolment of over 120 students. Local research by the board of management and parents clearly indicates that the area is rapidly expanding. The school has three prefabricated buildings, two of which are classrooms and one which provides for special needs students, one of whom in particular is autistic and requires special care. There are several children with special needs and there are two resource teachers, in addition to the five full-time teachers, with another teacher supporting.
The first application was made by the school in 1996. It was asked to prepare plans in 2000 but it did not hear anything back from the Department despite numerous requests and letters. In March 2005, it was allocated money through the devolved scheme to add two classrooms to replace two of the prefabricated structures. The school prepared plans and secured planning permission. Naturally, however, additional funding was required. The school inspector advised that the school needed a major extension, not what was on offer under the devolved allocation. The authorities met with Department officials and agreed that what was being proposed would not be of any benefit to the school and the Department advised them to withdraw from that scheme and to look for a larger extension with six new classrooms.
As a result of that the authorities are now back in the Department files as a band 2 application, awaiting further developments in light of proposed housing developments. It was a worthwhile proposal by Department officials and accepted as such by the board of management, principal and parents’ council. They do not want, however, to go through the same long process again. Having started in 1996, ten years later they are at band 2.
I have been asked to request the fast-tracking of the project in view of the overcrowding in both the regular and prefabricated classrooms which is likely to get worse in the next two years. The school authorities want every possible effort to be made by the Department to ensure there will not be a long wait for the people of this historic location.
Ms M. Hanafin: I thank Senator Ulick Burke for raising the issue of St. Catherine’s national school, Aughrim. It is another area that is experiencing the rapid population growth which is putting pressure on many schools throughout the country to respond to increasing enrolments, the consequent increase in teachers and added pressures as a result of positive policies. Last year 600 resource and support teachers were allocated to deal with children with learning difficulties and special needs. Now, 5,000 of the teaching cohort at primary level are dealing with learning support, which places a space requirement on schools.
The reduction in class sizes this year and in September places increased pressure on space because every teacher will want a classroom. With the disadvantage programme and smaller classes, there will be an extra 500 primary school teachers in September, all of which causes pressure on space in our schools.
We are, however, spending almost €500 million this year to upgrade and modernise schools throughout the country. I understand St. Catherine’s wanted to be one of them and progress its interests. The fact it was offered the permanent initiative of €300,000 is a sign the Department recognised it deserved the extra space. This would probably have met its needs at the time of application. However, current demographics and the extra supports gone into the school mean it needs more space than would be possible under the grant given.
The school currently has a principal and four mainstream assistant teachers. It also has a school-based shared learning support teacher and a permanent and temporary resource teacher. Therefore, current requirements already put the school under pressure and enrolment has also increased to 116 from 85.
The Senator pointed out that what the school wants to do and what the Department also requires is to prepare for the requirements not just for 2006 but also for 2007 and 2008. It is important, therefore, to consider enrolment and demographic trends and recent and planned housing developments in the area. This is being done. It is not just a question of saying as there will be “X” number of children, we need “X” number of classrooms, because along with those children there is also a need for extra resource teachers and supports.
As soon as the review is completed, we will sign off on the additional facilities needed. The review should not take long, but as it is a growing area, it is important to get it right. In light of the announcements I have made this year, I am anxious to help a school such as St. Catherine’s. Once the enrolment demographics are identified, I will be able to look at it. Band 2 is a high priority rating rather than a stage in a process. Band 1 covers amalgamated schools, special needs schools and areas where there are no schools, such as the new developing areas in west and north County Dublin.
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