Adjournment Debate.

Accident and Emergency Services.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of health care in Louth. The Government has a policy of investment and reform in our health services and that is a policy I endorse. I want to see a world-class health service and I want to see Louth benefit from that service.

While the population of the State has increased by around 16% over the past ten years, the increase in Louth has been in the order of 20%. When we factor in that much of the environs of Drogheda are in Meath, the population increase is even more notable. The population of that county has increased by almost half since 1996 and this too impacts on health services in Louth.

We need to see a full range of health facilities in Louth County Hospital and in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, though I fully acknowledge the progress that has been made since 1997. In Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, staff numbers have increased by 47%, the number of casualty cases dealt with has risen by 30%, and day cases have increased by 108%. This was made possible with a more than four-fold increase in funding over the period. Since 1997 at Louth County Hospital in Dundalk, staff levels have increased by 44% and day cases have increased by 132%. This was possible due to significant increases in resources. However, there remains a need to expand services in Louth. For example, I would like to see the provision of the new accident and emergency extension in Drogheda being accelerated.

While there have been significant improvements in accident and emergency wards around the country, the accident and emergency service in Drogheda continues to lag behind and there are frequent complaints about waiting times for people in need of those facilities. I know there are also plans for a new regional hospital in the future but that is some way off. We want to see more progress now in the existing hospitals.

There are great plans to expand primary care in Ardee, Drogheda and Dundalk and I want to see the provision of these services speeded up. There is concern that the Health Service Executive may be inclined to reconfigure services in the years ahead and I want to make it clear that any diminution in health services in Louth will be strongly opposed.

As I said, Louth is an expanding county and must see expanding health services. I hope the Minister can assure me tonight that continued investment and improvement will be at the heart of health policy in Louth.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and I thank Deputy Kirk for raising it.

The HSE established a steering group and a project group to oversee a programme designed to improve safety and standards for patients in the north east region. The decision was taken having regard to the issues raised in the report prepared for the HSE by Teamwork Management Services, Improving Safety and Achieving Better Standards — An Action Plan for Health Services in the North East.

The Teamwork report made a number of recommendations to improve patient care in the region. The report identifies the need to develop a high quality, responsive emergency and planned service, in line with international standards, by developing appropriate services as close to local populations as possible. This will be supported by a new regional hospital. In keeping with the Teamwork report the HSE intends to establish a regional accident and emergency trauma unit that will ultimately be based at the new regional hospital. The HSE advises that accident and emergency services are provided at present at Louth County Hospital by non-consultant hospital doctors with a sessional consultant commitment from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda.

In advance of the development of the new hospital, it is the HSE's intention over the next number of years to develop ambulance and emergency services in the North East. This will include the training of advanced paramedics and advanced nurse practitioners. It will also necessitate improving facilities and services at Drogheda, while urgent care facilities will be developed at Dundalk.

It is intended, when the new regional hospital is established, that Louth County Hospital will retain this urgent care service, providing a service to a very significant proportion of patients from Dundalk. To this end a new computed tomography scanner is being installed in Dundalk next month and will be operational shortly thereafter. Two new modular theatres will open in April and the HSE will continue to invest in Louth County Hospital to provide the best and most appropriate service to the people of the area.

School Completion Programme.

I appreciate the opportunity to raise this important matter this evening.

The sense of despair I have every time I arrive in this House to raise a delayed school building project is matched only by the despair and frustration of the staff, parents and pupils affected. Tonight I am asking the Minister to explain the unacceptable delays in the provision of a new school to replace Bhreac Chluain national school, Annascaul, County Kerry.

Bhreac Chluain national school has 111 pupils, four classrooms and a dedicated principal and staff. However, the school in which they are expected to teach does not reflect a country with a booming economy and a stated Government commitment to education. Annascaul is a rapidly developing area and the population increase requires an expansion in facilities, particularly those relating to education.

The school in question is over 100 years old and is in serious need of replacement. I want to give some examples of the facilities in which the staff and pupils are expected to operate. There are two resource teachers in the school but they have only one room between them. A prefab to house the second teacher and pupils has been applied for through the Department of Education and Science but the school has heard nothing. The cloakroom, where the children hang their coats, has to be used as an art room as it is the only space for such work. The fire exit at the back of the school is cluttered with coats and bags and the library is out of use as it is being used as a classroom by a resource teacher. So much for the promotion of libraries and literacy in our schools. The computer space — one could not call it a room — is right outside the toilets and part of the toilets area had to be converted to facilitate the library.

I think I have painted a clear picture for the Minister. The school building project has been on the desk of the Minister for Education and Science since 1998. However, there has not been a whit of progress towards the new school in the intervening years. I want answers to why this is the case.

The sense of exasperation and despair among staff and parents is palpable and they cannot understand why no progress has been made on their new school. They are tired of phoning Tullamore, writing letters to politicians and highlighting their situation in public. All they want to know is when the new school will be delivered. The board of management wants to know where it stands. They do not want another standard Pontius Pilate reply, but rather to know when this project will be prioritised.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and the position of the Department of Education and Science regarding the application for a new school for scoil náisiúnta Bhreac Chluain, Annascaul, County Kerry.

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 in this area and the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. Nonetheless, since taking office this Government has shown a focused determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

As evidence of this commitment, over €540 million will be available to be spent on schools building and modernisation projects in the coming year, in respect of both primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. Since 1997, a total of €3 billion has been invested in school buildings and this has delivered over 7,800 school building projects. The additional investment of over €540 million will build on these achievements and focus in particular on the provision of school accommodation in areas where the population is growing at a rapid rate. As further evidence of our commitment, the national development plan funding of approximately €4.5 billion will be invested in schools over the coming years.

I am sure one will agree that this record level of investment is a positive testament to the high priority the Government attaches to ensuring that school accommodation is of the highest standard possible. Furthermore, to reduce red tape and allow projects to move faster, responsibility for smaller projects has been devolved to school level. Standard designs have also been developed for eight and 16 classroom schools to facilitate speedier delivery of projects and save on design fees. The design and build method is also used to expedite delivery where the use of standard designs is not possible. Taken together with the unprecedented level of funding available, these initiatives ensure that building projects are delivered in the fastest timeframe possible.

Turning to the school in question, scoil náisiúnta Bhreac Chluain is a co-educational primary school which had a September 2006 enrolment of 109 pupils. Enrolments at this school have been relatively stable, with a slight increase in recent years from 90 pupils in 2001 to 109 pupils in 2006. The school has submitted an application to the Department of Education and Science for a new school building and the long-term staffing figure on which accommodation needs will be based has been determined and notified to the school authority. It has been agreed that appropriate accommodation should be provided to cater for a long-term projected staffing of one principal, three mainstream assistants and ancillary staff. This implies a four-classroom school with appropriate ancillary accommodation. The school inspector has reported that the existing site is restricted and that the possibility of a new school on a greenfield site should be explored.

Before progressing the project further and to ensure that any capital funding allocated to the provision of a new school building represents optimal use of resources and is appropriate to meet the school's long-term accommodation needs, it will be necessary to consider the possibility of utilising the existing building or site before pursuing a greenfield site for a new build project. The next step is to carry out a technical investigation of the existing building and site to determine their suitability. When this inspection has been completed, the project will be progressed in the context of the schools building and modernisation programme.

I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter and allowing me to outline the progress made under the schools building and modernisation programme and the position on the application for a new school building for scoil náisiúnta Bhreac Chluain, Annascaul, County Kerry.

Educational Disadvantage.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this extremely important matter and I welcome the Minister of State. I am very concerned about what is happening in Mayo, which seems to have been particularly hard hit in respect of the DEIS review. Approximately 25 schools are affected in the county, which is above the national average. I am concerned about how the review was carried out.

No one would begrudge any second level school that is included in the DEIS scheme, but there is now total disbelief that so many second level schools in Mayo, which are experiencing severe deprivation, have been excluded. It is obvious that, on the basis of the criteria used in the evaluation process, the schools that were most successful in retaining their pupils were penalised for their success. I do not believe the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, could possibly understand the crisis she has engineered for so many Mayo schools. The result will be highly divisive for education and will result in larger class sizes in many cases.

There are 16 schools on Achill, all of which are disadvantaged. All are included in the DEIS programme except one. There are 13 national schools and two post-primary schools included, one of which is Scoil Damhnait. Two of the schools are side by side, yet one is excluded. Nevertheless, all the pupils in the island's national schools, which are feeding the two secondary schools, are deprived. There is, therefore, something very strange occurring and the valuation process must be flawed.

A similar situation obtains in Belmullet. There are 22 schools in this region and one, a second-level school, is excluded. I urge the Minister of State to re-examine this matter. Does disadvantage stop just because one goes to a secondary school? It does not. The loss to one particular school is very significant. It will lose a school liaison position, a disadvantaged area post, which is the equivalent of one teacher in hours; and disadvantaged area funding, which can amount to €30,000 or even €600,000 if one considers all the losses involved in respect of the programme. One should bear in mind that the access programme can make a major difference in allowing leaving certificate students to reach third level. If classified as disadvantaged for any project, a school can get 95% support, as opposed to 90% in other circumstances. How can a school being fed by all the national schools, which are deprived and recognised as such by the Department, suddenly be regarded as not deprived?

It is a question of supporting parents without a tradition of education to make their boys and girls realise its value. Designation would imply extra grant aid for the students chosen, and the points total is topped. There are homework groups and home visits. It is a matter of bearing in mind the human face of the schools and of allowing those with no tradition of education to reach third level. It is a matter of keeping them in school and encouraging them to aspire to educational excellence.

The difficulty is that the schools that have excelled are the ones being punished, and this constitutes a very serious issue. The Minister has said no school will lose disadvantaged status funding but this is not the case because there are all sorts of ideas to share liaison officers, etc. There is clearly a major problem. The DEIS initiative is being rolled out by the Department of Education and Science and it is fundamentally flawed in its attempt to address educational disadvantage. The criteria chosen to identify disadvantage are not weighted to identify intrinsic disadvantage, but instead use student retention and attainment levels as the main indicators. Consequently, the scheme has the potential to reward dysfunctionality in schools and penalise cultures of expectation and success.

There are fundamental questions for the Minister to answer. What will be the position of the schools that are losing out from September 2007? What was the rationale for selecting data that is so seriously outdated, particularly in regard to medical cards? Why choose a set of indicators that are so out of line with international practice? Will all future initiatives targeting educational disadvantage be focused solely on DEIS schools?

A fair review of the excluded schools is necessary and it should use agreed and internationally approved criteria. In the meantime, in order to be eligible for all disadvantage-targeted benefits, all excluded schools should retain their disadvantaged status. The Department should confirm this in writing to the schools affected. The current situation is unacceptable and I urge the Minister of State to examine the matter.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the Deputy about these schools. Delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, the action plan for educational inclusion, provides for a standardised system for identifying levels of disadvantage and a new integrated school support programme, SSP. DEIS will bring together and build upon a number of existing interventions in schools with a concentrated level of disadvantage.

The process of identifying schools for participation in DEIS was managed by the Educational Research Centre, ERC, on behalf of the Department of Education and Science and supported by quality assurance work co-ordinated through the Department's regional offices and the inspectorate. The ERC's overall approach was guided by the definition of educational disadvantage in the Education Act 1998. Section 32(9) of that Act states "the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools".

In the case of second level schools, the Department supplied the ERC with centrally-held data from the post-primary pupils and State Examinations Commission databases. Based on an analysis of this data, the variables used to determine eligibility for inclusion in the school support programme were as follows: medical card data for junior certificate candidates, including junior certificate school programme candidates; junior certificate retention rates by school; junior certificate exam results aggregated to school level, expressed as an overall performance scale, OPS, score and this was based on each student's performance in the seven subjects in which he or she performed best; and leaving certificate retention rates by school.

The identification process was in line with international best practice and had regard to and employed the existing and most appropriate data sources available. A review mechanism was put in place to address the concerns of schools that did not qualify for inclusion in DEIS but regarded themselves as having a level of disadvantage which was of a scale sufficient to warrant their inclusion in the programme. The review process operated under the direction of an independent person, charged with ensuring that all relevant identification processes and procedures were properly followed in the case of schools applying for a review. The closing date for receipt of review applications was 31 March 2006. The group submitted a report and the review is now concluded. Schools that applied for a review were informed of the outcome in August 2006.

The schools referred to by the Deputy applied for review but were not successful. The Department of Education and Science is considering putting in place separate arrangements to address exceptional situations arising up to the time of the next identification process which will be held in 2009-10. These arrangements will apply to new schools, including those created through amalgamation, opening in 2005-06 or thereafter. The arrangements may also apply to schools located in certain communities that have experienced significant socio-economic decline since the commencement of DEIS. Consideration will be given to such changes at the mid point between the 2005-06 and 2009-10 identification processes, namely, in 2007-08.

Schools which have not qualified for inclusion in the DEIS initiative and which are receiving additional resources, both human and financial, under pre-existing schemes and programmes for addressing disadvantage, are retaining these supports for 2006-07. Nine of the ten schools referred to by the Deputy are among the schools receiving additional resources under pre-existing schemes and programmes and they are retaining these supports for 2006-07. After that, these schools can be assured that they will continue to receive support in line with their level of disadvantage.

Almost €170,000 in financial resources was provided to the schools referred to by the Deputy for the school year 2006-07. These resources should be used for activities to address educational disadvantage among the schools' pupils. School principals will administer the financial resources locally and it is a matter for the individual schools to decide how best to apply the funding in providing activities to address educational disadvantage among their pupils.

Under DEIS the Department recently announced the provision of 80 new posts to add to the 370 posts already in place in order to extend the home school community liaison service, HSCL, to any of the DEIS schools that do not currently have the service. In addition, all schools will continue to receive HSCL services after 2006-07. HSCL services will continue to be provided to some 650 schools — 370 primary and 282 second level. However, following a full review of HSCL clustering arrangements by the Department later this year, levels of service may be varied in some schools to reflect their levels of disadvantage and size and to facilitate local HSCL co-ordinators working with families of disadvantaged children across both primary and second level.

As a result of the identification process and subsequent review, 68 primary schools and eight second level schools in Mayo have been included in the school support programme under the DEIS initiative and nearly 20% of all schools in the rural strand of the programme are in Mayo.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter.

Bridge Collapse.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter.

Last Thursday at 11.30 a.m. Ballinagar Bridge, Lixnaw, County Kerry, snapped in the centre and collapsed when a truck weighing 43 tonnes attempted to cross it. The bridge had a carrying capacity of 12 tonnes which was clearly indicated on two signs on the approach roads. The bridge was used extensively by local commuters between Lixnaw and Ballyduff and during the summer by numerous visitors visiting Ratoo round tower and Ratoo Abbey on the Ballyduff side of the River Brick. A number of farmers with land on both sides of the River Brick are now seriously inconvenienced because of the bridge's collapse. They will have to make a ten-mile round trip to access their lands. This will result in further inconvenience and expense next summer when they are cutting silage. In addition, around 100 bog plot holders will be seriously inconvenienced, most of whom come from the Ballyduff side of the river, and who will now have to transport their turf over a distance of ten miles.

The bridge was built by the Army in 1993 and has been the subject of an ongoing saga for some time. I raised this issue on the Adjournment in July 1993 when I stated:

The saga of Ballinaghar Bridge has been going on for some time. In January 1955 a resolution was passed by Kerry County Council that plans be prepared for a new bridge at Ballinaghar. On 6 July 1970 a preliminary report was received and the estimated cost of providing a new bridge then was £62,500, which was considered too expensive. In May 1975 Kerry County Council agreed to finalise plans for a new bridge. The consultant engineer was instructed to proceed with the preparation of a full set of documents. On 23 February 1977 the county secretary was instructed to submit documents to the Department of the Environment for sanction. In February 1978 an estimate of £202,000 was submitted for the all-in cost of a new bridge. On 22 February the Department of the Environment replied to Kerry County Council stating that even though the existing bridge was in an extremely dangerous condition the road was not of sufficient importance to warrant the provision of a new bridge. The suggestion was then made to provide the bailey bridge at the cost of about €32,000. In March 1980 an application was made to the Department for a loan of £190,000, but it was rejected. Kerry County Council threatened to close the bridge in 1992. The bridge was at that stage in extremely poor structural condition. It was erected in four 25 foot spans and was supported by five pairs of tubular steel piles driven into the river bed and filled with concrete. The quality of the concrete in the deck was extremely poor and the steel troughing on which it sits was in very poor condition.

Following that debate on the Adjournment, an allocation was made to provide a bailey bridge. Kerry County Council had about 60 feet of the bailey bridge in stock and had used it for other purposes. The council got the remainder from the Army, which provided the bridge at a cost of about £100,000. There was a limit imposed of 12 tonnes, but over time heavier traffic began to cross the bridge and it was in poor condition. Last week, a 43-tonne truck tried to cross it and it just snapped and collapsed.

I ask the Minister of State to make a special case for this bridge. Two bridges have been provided over the River Feale in recent years, one at the Cashen and the other at Finuge, while a further bridge has been provided going into Abbeyfeale. This is a very important local bridge. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will visit Tralee on Friday. He will be doing many things around the constituency. I call on the Minister of State to ask him to visit the Ballinagar Bridge so that he can see for himself what happened and so that he might recognise the strategic importance of the bridge for the people of Lixnaw, Ballyduff and the greater north Kerry community. As a Deputy from a neighbouring constituency, I appeal to the Minister of State to do everything in his power to ensure the Minister visits Ballinagar next Friday when he visits Kerry.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. County councils and other major local authorities are responsible for managing and maintaining all non-national roads and bridges in their area. Each year, my Department assesses the non-national roads programmes of local authorities and makes substantial grant allocations towards these programmes. Authorities also have to commit an appropriate share of their own resources for this purpose, and the grants we provide supplement these.

The question of special funding for emergency improvements to non-national roads is regularly raised. The standing approach of my Department is that we do not hold back a reserve allocation to deal with such situations. Such an arrangement would mean a reduction across all local authorities in the road grant allocations to them at the beginning of each year. Instead, the allocations made each year to local authorities are inclusive of such risk factors. In determining the annual grants, the overall objective is to resource each local authority appropriately for their ongoing and special needs.

In January, the Minister announced the 2007 grant allocation for non-national roads, which at over €607.5 million is the highest ever. It represents an overall increase of 9%, or almost €50 million, on the 2006 allocation. In 2007, the initial allocation to Kerry County Council is around €22.282 million, an increase of 8% over 2006. While there are no further funds at our disposal from which we could make a special grant allocation to Kerry County Council for the replacement of Ballinagar Bridge, it is open to the council to fund eligible works at this location from its discretionary improvement grant provided by my Department or from its own resources. This year, a discretionary improvement grant allocation of €1.186 million has been made to the council, which is an increase of 3% on the 2006 figure. The selection of works to be funded from this is a matter for the council.

My Department is also prepared to consider any proposal from the council to adjust its 2007 specific improvement grant proposals, originally submitted in September 2006, to include eligible works at this location. Equally, the council may submit an application in respect of works to the bridge for consideration for funding in 2008 under this scheme. Alternatively, if a suitable formal application were submitted, my Department would be prepared to consider giving approval to the council to proceed with works this year on condition that the scheme would be submitted as a priority on the council's 2008 specific improvements grant list of applications.

Apart from non-national roads funding, general purpose grants from the local government fund may also be used by local authorities to meet their ongoing and special expenditure requirements. In this regard, the Minister has made available increased allocations of almost €948 million in general purpose grants to all local authorities in 2007. Kerry County Council has received an allocation of over €27.6 million in 2007, representing an increase of over 8% on its 2006 allocation.

I understand the bridge collapse is currently the subject of court proceedings. Accordingly, any further comment on the circumstances of the collapse of the bridge would be inappropriate. Deputy McEllistrim has been in touch with the Minister about this matter, but I will also raise it with the Minister on behalf of Deputy Deenihan before Friday's visit.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 February 2007.