Adjournment Debate.

School Accommodation.

Scoil Diarmada is situated in the rural community of Whitehall, approximately three miles from Castlepollard in north Westmeath. The school, comprising two classrooms, was built in 1958 and 14 years ago saw the addition of a third classroom in the form of a prefab to accommodate increasing numbers. The numbers continue to increase due to the very high standard of teaching and dedication to excellence, which has prevailed through the years.

Scoil Dhiarmada is based in a vibrant, supportive community, which places the school at its heart. Proof of this is visible in the incredible work done by the local GAA hurling club, Greentown, adjacent to the school. Through sheer hard work and community unity, the club has built a state-of-the-art amenities centre. This centre is used by all ages in the community, including the children of Scoil Dhiarmada, which does not have an indoor physical education or general purpose room.

If we are to support this and other enthusiastic rural communities fighting for their survival, we cannot ignore the most basic needs of the children, which include education in safe, modern, well-equipped schools. Conditions at Scoil Dhiarmada do not reflect the presence of the Celtic tiger. Indeed, the complete lack of basic investment in the school is blatantly and shockingly evident to any visitor. Some of the problems being experienced daily by pupils, staff and parents include the tiling in the hall and toilets, which have been in place since it was built more than 50 years ago. It is unsightly, unhygienic and dangerous due to chipping and lifting. The walls in the classrooms, halls and bathrooms are covered in black mould. Various treatments and repeated painting have not addressed the problem and are a waste of money. The walls are not insulated.

The sanitary ware is aged and decrepit. Some of it seems to have been in place since the school was built. Parents and teachers tell of young children refusing to go to the toilets because of the smell and conditions of the walls and floors. Many parents spoke to me of children coming home wet or with kidney infections caused by their fear of using facilities at the school. The classrooms in the main buildings are too small for the numbers of children in attendance. At present there are 26 children in a room which is less than 36 sq. m in area. The children must remain seated at their desks all day, as it is not safe for them to move around the room without falling over chairs and other children. On wet days, they must remain seated throughout their break times. Storage space is totally non-existent and children must leave their schoolbags in the hall. Vermin are a constant problem despite vigorous pest control efforts. On occasion the children have found mice in their lunch boxes.

The prefab is over 14 years old and is at the end of an already extended lifespan. The windows are single glazed and condensation is a constant problem. Water streams down the windows and onto the walls, destroying the children's work and educational displays. External walls are beginning to rot. During frosty weather the water pipes freeze and children and teachers are left without water to flush the toilets or wash their hands for the duration.

Staff facilities are non-existent and one staff toilet, for male and female teachers, is located behind the broom cupboard. There is no staff room and staff use the senior classroom at break times and sit on the children's chairs. The boys' cloakroom, which was being used as an office, is currently the resource teacher's classroom. There is no place to meet parents privately to discuss confidential matters relating to the children's education and their future. The girls' cloakroom is currently the learning support teacher's classroom. Coats and PE gear are left hanging on scarce hooks and lunches are often stored on the ground in the hall.

Scoil Dhiarmada has submitted two applications for grant aid under the small schools scheme, in 2002 and 2007. Despite the urgent and obvious problems both applications were unsuccessful. No representative from the school planning section of the Department of Education and Science visited the school to address the applications. I regretfully have to bring this situation to the notice of the Minister in the dying hours of the 29th Dáil.

As one who came in here in 1962, with my predecessor, Deputy Joe Kennedy, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is the only person here who was a Member of the House at the time. I wish him well, because this will probably be my last address to the House during the 29th Dáil.

I thank Deputy Cassidy for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the current position in relation to Whitehall national school, County Westmeath. The school has just 66 pupils and has experienced an overall increase of 14% in enrolments during the past five years. As Deputy Cassidy said, the school management authority made an application to the Department for major capital investment for additional accommodation which included an additional mainstream classroom and associated ancillary accommodation. The application has been afforded a band 2 rating under the published prioritisation criteria.

In addition, an application was submitted by the school management under the devolved scheme for this year. Due to the volume of applications under this scheme it was not possible to allocate funding to all projects on this occasion. The school can, of course, reapply for next year's scheme.

I note that the school authority has not applied for any capital funding under the Department's summer works scheme which has been advertised on an annual basis since 2004. The scheme is designed to fund applications such as electrical, mechanical, window projects, roof replacement, structural repairs, etc., projects which can be delivered over a short period of time, in particular while the schools are on their summer break. Some of the issues mentioned by the Deputy, for example toilets, are a specific category under the summer works scheme, and I am somewhat surprised the school did not apply under this heading. Other issues raised by the Deputy such as windows could have been addressed in this way, too, as indeed could the roof replacement project. The Department will be announcing details of the 2008 scheme in the coming months and I would urge the school to apply under this scheme. This year about 1,000 schools will have summer works projects undertaken.

Issues in relation to environmental health are matters for the environmental health officers in the local authority and it is critically important for the school to contact them immediately if it is experiencing the type of difficulties outlined by the Deputy.

I thank Deputy Cassidy for raising this matter. I hope the school will be able to take the advice and benefit from the summer works scheme, but of course, its application next year for the devolved grant will also be considered.

I wish to share one minute of my time with Deputy Cooper-Flynn, if that is acceptable to the House.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Midfield national school applied for a renovation extension in 1997-98. The school had three teachers and 75 pupils. In 1999 funding was sanctioned for Midfield, which was given to proceed. A design team was appointed, architects viewed the building and agreed it was unsuitable, inadequate and outdated. Funding of €25,831 was spent on professional and associated fees. Then the project was shelved. It was advised to apply under the small schools scheme in March 2007 and that application was refused.

I recently visited the school. The classroom, heating, sewerage, roof, windows, toilets and play area are all inadequate. It is a disgrace. All the facilities are sub-standard. There is no staff room, principal's office, learning support room, physical education or general purpose room or storage area. If it was any other business but education, the school would be closed down on health and safety grounds.

This is a small school with three teachers and 75 pupils and this is what rural Ireland is all about. The parents are outraged, as is the community. There was never so much funding in the country and yet here is a school in which children are being educated in sub-standard conditions. The time has come for this school to be sanctioned, the funding put in place and for the teachers and pupils to share a proper educational environment. What is taking place is wrong and I ask the Minister for good news for the Midfield pupils and the school's principal and teachers.

The time has come for the Minister to do something with this school. If we want people to live in rural Ireland we must have the schools and facilities for them to be educated in proper conditions. I am hoping the Minister will have good news for me tonight and for Midfield and the people of Mayo, in sanctioning funding this small school once and for all because the people concerned have worked in terrible conditions.

I have already spoken to the Minister for Education and Science about this project. I hope the school can be given a realistic assessment of its position as it has been led astray over the past several years.

In 1999, the school was sanctioned for a schools building project and a design team was appointed. It was instructed to proceed to stage 2 in June 2000. In May 2002, the Department wrote to the board of management and advised that the design team had succeeded in bringing the project within the Department's guidelines but that the overall costs had increased from what had been originally anticipated. The Department requested the design team to reassess the project with a view to significantly reducing the cost.

The Minister may ask why the school did not apply for a grant under the summer works scheme. It did not apply because it believed that it was only a matter of sanctioning the moneys to enable the extensions and alterations to go ahead. Surprisingly, in 2006 the Department asked the school to apply through the devolved grant scheme. In 2007, for the first time it applied for the scheme even when it had already been sanctioned in 1999. The school has appealed the decision. Does it have any realistic chance of succeeding this year? If not, at least we can then inform the school to get its act in order and proceed in 2008 with a realistic objective. If the Minister is clear on this, it would put the minds of parents, teachers and pupils at rest, as they are very anxious about this situation.

I thank Deputies Ring and Cooper-Flynn for raising this matter. The Deputies will appreciate that despite €540 million being spent this year on school building projects, there are 4,000 schools in the State. Ensuring that we modernise and provide schools in rapidly growing areas is a priority. In the next several years, €4.5 billion will be invested in our schools. This year, 1,500 schools will have building projects undertaken.

The original application from Midfield national school applied for an extension and refurbishment to provide improved ancillary accommodation such as resource rooms and general purpose rooms. Priority is always given to schools with increasing numbers seeking additional accommodation. As the original application did not include an application for additional mainstream classrooms, it was given a lower priority rating. Subsequently, the application was changed and submitted under the small schools scheme for additional mainstream accommodation. Unfortunately, this year the volume of applications received meant it was not possible to allocate funding to all of the different projects. Midfield national school was not successful on this occasion but it has appealed the decision. That appeal is under active consideration by the planning and building section of the Department. The school will be notified in due course as to the decision.

That is not satisfactory.

Special Educational Needs.

Both Deputy McHugh and I, with other public representatives in Galway, attended a recent meeting to address the issue that has been kindly accepted for discussion on the Adjournment. We were asked at the meeting to address this issue urgently and separate from the forthcoming general election.

There is an urgent need for the Minister for Education and Science to take such measures as will immediately lead to meeting the needs of hearing impaired children in the Galway area. Such measures must include the restoration of the service which has been suspended for five years and the appointment of two visiting teachers to be notified to schools and parents before the end of the current school year.

There is a further need for the Minister of State with responsibility for children to secure the rights of hearing impaired children in the Galway area, through an instruction to the HSE to recruit an audiological scientist and, if necessary, to fill such a position by immediate, appropriate advertisements in Ireland, Britain and other countries. If the rights of the child are to be vindicated, it will require the action of the Minister of State with responsibility for children to break through any cap that may exist on remuneration and conditions that would enable the post of research audiologist to be filled.

At the recent meeting, it was very moving to hear of parents' experience in this area. I found some aspects of what hearing impaired children must go through to be unsatisfactory and deeply distressing. For a start, there is an excessively long wait for diagnosis. People gave examples of individual cases of a diagnosis taking one year and then having to wait another year for hearing aids. It is appalling that in 2007 the capacity to replace lost or damaged hearing aids does not exist. In one case, there was no programming available for a digital hearing aid. The full-time permanent audiologist who retired in 2002 was not replaced. A visiting teacher for the deaf retired in 2004 and the service fell apart.

Hundreds of children are being deprived of a service. Three years ago it was agreed there was a need for six visiting teachers but there is still no service. Two visiting teachers for hearing impaired children should be appointed and the post for the audiological scientist should be advertised with such conditions as to make it attractive to an applicant.

Research on ensuring children's equality in education and opportunity states that the earlier the intervention, the better the result. The current situation is depriving the children involved of a fundamental learning right and self-development. I do not want a recitation of the work of additional resource teachers being applied in schools. The resource teachers are not trained in this particular area and it is unfair to expect them to deliver a service they do not have the capacity to deliver. Will the Minister discuss with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, the rights base of taking exceptional measures that will address the fundamental breach of the educational, social and developmental rights of these hearing impaired children?

Some 320 hearing impaired children in Galway have been neglected by the Government for the past five years. That is some legacy for the Government after its five years in power during the Celtic tiger era when its coffers were full. Up to 120 of these children have been assessed to a degree but are being deprived of services, while a further 300 children are waiting to be assessed. Some of these children have been waiting for an assessment since 2002. I wish to set out clearly what is required in this situation so that the Government, particularly the Minister for Education and Science, and the Minister with responsibility for children know what is needed so that action can be taken immediately to right this wrong which has been perpetrated against 320 children in Galway, against many of them for the past five years.

A full-time audiologist scientist is required immediately. This position has been vacant for the past five years and the children of Galway have suffered as a result. There is a hit and miss, piecemeal service where a person comes from Kilkenny four days per month. That is totally unsatisfactory and inadequate. The position was advertised twice in the past five years, which is absolutely unbelievable. This is criminal and clearly indicates the HSE has no commitment to filling this post. I understand the position advertised was for an audiologist and for a six-month contract. This is a further indication of the lip service being paid to this problem.

What is required in Galway is an audiologist scientist, not an audiologist, and the position is required to be filled on a full-time basis, not for a six-month period. If one was to adopt the staffing levels employed in the UK, what is required in Galway are three audiologist scientists, not just one. I ask the Minister for Health and Children to act immediately to direct the HSE to recruit one audiologist scientist now to begin a service of sorts and then let us begin planning for the recruitment of the further two audiologist scientists required for delivery of a comprehensive service to the children of Galway.

Two visiting teachers are required. The Minister for Education and Science has been neglectful in attending to her duties in this regard. One full-time teacher who was in place retired from the position in 2004. Effectively, that position has remained vacant since that time, except for a period of approximately six months. The role of the visiting teacher is vital not only in visiting schools and offering advice to teachers but also in visiting pre-school children in their homes and offering support, advice and guidance to parents. Geographically, Galway is a very large county and definitely needs at least two visiting teachers now. The Minister has direct responsibility and she should act now, live up to her responsibilities and ensure the two teachers are appointed.

In September 2006, an advertisement appeared in a national newspaper seeking applications for the visiting teacher service. What happened after that? Did the advertisement elicit applications? If not, were further efforts made? Were applications invited from outside the country?

The ultimate question is why the Government is depriving 320 children of a basic service. Parents are concerned that if this neglect continues, children with hearing problems may end up with serious personal and social issues in adulthood. Will the Government allow that to happen or will it live up to its responsibilities and act immediately to ensure the audiologist scientist and the two visiting teachers are appointed now?

I thank Deputies Michael D. Higgins and McHugh for raising this matter.

An objective of the Department of Education and Science is to provide a national visiting teacher service for hearing impaired students. This service is available from pre-school to third level. The national caseload is monitored and managed by the Department on an annual basis and a best fit of resources to needs is achieved to the extent possible. Since 2004 the Department has engaged in a recruitment campaign nationally to ensure that hearing impaired students in every county have access to a suitably qualified visiting teacher. The visiting teacher service is managed within the directorate of regional services of the Department. Currently, there are 27 visiting teachers for the hearing impaired in post, with two vacancies.

I assure the Deputies that the visiting teacher service in the Galway area has never been suspended by the Department of Education and Science. The post of visiting teacher for the hearing impaired for Galway city and county was filled in 2005. The teacher appointed opted to transfer to Dublin in 2006. In 2006, the Department offered the post in Galway to a candidate who subsequently declined to take it up. The directorate of regional services is now in the process of preparing to recruit two visiting teachers for the wider Galway city and county area and adjacent counties, and advertisements to this effect are being prepared for the national and international press.

In addition, for the first time, an advertisement will be placed with a source in the United Kingdom dedicated to recruitment of professionals in the education of hearing impaired children. On foot of this competition, it is intended that successful candidates will take up post in September of this year and parents and the relevant schools will be duly notified.

In the meantime, my Department, through its western regional office, has continued to provide priority cover at all times in Galway through the visiting teacher service in neighbouring counties.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 April 2007.