I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding the proposed building project for Bishop Ahern national school, Leamlara, County Cork. All applications for capital funding are assessed in the modernisation and policy unit of the Department of Education and Science. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings and site capacity etc. leading ultimately to an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners.
Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project. In other words, a proposed building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it. There are four band ratings overall, of which band 1 is the highest and band 4 the lowest. Band 1 projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exist but there is a high demand for school places, while a band 4 project makes provision for desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities. Each band rating has a number of sub-categories which more specifically describes the type of works needed and the urgency attaching to them.
Bishop Ahern national school is a fully vertical co-educational primary school with a current enrolment of 84 pupils. The staffing level is a principal, three mainstream assistants and two learning support teachers. The school authority has applied to the Department of Education and Science for large-scale capital funding for an extension project.
Consistent with the approach outlined by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, the application was assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects and it has been assigned a band 2.4 rating. This reflects the fact that, while there is a deficit of accommodation, this does not represent a substantial or significant proportion of the school's overall accommodation needs. It also reflects the fact that moderate refurbishment is needed. The next step for the project is the appointment of a design team.
Due to the scale of the demand on the Department of Education and Science's capital budget, it is not possible to provide an indicative timeframe for the progression of the project at this time. Earlier this year, the school applied for the provision of temporary accommodation for a mainstream teacher and a resource teacher. Due to the level of demand on the budget for temporary accommodation, it is not possible to approve all applications received and only those with no scope whatsoever to accommodate extra teaching resources can be approved.
In the case of Bishop Ahern national school, it has a 92 sq. m general purpose room. With a teaching staff of four teachers and an enrolment of 85 pupils, a pupil-teacher ratio of 21:1 will apply. A smaller classroom than that normally provided by the Department of Education and Science would suffice. The Department holds the view that part of the general purpose room can be cordoned off for use by the extra mainstream teacher on an interim basis until the Department is in a position to make funding available for an extra classroom. The school already has a 37 sq. m prefab for its two resource teachers, which is almost the size of what is usually provided and this should be sufficient. The school has, however, appealed the Department's decision in this matter and this is currently under review.
While the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, accepts that it is far from ideal for any children to be taught in non-customised accommodation, he hopes the school authority will realise that the Department does not refuse demonstrably necessary funding applications unless it is not in a position to do otherwise and that, unfortunately, the situation with regard to its temporary accommodation application is unlikely to change this year, particularly given the availability of a short-term solution to the issue within the school itself.
The allocation for school buildings in 2009 is €581 million. This represents a significant investment in the school building and modernisation programme. This level of funding for the building programme at a time of great pressure on the public finances is a sign of the very real commitment of the Government to investing in school infrastructure. This is already firmly evidenced, however, by our achievements under the last national development plan when an aggregate total of well over €2.6 billion was invested in upgrading the existing school infrastructure and providing new school accommodation at both first level and second level.
This programme delivered over 7,800 building projects in addition to investment in site purchases, the annual minor works grant to all primary schools, the asbestos and radon remediation programmes, science and technology initiatives, emergency works and grants for the purchase of furniture and equipment. An unprecedented €4.5 billion has been allocated for educational infrastructure under the current national development plan. This will permit the continuation of the enormous progress we have made in the overall provision and improvement of school accommodation.