Other Questions

Schools Building Projects Status

Peter Burke

Question:

58. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the construction and of the relocation of a school, details supplied; the timeline for completion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29223/18]

I want to ask the Minister about the status of the construction and relocation of Curraghmore national school to Ardmore Road in Mullingar. The Minister will be familiar with this project because he visited it with me last February. The very tolerant board of management is very concerned because of the constant delays in delivery.

I did indeed visit the site and I can understand the Deputy's frustration. This project in Curraghmore is being delivered on my Department's behalf by the school’s local authority. The local authority recently notified officials that the project is six to eight weeks behind schedule and that a recent works programme provided by the contractor indicated a completion date in 2019. That is fully six months beyond the intended date.

Needless to say, it is a completely unacceptable development for all concerned, particularly the school, as it will have to continue to operate in unsatisfactory conditions with increasing enrolments until its new building is ready. Consequently, my Department has instructed the local authority to inform the contractor that it expects a programme of works that sees the project completed well before the end of 2018. A strong letter to this effect has issued from the design team to the contractor and a revised programme to reflect this requirement is awaited. The county council and its design team, with the support of my Department, will persist in pursuing the contractor for as speedy a delivery of this project as possible. My Department understands the county council is keeping the school informed of developments and this will continue to be the case.

I thank the Minister for his reply and for the detail he provided on the action the Department is taking. There are ten portakabins on the existing site and to date €1.5 million has been spent on renting them. Every month the project is delayed, €7,500 will be spent on rent. The principal and board of management were told in January 2018 the school would be delivered no later than October 2018. On that basis, in good faith, the principal agreed to take on 56 junior infants. It will put massive pressure on the school, which is why we need a new location to ensure the service can be delivered in a safe manner. When the delay to October 2018 was announced, the board of management took it in good faith because it is very tolerant. It accepted it due to the adverse weather conditions earlier in the year. It is grossly unacceptable for the date to be after October 2018 because of the specific circumstances of the school.

I understand the Deputy's concern. While there were some delays and unforeseen ground conditions, from the point of view of the design team the maximum delay should be six to eight weeks behind schedule and not the revised timeline. The local authority will be aware of the protections it has in the contract to ensure compliance and penalties in the event of failure. It is very clear the local authority, backed by the Department, will take a firm view in respect of the case because of the points the Deputy makes about the exposure both in terms of cost and the inconvenience this sort of delay will create for the pupils concerned.

We need to use a big stick when implementing penalties and we must hold the contractor to account for the contract he signed on 25 August 2017. Marty Hanley in Westmeath County Council, who is representing the council in this matter, has been of huge assistance in liaising with the parents, the board of management and the Department. I am interested in the Minister's views on the future of schools and divesting control to local authorities and on how he would assess this project.

I would be grateful if the board of management could be apprised by the contractor of the progress of the school every few weeks. It is a brilliant news story for Mullingar. Getting the students into a first-class facility is long-awaited and we do not want to temper it with frustration or annoyance at further delays. We must ensure the safety works are carried out to ensure safe access to the school and also so the staff, principal, students and parents can get settled in as quickly as possible.

I acknowledge what the Deputy has said. The Department has a diversified portfolio of approaches to building schools. We use the NDFA, the ETBs, the local authorities and public private partnerships. We have devolved design teams and the rapid delivery programme. We have a mixture. None of them is absolutely perfect. We have had difficulties of this nature in all of those streams. The important thing is we diversify and try different models and keep the pressure on all of those models. I will not level criticism at the local authority on this matter.

State Examinations

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

59. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills if provision can be made in exceptional circumstances for the sitting of missed leaving certificate examinations without the necessity of waiting a year to do so or of repeating the year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29366/18]

My question is on repeat leaving certificate examinations and to ask if any provision can be made in exceptional circumstances for the sitting of missed leaving certificate examinations without the necessity of waiting a year to do so or of repeating the year.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I see the motivation behind it.

The State Examinations Commission has statutory responsibility for operational matters relating to the certificate examinations. I am informed by the commission that it regularly receives requests for assistance from candidates who either cannot take an examination or cannot perform to their optimum as a result of some life event such as illness, bereavement or other trauma. However, our examinations model is constrained in the degree to which the life experiences of individual students can be accommodated. Each year the commission makes arrangements such as early or deferred sittings and special sittings in hospitals to cater for a wide range of personal emergencies but this is only possible on the day of the examination.

The commission recognises that this is a very real issue for candidates and on foot of the concerns raised, the State Examinations Commission has given detailed consideration to the possibility of providing repeat examinations. The State examinations are run within the tightest of timescales and to maximum capacity to deliver a high quality product at both leaving certificate and junior certificate levels. It has been concluded that within our current externally examined examinations model, it would not be possible to hold repeat examinations and to have results available to the expected deadlines.

I raised the issue because I am not a fan of the leaving certificate system. It does not suit every student. I do not believe in the pressurised two-weeks with the whole country waiting to see how many students get seven A1s and all that nonsense. As part of reform I would like to see a system of continuous assessment, which is why I welcome it at junior certificate level. As part of the reform, there should be a repeat option. There might be an issue around deadlines but in this day and age it is something we should be able to examine because at third level there is always the option of repeating in August. I have heard of students who sat exams in hospital but there is a range of situations in question. I raise this because a person with cystic fibrosis came to us. The person cannot physically do two or three exams in one day. Many students fall into that category. If there was an option of repeating in late July or early August, students who fall into that category could stagger their exams.

I understand what the Deputy is saying but the State Examinations Commission has looked at how it can be flexible by giving rest breaks throughout the period of the exams and going to different venues and so on but it has confined it to the day the exam takes place. It is caught because of the CAO timeframe which is very definite. What is different from a higher education situation is that the CAO allocates places and they must be taken up. In higher education, one is going from first year to second year, for example, so the place is there and it is not a question of someone else waiting to take it if one does not take it. It is much more difficult for them. The senior cycle review has commenced and one of the issues that has been very clearly flagged by the NCCA is the excessive concentration on a pathway into higher education, ignoring other pathways which the leaving certificate system should be accommodating.

As things stand with the CAO and its timetable, it does not feel it would be feasible to facilitate repeats while meeting the same high standards. It would have to gear the system up for a second exam just at the time it is trying to deliver the first CAO results. The people who had repeated would have a problem in meeting the CAO requirements which would already have been allocated. There are genuine problems and reform of the senior cycle may trigger changes.

I understand all of that but it would apply to a very small number of students. There should be a repeat module and, if not, there should be an option for students to apply to repeat exams in exceptional circumstances.

Let us say it was the end of July or the first week in August, not many students would fall into that category. Surely there would be some way for their exams to be reviewed, assessed, corrected and ready in time for the CAO deadline. Maybe we need to look at the CAO deadline and make changes. The system currently does not suit all students. Various scenarios arise, including emergencies, family bereavements and illnesses. There is also the cohort of students I mentioned earlier, including those with cystic fibrosis or additional needs. I know accommodation is made available for students with additional needs, but not everyone will fall into that category. I advocate reviewing the senior cycle, especially this area. It might also help with students' stress levels and anxiety if they thought that in the worst-case scenario they could repeat some of their exams and would not have to repeat the entire year. It is such a waste of students' time and energy going back to school to repeat one subject when they may come out with the same result anyway.

The Deputy has illustrated the difficulty. She started by saying a very small number of people were involved, but at the end of her comments she said, of course, other people who may not have performed to their expectation should have a chance too. We would very rapidly have a significant repeat examination. This would require setting up not only the papers, but also the scoring framework, the oversight and the quality assurance of the testers, and then delivering the results in time for the CAO deadline. Fitting a second run into a very tight timeframe is the constraint. I would love to be able to say that we could do it, but the State Examinations Commission is independent. That is one issue. It is hard to deny the challenge the commission would face or see a way around it.

School Patronage

Declan Breathnach

Question:

60. Deputy Declan Breathnach asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of communication with a person (details supplied) regarding the reopening of a school under a new patronage; if he has been in communication with Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB, which is willing to reopen the school by September 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29234/18]

I acknowledge the Minister's interest in this sorry saga of Faughart national school in my constituency which has been closed since September owing to difficulties with leadership and management. Stalling, procrastination and dilly-dallying do not help the cause of parents, children and the community of Faughart in their wish to return the children to Faughart school. I ask the Minister to enlighten us on any progress made.

I acknowledge the Deputy's continued interest in the issue. I know it is very frustrating for him and the community. As he will be aware, I announced new plans aimed at accelerating the provision of multidenominational and non-denominational schools throughout the country, in line with the choices of parents, families and school communities and the programme for Government commitment to reach 400 such schools by 2030.

In cases such as that referred to by the Deputy, these can be considered under the early movers' provision of the schools reconfiguration process, which involves voluntary reassignments of patronage under section 8 of the Education Act. To date, such early movers under this process have come about on the basis of local parental support for a move to a specific multidenominational or non-denominational patron. In the case of Faughart referred to by the Deputy, I understand the local community has met multidenominational patrons and has approached the existing patron to request a transfer of patronage of the school to Louth and Meath Education and Training Board.

The process is that, if the existing patron is willing to support such a move, given that the local community has set out its support for a transfer of patronage, the existing patron would write to me to request the transfer of patronage of the school under section 8(3) of the Education Act. I would welcome such an application.

My Department and the existing patron have been in correspondence in this regard. My Department and patron representatives have arranged to meet in the coming days to discuss the school.

I welcome that a meeting is to take place. I spent 35 years teaching, 25 of them in a rural community. Anybody who lives in a rural community such as Faughart, of which there are many, will know the school is the focal point not just for teaching but for the community. Archbishop Eamon Martin outlined to the parents' association that he has no difficulty in principle with the proposal. His letter clearly delineates what his issues are with it. While we all understand the need for due process, people have moved their children. The school enrolment was down to 64 from 100 before the problems started. If the school does not reopen in September there is a danger that people will not bring their children back there because they will obviously settle in other schools. Based on the contents of the archbishop's letter, I urge that his issues be clearly resolved to ensure they are not batted from one side to the other in letters. A commitment was given to reopen the school under alternative patronage once the problem with the school was resolved by closure.

I understand the Deputy's perspective. It is good that the two sides are getting together and that it is not, as he described, just an exchange of correspondence that could go all around the houses.

I recognise that this would be a very good outcome for the community. The Deputy understands that under the Act the Minister cannot make a decision by fiat on this. It is an issue for the patron to initiate the procedure under the Act. I am glad that a meeting has been organised and, like the Deputy, I hope it is fruitful.

I am sure the Minister is well aware that in excess of 30 of the families involved have pre-enrolled with Louth and Meath ETB which has clearly indicated that it can have the school operational in September if the will is there. While I understand some of the archbishop's concerns, which may relate to the transfer of faith teaching or whatever, the management of LMETB has assured me that faith teaching will be available at a reconstituted school. My only interest in this is to see the community survive through its primary school. While the issues Archbishop Eamon Martin has raised are valid, we cannot delay the process any longer because we will lose the pupils to the other schools they have gone to in the past 12 months, which would not be wise.

As I am sure the Deputy has, I visit a number of community national schools which are based on the model the ETBs run. They are exemplary models. While they welcome children of the Catholic faith, they give an equal welcome for children of any other faith or of none. Every student is recognised and that diversity is valued. It becomes a feature and a strength of the school that such diversity can be acknowledged and celebrated in the school. I hope the conversations are fruitful.

The next question scheduled is in the name of Deputy Murphy O'Mahony. Owing to other commitments, Deputy Niamh Smyth has requested that her question be taken first and Deputy Murphy O'Mahony has agreed. I am prepared to accept that. Is the House prepared to accept that? It is accepted.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Niamh Smyth

Question:

62. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Education and Skills if discussions have taken place to provide applied behaviour analysis services within the proposal to bring specialised therapists into schools and preschools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29227/18]

I thank Deputy Murphy O'Mahony for allowing me to do this and the Minister for taking the question.

This relates to applied behaviour analysis, ABA, services. The Little Wonders early intervention centre in Castleblaney provides this highly scientific treatment for children with disabilities. The centre is headed up by Claire Callan who has done fabulous work. I ask the Minister to make a statement on my question.

As the question I have does not refer specifically to Castleblaney, I hope the answer is along the right lines.

The reply refers to the demonstration project that was recently announced to provide an in-school and preschool therapy service, to be introduced for the 2018-19 school year. The project will be managed and co-ordinated by the National Council for Special Education. The model has been developed by the Departments of Education and Skills, Children and Youth Affairs, and Health, and the Health Service Executive, and is part of the Government's overall aim to help every child to fulfil his or her full potential. A total of 75 schools, including a representative sample of primary, post-primary and special schools, will take part, and 75 preschools will also participate. The project is taking place in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7 region of south-west Dublin, Kildare and west Wicklow. As part of the programme, 19 speech and language therapists and 12 occupational therapists will be recruited by the HSE to work with the 150 schools and preschools.

The purpose of the project is to test a model of tailored therapeutic supports that allow for early intervention in terms of providing speech and language and occupational therapy within educational settings. This innovative pilot will complement existing HSE-funded provision of essential therapy services. The pilot is designed to test the provision of speech and language and occupational therapies in schools settings. It does not, therefore, include applied behaviour analysis, ABA. The Special Education Support Service, which is now part of the NCSE support service, provides training for teachers and schools in a range of programmes, including ABA.

I have to admit that ABA is something that was new to me. As I outlined in my question, I have seen it first-hand in Little Wonders in Castleblayney, which is headed by Claire Callan. I have heard her analysis and background to it. As the Minister knows from his research, it is a scientifically based intervention to increase children's academic, social and communication needs. In the particular case I am speaking about in Castleblayney, families have reported huge improvements in their children's lives and homes and in their behaviour and academic abilities. From my experience of listening to parents who have had children go through an ABA service, they have found it has hugely improved their lives, not only in the family but in the child's capacity to be in school, live at home and interact with other siblings. I ask the Minister to consider ABA as something that should be introduced in primary schools and preschools throughout the country.

The position is as outlined in the very last sentence of the reply. The Department supports the use of ABA and training is provided to teachers in its use. The philosophy of the Department's programme for the education of children with autism is a child-centred approach. It is delivered by special needs assistants and fully qualified professional teachers. They draw from a range of autism-specific interventions. They include ABA but they also include a number of other interventions, such as TEACCH and the picture exchange communication system, as well as the appropriate school curriculum with the option, where possible, of a full or partial integration and interaction with other pupils.

The Department recognises there are a range of interventions that can help a qualified teacher to deliver appropriate education for a child on the autistic spectrum. It continues to be led by a professional teacher. What we are doing, and a later question will also refer to this, is looking at proposals to introduce additional therapies to build the capacity of schools to integrate therapies such as speech and language therapy or occupational therapy into education programmes in the school. This would apply whether it be teaching in the autistic spectrum or teaching in mainstream spectrum. ABA is accommodated, and our autism spectrum disorder units use ABA. The teachers have access to training and support in it. They pick and choose from the model as best suits the child.

I thank the Minister. Do we have figures on how many preschools and primary schools use ABA? I take the Minister's point that perhaps many special education units use it. When it comes to any training such as ABA, early intervention is key. I am trying to see whether the Minister will look further at this with regard to preschools. From speaking to Claire Callan, I understand the younger that children are exposed to ABA services, the greater the impact on and benefit not only to the child but also to the whole family unit and to the child's capacity to be able to socialise with friends and, perhaps, in school. Is this form of special education optional for teachers? Do we have analysis on, or an overall picture of, how ABA is used throughout the country?

From my understanding it is one of a range of interventions, and special schools or special classes will choose from that range. ABA informs all teaching in special schools and classes. Some schools came from a specific ABA background and there were 13 centres which were set up as private ABA pilots. Subsequently they were integrated as special schools within the Department of Education and Skills. They are part of the range of services available. Depending on the teacher and the appropriateness of the intervention, schools draw on different skills and methods. The Department does not say that ABA should be the sole method. It is a range. In years gone by there was quite a controversy, as some people argued that it should have been ABA only. The Department's view is ABA is one of a range of interventions that can be successful. As I understand it, they are applied and they draw on ABA where it is appropriate.

I thank the Minister, Deputies and officials for their co-operation on that question. We will now move back to Deputy Murphy O'Mahony's question.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Margaret Murphy O'Mahony

Question:

61. Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the recommendations of the recent review by the National Council for Special Education of the special needs assistant scheme will be implemented; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29325/18]

Go raibh maith agat. I will start by saying what a fantastic job the Acting Chairman is doing. Perhaps he is one to watch for the future. I will share my time with my colleague, Deputy Michael Moynihan.

It is still the same amount of time.

Can I have five minutes extra? Will the recommendations of the recent review by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on the special needs assistant, SNA, scheme be implemented? Will the Minister make a statement on this matter, please?

I welcome this question because it is a good report. It is a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme and the Government has noted the contents of the report. In response to the report, I have undertaken to develop proposals for the implementation of the recommendations and to return to Government, following engagement with the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Health, with a proposed implementation plan to include a governance and accountability framework and detailed costings of proposals.

Work has commenced on a comprehensive mapping exercise to set out current levels, ranges and costs of all relevant existing supports available from both an education and a health perspective. In addition, work is under way to assess the costs associated with the implementation of any recommendations that subsequently may be approved by Government.

Work is also under way on the development of a new model for the allocation of resources to schools, as recommended by the NCSE. It is considered likely that the introduction of such a new model will need to be piloted in selected schools in order that the impact and effectiveness of the new model can be evaluated and understood before such a model is rolled out nationally. I expect to bring proposals for implementation of the review's recommendations to the Government in the coming months.

Last week during a debate on special needs assistants, my good colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, highlighted how some parts of the report are deemed urgent by the NCSE. One of these concerns complex medical needs. The report states the NCSE wrote to the Minister in early 2017 highlighting a major crisis regarding complex medical needs and noting that nursing support should be provided to schools, SNAs and teachers to address these needs. The report is blunt on this point, stating that if action is not taken, there will be a crisis in schools. The issue needs to be addressed immediately. The report notes the Minister responded by establishing a working group, but here we are, about a year and a half after the NCSE warned of the crisis in schools if nursing support was not provided, and the Minister still has not made any announcement on the provision of nursing support in schools. When exactly can we expect this?

Special needs assistant, SNA, allocations for September have been made in the past couple of weeks. In some instances, where there have been three SNAs in a school, a small amount of time has been added to the SNA allocation. It is divided between the SNAs, giving the impression that four are working in the school, but a minuscule amount of time has been added to the overall allocation. Has there been an attempt by the Department to give the impression that more SNAs are working in schools when the hours added equate to 0.2 of a working unit? There seems to be an attempt to give the impression that there are more SNAs, but the amount of time involved is minuscule.

Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony raised a point that I mentioned last week and which was made in written questions yesterday. It relates to nursing. The written reply concerned the concerns of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, about nursing support in schools. It is very worrying that the Minister does not seem to be acting on it. A report has been compiled, but it has not been published. The Minister has said he is looking at what can be done. It is not a costly or expensive option, but, as Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony said today, as I said last week and the NCSE indicated a year and a half ago, there will be a medical crisis in schools if there is no nursing support for SNAs. I urge the Minister to show more urgency in providing nursing support for students with complex medical needs.

I welcome the interest in the report. There is the question of complex medical needs that is clearly highlighted in the report. The NCSE calls for a new approach that would involve ring-fencing nursing support in order that it would be part of a new approach to supporting schools and involve a range of therapies. As of today, nursing support provision is the responsibility of the Department of Health, not the Department of Education and Skills. The provision of nursing support for the schools will be through the Department of Health. What is at stake is the delivery of a new model. The Deputy is right in saying we sat down, in the light of the NCSE's concerns, and work is ongoing between my Department and the Department of Health to improve such support. There are 1,090 full-time equivalent SNAs being allocated; 800 were allocated recently and more will be allocated at the start of the coming year, in January. There has been no change in the way SNAs are allocated. They are allocated on the basis of the profiled need within a school. Every child who needs an SNA has one provided under this process. The NCSE independently decides on the level of need.

I am very reluctant to cut across Members on such an important matter. Although we are way over time, I will allow quick finals question from the Deputies and a reply from the Minister.

I am worth it. The report also mentions the renaming of SNAs as "inclusion support assistants". Will that recommendation be implemented? The term SNA is very well known at this stage and I wonder if it is necessary to change the title. Irrespective of that happening, how will the Minister ensure SNAs will only do the job they are meant to do? The NCSE's report gives a number of examples of other roles they are carrying out, including teaching, which they are not qualified to do. This happens, despite circulars indicating that SNAs are there to assist teachers in meeting the care needs of students and that they do not have a teaching role. They are also asked to do other things that are not included in their job description.

Will the Minister have look at the case I raised if I give him the details?

Yes, of course. The NCSE has recommended use of the term "inclusion support assistants" to move away from the idea of special need and in order to emphasise student independence. It is about allowing pupils to be included, gain their independence and develop. It is seen to be more appropriate as a pupil gets older and the concept of special needs assistant is less attuned with a growing adolescent. I acknowledge the interesting research included in the NCSE;s report that demonstrates where SNAs are involved in teaching, it damages a child's progress. It is right that we be clear on what an SNA does. A national training programme for SNAs is envisaged to enhance the role and quality of service they can deliver.

As I am endeavouring to get in three more questions, I suggest Deputies forgo the introductions.

Teaching Qualifications

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

63. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills if guidelines or provisions will be put in place to ensure second level students are taught maths by a teacher with a degree in the area in view of the fact that a recent report (details supplied) revealed that 20% of second year students were taught by a teacher with no specialist degree in the area, compared with the international average of 13%; and if provisions will be made to ensure adequate tutoring time is given to mathematics and science in view of the fact that this is also below the international average. [29368/18]

This question relates to the teaching of maths and whether those teaching it have the appropriate degrees. The Deputy will note that the performance of students in Ireland in mathematics and science is relatively high by international standards. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, TIMMS, to which she is referring, found that only six from 39 countries obtained significantly higher mean scores than Ireland in mathematics, with none of those in Europe. The report also notes that there does not appear to be a direct relationship between instructional time and student achievement. Whereas many of the highest performing countries devoted more instructional time to mathematics than Ireland, not all did.

The science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, policy statement and implementation plan which I launched in November 2017 aims to make Ireland the best in Europe in STEM subjects by 2026. Within the school system, new initiatives and curriculum developments will support greater participation and improved performance in STEM subjects. Curricular reform at junior and senior cycle will provide enhanced opportunities for teaching and learning in these subjects. This will build on the good progress already made. A report published in 2010 by the University of Limerick indicated that in a study of 51 schools, 48% of teachers included in the study did not have a major teaching qualification in mathematics. On foot of this, with funding from the Department, over 1,300 out-of-field maths teachers will have gained a postgraduate qualification through the a programme led by EPI-STEM, the national centre for STEM education at the University of Limerick. Whereas the findings are not directly comparable, the TIMMS report suggests the position on out-of-field mathematics teachers taking classes in schools has improved compared with that in 2010.

I will only need one minute on this question and will not need to come back with a supplementary question. We are raising it on the back of a report conducted that studied fourth class and second year students. It was indicated that 20% were being taught by persons with no specialist degree. That figure is much higher than the international average of 13%. Given that it is a very difficult and specialised subject, we hope students will be taught by persons with a specialist degree. I understand what the Minister is saying about the general standard, but it seems from the study that as pupils progress from primary to secondary school, the level deteriorates or drops off. That coincides with students seeking maths grinds in fifth and sixth year. Clearly, there is some difficulty. It is about highlighting it and receiving some assurances that, in general, we will try to aim to reach the international average of 13%.

We were near the top of the group at primary level and only Northern Ireland was ahead of us among European countries. At second level, no other European country was significantly ahead of us. We are not behind. The investment of €7 million and the 1,300 upgraded maths teachers have made an impact. We need to continue to work on the issue of teacher supply and it is something we have discussed here. Maths and physics will be the key subjects on which there will be a focus.

Schools Building Projects Status

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

64. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the need to fully complete the building project at a school (details supplied) including addressing heating and water systems and so on; if correspondence has been received from the school; his plans to liaise with a local sports club on parking and playing space; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29217/18]

This question relates to Gaelscoil Bharra in Cabra. The school building was handed over for occupation on 1 September 2017. However, as part of the contract for the project, some outstanding works remain to be completed at the adjacent Naomh Fionnbarra GAA Club, including completion of the all-weather pitch and car park reinstatement work. There are also a number of snags to be resolved in the school building, including issues with the heating system.

The design team had been in regular contact with Sammon since handing over the building in an attempt to get the snags resolved and the siteworks completed, but in spite of many promises from the contractor, particularly over recent months, no significant progress was forthcoming.

On 5 April 2018 Sammon entered into examinership and on 5 June the company was placed into liquidation. The Department then terminated the contract with Sammon Contracting under clause 12 of the public works contract.

There is a performance bond in place for this project and the Department has instructed the design team to liaise with the bondsman with the intention of calling on the bond to cover the costs of finishing out the works. The design team has been asked to produce a detailed scope of works which, as there is a live bond in place for this contract, can be used to request the bondsman to have the works completed without the need for a public tender process. This would be the quickest way of getting the works completed. If the bondsman is not prepared to complete the works then the design team will tender for a completion contractor to carry out the works and the remediation of the outstanding snags. Then the bill will be presented to the bondsman.

The people in Gaelscoil Bharra were in unsuitable prefabs for over 20 years. They suffered from the usual prefab problems in that it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. I wish to acknowledge the work of the principal and the staff in working and surviving in those conditions for over 20 years.

Some months ago I visited the new school. It is state of the art and the atmosphere is completely different. It is a wonderful school. It has wonderful premises and everything is going well there. The official opening was only a couple of weeks ago. It is really a shame that the outstanding works have been allowed to go on for so long. The danger with outstanding works is that if they are not addressed urgently, quickly and promptly then they drag on and on. That would be a shame for this wonderful school. Those involved have the building they had been waiting on for so long. They are at the mercy of something that had nothing to do with them. What can be done now to progress this and to see it remedied as a matter of urgency?

The outstanding works concern Naomh Fionnbarra, the adjoining GAA club. The approach is that the bondsman has a liability. The quickest way to get the works done is if the bondsman exercises the right to bring in contractors and completes the work. The alternative would be more bureaucratic. It would involve the Department tendering for the works. We would then get it done and present the bill to the bondsman. We are trying the quicker and less bureaucratic way to get this done. That is the approach we are taking. I have been contacted by a former Deputy who is chairman of the club in question and so I know the level of concern.

It is a shame because the facilities outside with the GAA club are left idle during the summer. We have beautiful weather and they could be used by the community and youth projects. As the Minister is aware, the Department is committed to the use of school facilities outside school time. Is there anything else the Minister can do with the bondsman to hurry up the process? Can anything be done with the GAA club and the school so that the facilities can be in full use and so that this will not drag on after the summer?

That is exactly what the design team is seeking to do. They are looking to do it in the quickest possible way. We await.

Question No. 65 replied to with Written Answers.

Schools Building Projects Status

Clare Daly

Question:

66. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the steps taken since 22 May 2018 to move forward with the delivery of the new school building for a school (details supplied) in view of the fact that Fingal County Council has stated that it has advanced the site acquisition as far as it can; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28858/18]

We agreed to forfeit the 30 seconds.

As the Deputy is aware, a project to deliver a new building for the school to which she refers is included in my Department's capital programme. As outlined previously, the site acquisition process in respect of this project proved to be extremely challenging. Although officials in my Department proposed an alternative and more expedient accommodation solution, the school authority stated a preference for the site acquisition process to proceed. The Department officials have, therefore, continued to engage with officials in the relevant local authority under the memorandum of understanding for the acquisition of school sites with a view to securing a site for the school.

I have previously outlined to the Deputy that my officials were working to clarify some technical aspects associated with the proposed development of the site. This assessment process has been completed and the outcome communicated to officials in the local authority. Engagement with the landowner is now under way with a view to finalising the terms of the acquisition and progressing matters as expeditiously as possible. Simultaneously, my officials are working to advance the project to planning stages and will be progressing this in tandem with the finalisation of the site acquisition.

The problem is that we are at the end of the school term now. Parents, teachers and children are none the wiser about when this school will actually be developed. The school has been operating out of a converted farmhouse for years in wholly unsuitable circumstances.

The Minister's has told me virtually word-for-word what he told me on 6 June in a letter. We are one month on and I am still not any clearer on the position. When is the planning application going in? The Minister told me on 6 June that the development of the site assessment and the technical aspects would be sorted. He said that assuming no issues arose the project would proceed straight away to the terms of site acquisition. Is the Minister now saying that no issues have arisen? Is the site acquisition in the process of being finalised? When will the conveyancing process be dealt with by the solicitors? When will the planning application go in? When will parents and children find out when this project, which is planned, will actually begin to be delivered?

Since Deputy Daly last raised this question, the various technical issues which related to access and connections to services have been addressed. They were the challenges. The clarifications needed were provided. Those involved are satisfied that they can resolve the issues but the resolution will impact on the contracts and so on. That work is being undertaken now. No unnecessary delay is occurring. Those responsible are seeking to progress this but, obviously, before they can submit final planning documents they must have all the i's dotted and t's crossed. That is the reality.

What the Minister is saying is that the technical issues have been identified and resolved and that these are not impediments to the project.

A second question then arises. The terms of the site acquisition can now be finalised. When is that likely? When will the conveyancing be completed? When will the planning application be put in? The Minister says there has been no unnecessary delay. That is fine on one level, but the parents and children have been in this school for well over ten years in most unsuitable circumstances and it has been an incredibly long wait for them. They need some concrete answers on when the nightmare will begin to end.

I am not a technical person but as I understand it the project requires various rights of way and wayleaves. Those responsible need to be satisfied that the proposed solution meets planning requirements in terms of whatever building standards are to be met. That involves certain infrastructure upgrades that have to be put in place. Certain links in the chain have to be put in place for this to be robust.

How long is it likely to take?

They cannot give a definitive timeframe. It is nature of these things that, with the best will in the world, we cannot foresee everything. It may involve either getting wayleaves or satisfying planners that the standards are met by whatever is being proposed. None of this things is in the hands of the design team alone. They require a counterparty to sign up. Even with the best endeavours I cannot give timelines. All I can assure the Deputy of is that this is actively being pursued by the officials in my Department and the design team involved.

Questions Nos. 67-69, inclusive replied to with Written Answers.

Capitation Grants

John Curran

Question:

70. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the adequacy of the school capitation grant will be reviewed in order to meet the running costs of schools, especially small, medium and DEIS schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29232/18]

My question is to ask the Minister to review the adequacy of the capitation grant, in particular for small and medium-sized schools in respect of the running costs they incur.

I thank Deputy Curran. I recognise the need to improve capitation funding for schools, including DEIS schools, having regard to the reductions that were necessary over recent years.

Restoring of capitation funding as resources permit is one of the actions included in the Action Plan for Education and I remain committed to achieving this. However, I must be prudent in the context of ongoing budgetary pressures and prioritise where it is not possible to do everything that I would like to do.

As Deputy Curran is aware, I have made provision for 6,000 additional teachers, 3,000 extra special needs assistants and 3,000 new middle-management posts. These resources were allocated to improve the learning experience throughout the sector with a particular focus on children with special needs.

The Deputy will be aware that budget 2018 saw the allocation of significant new resources. We have seen the budget grow to €10 billion, its highest ever. Improvements have been made in the restoration of grant funding used by schools to cover the salaries of ancillary staff. That has involved the provision of additional grants of €6 million. However, the other element of the capitation grant has not increased in recent years. It will, however, be one of the issues we will assess in line with other competing demands on the education budget as we approach budget 2019.

Will the Minister review the capitation grant as it pertains to small and medium-sized schools? I recently had an opportunity to look at the figures for two DEIS schools with a little over 200 pupils. The capitation grant is €35,000 or so. Lighting and heating in the two schools cost €17,000 or €18,000, while the cost of insurance came to €10,000 or €11,000. If the size of a school doubles, the capitation grant is not doubled. Such schools are struggling and do not have the opportunity, as occurs in other areas, to seek contributions from parents. I specifically ask that, in particular, the capitation grant for small and medium-sized DEIS schools, with perhaps 200 to 250 pupils, be addressed.