Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Accommodation

I am disappointed that the Minister for Education and Skills is not present to deal with this. I have been talking to him in recent weeks and he stated he would be here in person to respond to this serious question and challenge facing North Wicklow Educate Together school. The Minister may or-----

Before Deputy Brady goes any further, the procedure in place is for the Minister to whom the question is posed to engage with the Deputy posing the question and to indicate whether he will be available. If the Minister is not available then it is open to the Deputy posing the question to defer the taking of it until a time when the Minister is available.

On a point of order-----

Today's schedule of business has been changing and was not as it was originally understood to be.

That creates difficulties for Ministers who have tight schedules.

I appreciate that-----

We have to be reasonable to everyone.

I understand.

I will press on with it in the hope that the Minister here this evening might be able to give some answers. In 2013, patronage was awarded to Educate Together for a 1,000-pupil school in Bray. North Wicklow Educate Together school subsequently opened in September 2016 in temporary accommodation on Putland Road in Bray. The school has 180 pupils and 60 of them are due to sit their junior certificate examination next year. The school is also set to grow to 300 pupils next September.

The school is on the school building programme and a site on Novara Road in Bray has been identified. The Department of Education and Skills and the former chief executive officer of the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB, Mr. Seán Ashe, struck a deal for a shared campus with the Bray Institute of Further Education, BIFE. There are issues with that site, including how it was selected. The failure to consult with BIFE and other stakeholders has created problems. There needs to be an investigation as to how that decision came about.

That is not my main point this evening. There are a number of issues. There is a pending crisis for the teachers and the pupils and the Department of Education and Skills is walking straight into this crisis. There is also a High Court settlement, of which the Minister may be aware, between the owner of the temporary premises where North Wicklow Educate Together school is currently located and the KWETB dating from 2015. Vacant possession of that premises on 30 April 2019 was included in the settlement. The site is also on sale on the open market.

Therefore, as of 1 May 2019, not only will the 180 pupils and teachers have no school but the 60 pupils due to sit their junior certificate examination will have nowhere to do so. The school needs answers as to what is going to happen but it is hitting a brick wall, as am I. It is getting no answers from the Department or the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, as to what will happen on 30 April 2019 and where it is going to go. Next September, the school will grow to 300 pupils. They also have no idea of where they will be located. The selection of the proposed new permanent school on Novara Road was announced in June 2017 but there has been no progress whatsoever. It is possible that the board of the KWETB will vote against that proposal next Tuesday.

One way or another, temporary accommodation will be needed until a new school building is built for North Wicklow Educate Together school. Ideally, this temporary accommodation should be on the same site as where the school will ultimately be built. The big question hangs over us all as to where that site ultimately will be. The school needs answers and plans need to be put in place. If, for example, the temporary accommodation is to consist of prefabs, then planning permission may well be required.

The Deputy's time is up.

That may take up to six months.

We will be coming back to the Deputy.

I thought I might be given a little bit of latitude because there was a little-----

Well, yes-----

I just need 20 seconds.

I have been in communication with the previous Minister over the past two years. We have hit brick walls and there has been stonewalling. There have been no answers and no solutions. I have been in touch with the current Minister, Deputy McHugh, who seems to be taking it more seriously. There is still no certainty and no answers. There is a pending crisis for this school and we need solutions, answers and clarity. The school, the teachers and the parents need to know where they will be as of 30 April next year. That is the short-term measure that needs to be put in place. There are also long-term plans that need to be put in place as well.

Before I call the Minister, I do not want to be tiresome but Standing Orders dictate the time provided for questions and answers. We should all try on occasion to adhere to them.

I do not envy your position in the Chamber on occasions such as this when Members have had a long day, but I absolutely appreciate that Deputy Brady is very concerned about this matter. I thank him for accommodating me in giving a reply on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, who wanted to be here but could not because of changes to the schedule of business during the day.

I will use the opportunity to clarify the current position on the accommodation needs of North Wicklow Educate Together post-primary school. As the Deputy is aware, the school was established in 2016. As an interim measure and with the assistance of Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, ETB, the school was housed in a property leased by the ETB on Putland Road in Bray. The school opened with an enrolment of 36 pupils and the numbers are growing incrementally, with an enrolment of 176 pupils in 2018. A major capital project for the provision of permanent accommodation for North Wicklow Educate Together post-primary school to cater for a long-term projected enrolment of 1,000 pupils is being addressed through the Department's six-year construction programme.

The Department's capital programme continues to address the challenge posed by a rapidly increasing school population, including in areas such as County Wicklow. It is the Department's intention to construct a new school for 1,000 pupils for North Wicklow Educate Together post-primary school on the site of Bray Institute of Further Education, BIFE. There are no other sites available within Bray. It is also proposed to provide enhanced accommodation for BIFE as part of this development. The ETB had previously confirmed to the Department that it was supportive of this campus development, but it has since indicated to it that it needs to further consider the matter of the proposed development on the BIFE site. The Department is anxious to initiate the architectural planning process to facilitate the development and continuing to engage with the ETB in that regard.

The Department is aware that the existing lease on the Putland Road building is due to expire in 2019. As the Deputy knows, the terms of the lease require the school to vacate the property by 30 April 2019. The Department is exploring all options, with a view to finding a new temporary home for the school, and liaising with the patron body of Educate Together and Kildare and Wicklow ETB in that regard. The Putland Road property has been advertised for sale publicly. In the context of the proposed sale of the property, the Department has indicated to the vendor that it would be interested in exploring the potential to license or lease the property from a potential purchaser, should the purchaser be amenable to such an arrangement.

In the event that the school has to vacate the Putland Road property in advance of the State examinations in 2019, the Department requested the school authority to explore options for hosting the examinations elsewhere. In excess of 35 students are due to sit the junior certificate examinations in 2019. The school authority has advised the Department that it has identified some options should this be necessary and is interrogating the options further. They include using local schools, community halls and, potentially, hotels. The Department will continue to engage with the ETB and the patron of North Wicklow Educate Together on the school's accommodation needs.

I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity on behalf of the Minister to outline the position to the House. The Department is seeking to ensure both the interim and long-term accommodation needs of North Wicklow Educate Together post-primary school will be provided for.

Unfortunately, that does not provide the answers, certainty or reassurance for the teachers, pupils and parents at North Wicklow Educate Together post-primary school. They arrived at Leinster House today to hand in a letter and hoped to meet the Minister for Education and Skills. Instead they met somebody from his office and handed in the letter, but the principal has asked to meet the Minister. I hope that meeting will be arranged.

The reply from the Minister does not contain answers and provides no certainty whatsoever. There is a crisis pending, but all I have heard are aspirations to engage with the vendors. There is a High Court agreement and must be vacant possession of the school premises on 30 April next year. There is a simple solution which I have suggested to the Minister as a logical step. There are problems with the site identified on Novara Road by the Department and the previous chief executive officer of Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board. The solution is to purchase the site where the school is currently temporarily based. The building would need to be completely demolished and rebuilt as a purpose-built school, but there is ample space to accommodate the school, whether with prefabs or whatever else, on a temporary basis while the building is constructed. It would be logical to engage with the vendor, with a view to purchasing the site. It would be a win-win for everyone.

Is it acceptable or suitable for a Minister to respond by suggesting alternative arrangements will be put in place for junior certificate students to sit examinations in hotels or community halls? It is a serious abdication of his responsibility. The Department and the Minister are sleepwalking us into a crisis. We need clarity, rather than aspirations. Unfortunately, the answer did not provide it.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. The position is uncertain for pupils, parents and teachers, but the Minister for Education and Skills is doing everything he can within his powers to provide as much certainty as he can for the pupils, parents and teachers in the uncertain environment they are experiencing. It is why he and his Department are engaging with the education and training board on the new site and what can be done. It is why they are seeking to lease the existing property, if possible, from the new owner if an arrangement is entered into in the course of the next year. It is why they must explore options for students who will sit examinations next year. They must ensure every contingency plan is in place in order that the students will be able to sit their examinations when they have to and if other solutions cannot be found in the meantime. The Department and the Minister are doing everything they can to explore the different options and being incredibly proactive.

It is the principal who is being proactive.

They recognise the fears of the pupils, parents and teachers because of the uncertainty and are working to remove it and provide greater certainty where they can. The matter will be resolved because it must be. The Minister is working to achieve that outcome.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 27 November 2018.