Saincheisteanna Tráthúla (Atógáil) - Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Pyrite Issues

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to respond personally to what I have to say about the difficult situation at St. Patrick's national school in the Diswellstown area of Castleknock, Dublin 15. Unfortunately, this successful and much-loved school in Dublin West, which was built at the height of the Celtic tiger era and has 808 pupils in 28 classes, is riddled in construction terms with pyrite. As a consequence, the children, staff and parents have to endure a building that is no longer fit for purpose. The school community, including the staff and the parents, has suffered enough. It has waited patiently for the Department of Education and Skills to address the problems which are causing the floors to buckle, the doors to go out of kilter and the roof to have multiple problems. I could go on and on. The Minister probably needs to visit the school. If he does, he will be shocked to see the condition it is in. The Department needs to have an immediate plan to provide for temporary replacement accommodation on the grounds of the school while a complete refit is attended to. Rather than merely monitoring the position, as the Department is doing at present, it needs to ensure all of the pyrite is removed from the buildings and grounds.

I have known St. Patrick's national school well from the day it opened. When parents and staff brought me around the school the other evening, I was shocked and appalled to see that the situation has become dramatically worse. Unfortunately, several schools in Dublin 15 have encountered problems of this nature in the last year. The Department has taken action at two schools, namely, St. Luke's and Tyrrelstown. St. Luke's has been completely restored and Tyrrelstown is pretty much restored as well. In the meantime, the people of Diswellstown are looking on as their school deteriorates and buckles before their eyes. Some of the newer houses that are being built in this area are straight across from the school. Builders are telling the families that are buying these family homes that this school will be their children's school. I have been told by the principal that this summer, applications for enrolment in respect of 20 children who are living in the area - their families have come into the area - had to be turned down.

St. Patrick's national school hosts 25 pupils with complex needs, including 14 pupils who are affected by ASD. The school has no sensory room. At the moment, it is using all the rooms it can use to accommodate the existing 808 pupils. The school was recently asked by the Minister to provide an additional ASD-specific room. There is absolutely no difficulty with that. This school, like all the schools in Dublin 15, has always catered for a wide variety of children, including children with complex needs. Where are those children supposed to go? The special resource room is up in a kind of attic room, with one little window at the bottom. It is over the school hall, which is shared with Fingal County Council. The school hall's beautiful sprung beech floor is buckling as well. I am not a builder, but it is clear to my untrained eye that the whole building is in an absolute state. I ask the Minister to prioritise the school in the interests of the children, the parents and the staff and to address these issues. I think he needs to make provision for a temporary building on the grounds of the school while the existing building is completely redone.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to update the House on the position with respect to St. Patrick's national school, Diswellstown. I am aware of the pyrite issue in this school and the health and safety issues to which it gives rise. I fully understand and appreciate the concerns of the entire school community and the need to address them as quickly and effectively as possible. The school was constructed by ABM under a design and build contract, under seal, with the Department of Education and Skills as the direct employer. The school was completed in 2006. In July 2007, Fingal County Council became aware that the presence of pyrite had been identified as the source of problems in certain residential dwellings. The then Department of Education and Science, as the owner of the site and building at St. Patrick's national school, Diswellstown Road, Carpenterstown, Dublin 15, had reason to suspect possible ground heave by active pyrites at the school. This was drawn to our attention as a result of emergency remedial works required to free fire doors and address the toppling of fitted furniture, etc. These works were undertaken by the original contractor. In March 2010, the Department engaged a firm of structural engineers, DBFL, which confirmed the presence of pyrites in the building.

The Department has sought legal advice from the Office of the Chief State Solicitor in respect of addressing these issues. Initial plans to remediate in 2014 were suspended on foot of legal advice. As this matter continues to be the subject of legal proceedings, I am not in a position to comment further on the progression of the remediation programme. However, I can say that immediate areas of concern are being remediated on an ongoing basis under the Department's emergency works scheme. The purpose of the emergency works scheme is to address unforeseen emergencies or to provide funding to facilitate inclusion and access for special needs pupils. In that context, the Department has approved emergency funding to address issues caused by the pyrite since 2016. At the same time, the school is making progress with a project under the additional accommodation scheme that involves the construction of two mainstream classrooms. Following a submission from the school indicating the presence of pyrite in the car park, the school authority was given permission to proceed to planning stage to include a car park extension. The school authority was requested to submit further detailed reports from its consultants in respect of the pyrite issues in the car park. The Department has sought clarification on some of the details in these reports. When this information is received, it will be reviewed and officials from the Department will be in contact with the school to make progress with the project.

The Deputy has also asked about the expanding desire for school places in the area. If demographic data indicate that additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision depends on the particular circumstances of each case. Depending on the circumstances, it may be provided by using existing unused capacity within a school or schools, by extending the capacity of a school or schools, by providing a new school or schools or by a combination of these approaches. The requirement for new schools will be kept under ongoing review. It will have particular regard to the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040. The Department will continue to monitor areas where the accommodation of existing schools may need to be expanded to meet the needs of the local population.

I thank the Minister for such a frank and honest reply. It is clear to anybody who reads the report that this school is in a dreadful state.

It is as bad as anything in St. Luke's and Tyrrelstown without, perhaps, the same level of danger. How would the Minister feel if his children were in this school?

His reply stated that:

The Department of Education and Science as owners of the site and building at St. Patrick's national school, Diswellstown Road, Carpenterstown, Dublin 15, had reason to suspect possible ground heave by active pyrites at this school. This was drawn to our attention as a result of emergency remedial works required to free fire doors, toppling fitted furniture etc.

I do not know that any Minister for Education and Skills has ever had to read out such a damning report on the state of a school. These works were undertaken by the original contractor. The Minister knows how important it is for young children in school, from junior infants up, to be able to run around in playgrounds. Does the Minister know that this September two small playgrounds in the school had to be closed? The children have to stay inside and look at their playgrounds.

The school has had an intake of four junior infant classes every year for the past three years, but now has no space left. In the coming year, it may be forced to take in only three classes. Houses are being built across the road and builders have happily advised people that it is the local primary school. There is a real social difficulty in the area.

I have studied this case since the Deputy first spoke about it and have spoken to a number of people in the Department about it. Not since 2006 has a school under the design and build programme been left in this totally unacceptable position. This is in addition to the current impasse around Western Building Systems, WBS, which is currently before the Commercial Court. We are also carrying out an international review of design and build. Technological University Dublin will carry out that work. There is a history of bad builds.

This has been a horrible story for the entire community since 2006. I want to see progress and I know departmental officials are waiting for school authorities to come back to them with their observations on the next stage of planning for the car park. I want the work to be carried out with haste. I do not want a sticking plaster; I want a proper job done. My departmental officials are keen to see that happen, and that is only right given what the school community has had to endure.

This issue arose when I first became Minister for Education and Skills over a year ago. Unacceptable building practices leave a very sour taste in my mouth, not least for the communities which have had to endure them. Standards do not have to be a bar that people have to reach; rather, they should be an underlying fundamental aspect of any building works. On any private building sites where I have worked it has been important to comply with regulations, laws and standards and architects and design teams have responsibility for that. We cannot accept anything less. A lot of mistakes have been made and there has been a lot of malpractice. I want progress on this issue.

The Minister is welcome to visit the school because he needs to see what has happened. The school has played ball with the Department and its patience has been abused. The Minister needs to ensure the Department buys a green strip near the school and erects temporary buildings while the complete refurbishment of the school is carried out.