Adjournment Matter. - Castlepollard (Westmeath) New Vocational School.

I should like to thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this matter this evening and also to thank the Minister of State for agreeing to come into the House to make a reply. However, I must say how disappointed I am that my fellow county colleague, the Minister for Education, could not be present to show his care for the children and students of Westmeath and, in particular, that part of north Westmeath which is an area that is probably——

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Senator Cassidy, I would prefer that you would not dwell on the absence of the Minister for Education when you have a Minister of State present.

It is of extreme importance at home. That was the frame of mind I was in because I took a similar motion here two years ago when we had a Minister from a different part of the country. The Minister and I come from the same country.

However, I should like to plead the cause of the people and students of north Westmeath who are anxious to have a new vocational school erected in Castlepollard. The present vocational school in Castlepollard was built in the thirties and was intended at that time to accommodate about 60 students. The original building was of mass concrete with a flat roof and consisted of a kitchen cum science room and one classroom. Almost from the beginning there have been major problems with that flat roof. This building has had to be added to on a number of occasions as student numbers increased. It now consists of three classrooms and seven prefabs. In 1983, it was necessary to convert a Nissen hut in order to provide two more small rooms. One of these rooms is at present being used as a classroom and the other as a staff room. In 1984, three secondhand prefabs were required in order to provide more accommodation. We now find that in October 1986 we have seven rooms, all of which are prefabs. It is a shame that this situation has to exist in Ireland in 1986. There are three rooms which were built in 1937, each measuring 55 metres. The fourth room was built in 1978 and is used as a woodwork room. It measures 72 metres. The fifth room measures 100 metres and was built in 1965. The remaining classrooms are all prefabs, some of them dating back to 1973, while others were purchased second-hand.

There is no need to point out the short life span of prefab classrooms. To present this school, which was upgraded from intermediate certificate to leaving certificate last year with three secondhand prefabs is a scandal. This is the only secondary school in the entire north-west Meath area from Mullingar to Cavan, from Oldcastle to Kells and down to Granard. It is a very important school as far as the people of north-west Meath are concerned.

In February of 1985 the Westmeath Vocational Education Committee wrote to the Department and later a deputation, of which I was a member, met officials of the Minister's Department and informed him of the serious overcrowded conditions that existed in the school. Since then, space is at a premium and numbers are steadily increasing. At present there are 177 students in the school and, with enrolments increasing every year, it is envisaged that there will be 200 students within the next two years. On the school's present site there is very little room for further development. Apart from the school buildings not being adequate, another very important matter is the lack of playground facilities. The school's upgrading has caused an increase of 20 per cent in student numbers. The nearest playground is three-quarters of a mile away and belongs to the Castlepollard hurling club.

I would like to place on record the great credit due to the teachers and pupils for the high standard achieved in their examinations and also to congratulate them on the magnificent performance in two recent years, in particular, on winning the Leinster hurling championship and going to the final last year — but being defeated — despite the lack of playground facilities. I call on the Minister to purchase a new site and to make an announcement to the House that, while there will be a problem in the short term, it will not continue indefinitely.

Like many areas, Castlepollard is a developing area and it cannot be developed without the necessary facilities, one of these being a school which can cater for the minimum of 250 students up to leaving certificate standard. With the present constraints, north-west Meath cannot develop to its full potential. An educational study and an archaeological study have been done in this area. In the past two years there has been agreement that a serious problem exists which needs the solution to which I have referred here tonight.

In the past four months since the change of Ministers, the Westmeath VEC asked for a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Cooney who kindly met us four months ago in Mullingar. We told him, among other matters, of the serious situation that existed in relation to Castlepollard. At that time he gave us an assurance that he would look fully into the situation. Since them we have heard absolutely nothing from the Minister and I fail to see why it has taken so long in a case as serious and as important as this. Something should be done to encourage the expansion of student attendance numbers at Castlepollard vocational school.

There are 200 people to be accommodated on 1.7 acres which includes the entire school, car parking facilities, toilets and everything that goes with the school. It is just not on. Two-thirds of the pupils use transport, whether bus or car, within a radius of ten miles to 12 miles. At lunch time, with the bad weather of the past two years, students have not been going into the town and there is pressure on whatever minimal playing facilities exist. These at present measure 92 yards by 30 yards. If you put 20 students into that, you will have 150 students standing around with absolutely nothing to do.

I am putting it to the Minister that the students of north-west Meath are as entitled to educational and sports facilities as students of any large town. North-west Meath is a very scattered area and is in a sensitive situation politically in that it is divided into two different constituencies. We are in a kind of no man's land. I am the only Oireachtas representative from that area and am concerned about the situation in Castlepollard because it is the town in which I was born and reared. I should like to see the same facilities being extended to the people of that area as are extended to other areas.

According to statistics, 48 per cent of students come from Longford-Westmeath and 52 per cent come from the Meath-Westmeath constituency. It is a fairly even divide. There are two sites available to the VEC committee at agricultural prices. That committee on three occasions took a unanimous decision in relation to this matter when the Department sent down three different proposals for an extension to the school. We set up a subcommittee which met on four different occasions and invited the entire committee to a meeting in Castlepollard to inspect the school. The committee representing all political persuasions were unanimous in their decision that nothing but a new school would fulfil the requirements in that area.

The Department, in their wisdom, for some unknown reason were prepared to invest heavily in 1.7 acres with no playground facilities whatsoever, against the best advice of the VEC committee on three occasions. We cannot understand the situation. No students, parents or teachers are doing more for vocational education than those I represent in north west Meath. It is for these reasons that I ask the Minister to look again at the situation. When we put it to the Department four years ago to upgrade the school from intermediate certificate to leaving certificate standard, we guaranteed at that time a minimum increase of 20 per cent of students. Because travelling costs are so enormous and because it costs a minimum of £1,000 in fees alone for boarding school, people would have to send their children to the nearest school where the standard was equal. That is the position in Castlepollard. If we have the same facilities — and times are not easy — naturally we will attract up to 250 students to that school within the next three years.

The results of examinations this year stood up to those of the best boarding schools in the area. At the end of the day, as parents we all want to see results, and the results that school is producing are as good as anywhere else in the area. I make the case on behalf of Castlepollard school that the Minister should purchase a site. The sites are there; they are fully developed and have all the different services: electricity, water, telephones near the town to be availed of at a very low cost. It is for those reasons that I make this case here tonight.

A Leas-Chathaoirligh, ba mhaith liom ar dtús mo chomhghairdeas a ghlacadh leatsa as ucht do pháirt sa lá stairiúil seo sa Seanad, agus tá súil agam go n-éireoidh go geal léis an obair as seo amach. First, I might clarify for the Senator that while the Minister for Education is naturally interested in developments in his native counties, responsibility for the building programme is vested in me as Minister of State. That is why I am here to answer his query.

My Department are fully aware of the needs of the vocational school in Castlepollard and have sanctioned a large extension of 1,003m² to that school to enable it to cater for 200 pupils overall. The question of the provision of permanent accommodation at Castlepollard vocational school has been under consideration for some time in the context of the second level educational needs in the area as a whole. One of the factors of concern in this review has been that while the school is likely to increase in enrolment from its present level of 170 to 200 pupils or so within the next decade, subsequently there could be a marked decline in enrolment. It is considered that there is no possibility of this school ever achieving a level of enrolment high enough to enable it to provide a curriculum ideal in terms of range and depth at junior and senior cycles.

However, two further factors had to be taken into account. First, the school is the only second level one in the Castlepollard centre and secondly, the nearest post-primary centres are about 10 miles away. We have examined in great detail the further development at Castlepollard.

It is in the context of these circumstances, and in spite of the limitations of curriculum spread that follows from the restricted enrolment potential, that my Department have decided to proceed with the development of the school to provide 200 permanent places in due course.

On a point of order——

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

When the Minister concludes the Senator may ask a question. I would prefer that he would allow the Minister to finish.

My Department have given a lot of consideration to the options for the provision of the new school accommodation and specifically to the question as to whether it should be provided by way of a new school on a new site or by means of modernisation of an extension to the existing permanent buildings.

In order to determine the best solution, technical advisers from the building unit inspected the existing school buildings. It was established that the four permanent existing teaching spaces could be retained and upgraded where necessary to form the nucleus of the future school complex. The Westmeath Vocational Education Committee were requested to have their design teams for the school carry out a feasibility study on the existing buildings to show the implications of the proposed development at this centre. A report submitted to my Department by the design teams' architects recommended a number of development options utilising the four existing permanent classrooms in this school. The consultant's report confirmed the view that the existing building need not be abandoned. Following on this, the vocational education committee have now been requested to submit cost implications for the options outlined. These costings are currently awaited in my Department. On receipt of the costs, my Department will deal with the processing of the school project, as quickly as possible.

The Department are very aware of the restricted nature of the school site. The school is situated on the edge of the town on a 1.75 acre site. Although the site can accommodate the new development, the consultant's report adverts to the possibility of acquiring adjacent land. The vocational education committee have been requested to investigate that possibility. A site of about three acres would be the norm for a new greenfield school of 200 pupils so that the minimum requirement of desired additional site area is not very great.

The proposed extension which will replace the existing unsatisfactory temporary prefabricated structures will provide general classrooms, a science laboratory, woodwork room, home economics room, general purposes physical education area, library and ancillary accommodation. The estimated cost of the new extension is £700,000.

In order to achieve effective monitoring and control in the planning of school building projects, and so meet school building needs at the most economical level possible, well defined procedures have to be followed. These procedures have been developed in response to the demands for the provision of suitable buildings in accordance with carefully worked-out space requirements.

High standards of school design, cost control and effective administration have to be adhered to in order to ensure that the programme of educational building in every case will provide facilities which will serve their purpose well and represent good value for money.

In line with this general approach also the Department have of necessity, a firm policy that existing satisfactory school buildings must be retained wherever it is economically justified. This policy is applied to all school building projects throughout the country. We have to husband our financial resources and utilise them in the most economic manner consistent with providing a good standard of facilities to which all our children are entitled. In the circumstances, my Department must proceed on the basis that the existing buildings and site at Castlepollard are to be incorporated as part of the modernised and enlarged school premises to be provided. We would not be justified in the light of the expert advice available in abandoning the existing building. The vocational education committee and their design team submitted options relevant to the retention and modernisation of the existing permanent structures which can be retained in use.

In conclusion, may I repeat that the Department are fully aware of the accommodation conditions at this school. When agreement has been reached with the County Westmeath Vocational Education Committee on the accommodation arrangements, the Department will then initiate architectural planning of the school as soon as possible. I assure the Seanad and everyone else involved that there will not be any undue delay or restriction and with the co-operation of the vocational education committee and their design team this school will be planned as quickly as possible.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 9 October 1986.