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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 14 Nov 1991

Vol. 130 No. 8

Adjournment Matter. - Dublin City School.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I regret we do not have the new Minister here. I am not sure whether he has been appointed yet. I presume the appointment will be made this evening.

I regret also that I have to bring this issue to the House again. I raised it in my second week in the House, on 15 November 1989 and that is two years ago almost to the day. I raised it again on 1 May 1990. On each occasion I was given fairly specific commitments that the old Model School in Marlborough Street in the grounds of the Department of Education would be refurbished and restored to its original condition. The Minister seemed to be positive about it and she gave time schedules and times in relation to the various stages of implementation, including when the tenders were to go out and when the work was to start.

The Model School was burned down in 1982, nine years ago, and since then the children who were attending it have been accommodated in prefabricated buildings. To make matters worse, these are not new prefabricated buildings. They were ten to 12 years old before they were installed in Marlborough Street and we are talking about buildings that have a lifespan in the region of 20 years. The recognised lifespan of prefabricated buildings is in the region of seven to ten years and, therefore, these buildings have been in existence for double and treble the time originally intended. That would be bad enough in normal living circumstances but they are exclusively used to accommodate young children. It is an appalling situation that has been allowed to continue for almost a decade and still no sign of a satisfactory resolution.

The Model School is peculiarly a responsibility of the Minister for Education. It is in the grounds of the Department of Education and every day the Minister goes into work in the same grounds in which this school is located. Her nice plush office in Marlborough Street contrasts vividly with the conditions in which the children from the area are accommodated. It would be useful if the Minister spent a little time reflecting on the gap that exists between where she does her work and where the youngsters of the inner city are obliged to learn their lessons. The Minister has a special responsibility because the board of management is responsible to her. It is one of the few schools in the country in that relationship. As there is a special relationship there is a responsibility on the Minister but she is not fulfilling her side of the relationship.

The condition of the pre-fabs is very bad. I was down there yesterday at a meeting organised by the parents and the staff with representatives of the board of management present and public representatives. We heard what was said and we saw what the conditions were like. There are leaks in the roof of the building and the teachers are trying to get those repaired. The floors are rotting. One of the staff members went through a floor and they are trying to get that section of the floor repaired. The boy's toilets are in very bad condition. The walls are peeling. The staff have no staffroom. There is no office there for the staff. Staff and students work in the most deplorable substandard conditions.

Last year in this House we passed the health and safety legislation which makes specific requirements in relation to the condition of public and private buildings and the standards that must be maintained. There is no way the pre-fabs in the grounds of Marlborough Street could meet the requirements of legislation. If the staff, the board of management or the parents' body were to insist on strict implementation of that measure the Minister for Education would have to close down the Model School. You can imagine the embarrassment that would cause and I advise the Minister to act before that happens.

The school is viable. The numbers are well maintained but we have had a generation of students who have gone through an eight year cycle in the pre-fabricated school and a new generation of students is about to begin their schooling there. This year the Government agreed the Programme for Economic and Social Progress with the social partners, the trade union movement, the farmers and the employers. There is a specific commitment there to helping the disadvantaged. The Government are not fulfilling that commitment. We are concerned in the inner city with rejuvenation, revitalisation and bringing life back to it.

In part of Deverill Place and Gardiner Street there is a proposal to develop 175 new units of private accommodation. Unless we have a sound infrastructure of services we can never hope to give proper life to the inner city. We have the new tax incentives to encourage people to come in and, of course, the Custom House Docks development to encourage development there. We are primarily concerned with the people who live and will live in the area and that we do not lose out on a fine educational facility that has been allowed to fall into dereliction. It has strong structural qualities that can be restored but if it is let go too far it may be impossible to do so. We will find ourselves with a very fine old building that was the Model School falling into dereliction and we will not be able to do anything about it.

On 5 November 1989 when I raised the matter I asked for three things. I asked that the old pre-fabricated buildings be done away with. I asked what happened to the insurance money that was obtained by the Department when the Model School was damaged. It has not been properly accounted for. That money would go a long way towards the restoration of the school. I would be delighted if the Minister gave me some idea of what happened to that money. I asked that a permanent building be erected for the children in the old Model School. The reply I got from the then Minister was that she would be addressing the future of the school in the context of the 1990 Estimates and that she was making arrangements on that day to meet representatives of the parents and so on.

She did not address the future of the school in the 1990 Estimates but in May and June letters were received from her Department stating that plans had been sanctioned for the construction and refurbishment of the school at a cost of £1 million. In September plans were presented to the board of management from the primary building section of the Department who stated that the quantity surveyor would be appointed and that a bill of quantities would be drawn up within a short time. We were told that a structural engineer was appointed and that drawings were lodged with the local authority. We were told that in mid-December the tenders would be sent out so that the building could start in mid-spring of 1991.

In February 1991, a new set of plans came into existence and from that point onwards there was confusion and vagueness and everything was put on hold. That seems to be the date from which there was no return even though assurances were given on a number of occasions since then. On 1 May when I raised the matter the Minister replied stating:

The Senator will be aware that we have approved the reconstruction and refurbishment of the building as a permanent facility for both schools... The latest position on the planning is that detailed drawings, both structural and architectural, are very well advanced and discussions are taking place with a quantity surveyor in private practice in order to get the bills of quantity into being.

Finally, the Minister said:

I will ensure, therefore, that the remaining tender documents will be completed with the minimum of delay.

That was said six months ago and nothing has happened since. On 7 November, in reply to a question the then Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, said she had approved the reconstruction and refurbishment of the Central Model School, that tender documents for the project were in the course of preparation and that these will be completed at the earliest possible stage. They were in the course of preparation in May and were in the course of preparation in the September previous. This month the Minister said they will be completed at the earliest possible stage. Then the Minister delivered the final coup de grâce. She said:

I am not in a position at this stage to say when a contract will be placed.

In other words, the Minister is saying she will make no positive commitment too getting the work done; the project is being put on the long finger indefinitely.

That is not good enough. It is absolutely disgraceful that the children from the surrounding areas, many of whom live in the flat complexes in the area, attend a school where conditions are appalling. If that is the first taste of education, and the only taste of education they get it does not augur well for their attitude to a system and a State that provides that type of education. I always say that a pound spent during child development will go much further than £10 spent later. One way to ensure that youngsters get a proper opportunity is to provide educational facilities to put them on the path to a useful and productive life in employment.

We have a new Minister for Education and presumably he will be taking up his job tomorrow. I presume he will call tomorrow morning to the Department of Education. Before he enters the door of the Department of Education he should go 50 or 60 yards to the back of the building and look at the pre-fabs that are in the grounds where he will work as Minister for Education. If he does that he cannot but decide that before he leaves office he will eliminate those conditions. As the Estimates have not been finalised — we have not received our rates support grant on the city council and we do not expect it for another three weeks — it is not too late to do what the former Minister for Education promised in November 1989, to make provision in the Estimates for 1990 for reconstructing the school at a cost of approximately £1 million. In 1992 the Minister should ensure that provision is made for the reconstruction of the Model School in Marlborough Street.

As a first step the Minister should visit the school. Secondly, he should make it his business to meet the parents, the staff the children and the board of management of the school. That should be his first task as Minister for Education. He could do no better than to start in the Department of Education in that fashion. It is our hope that we do not travel down the same road this time round as happened the last time. The previous Minister for Education was four-and-a-half years in the job and she spent that time making commitments, promises and pledges but sidestepping the issue or simply reneging on everything she had promised not just to the politicians, but to the parents. She met the pupils and she remarked how much she thought of them and how well mannered they were and what she would do for them. All these promises were made to everybody. She never fulfilled any of them. Let us hope the new Minister for Education will not go down that disgraceful road and that he will make provision for the children of the inner city where the previous Minister failed.

I thank the Senator for raising the question of the need to rebuild the Old Model School in Marlborough Street and I have to admit that I cannot find any major disagreement with his contribution. This building was severely damaged by fire in 1982. The position was further exacerbated by the destruction by fire of the entire accommodation of the junior school last year. I have given approval for the reconstruction and refurbishment of the school. The tender documents are in course of preparation and will be finalised at the earliest possible date. I have also arranged for a quantity surveyor to be appointed. I understand that the bill of quantity will take approximately four to six weeks to complete. I take the point made by the Senator which is that in September 1990 and last May commitments were given to the continuing progress as a matter of urgency of this particular planning project. The Senator is right in saying that progress has been slower than it should have been.

"Slow" was not the word I used.

The problems I have to contend with in getting action at a faster pace are very difficult to contend with. Essentially the problem is that if this particular school project were to be taken in isolation we certainly could progress the various planning stages at a much faster pace. This is just part of an overall massive programme of primary school development. All projects are slowed down by the fact that the level of work is so massive that it inevitably means long delays due to shortage of money and shortage of staff. The progress we want to make, and would like to make, is always slower than what we would wish.

One of the major difficulties for us has been that in the last four years we have had to deal with an unprecedented number of very bad school buildings throughout the whole country. Unfortunately progress on the planning and reconstruction or redevelopment of those schools has been slower than we anticipated. I would like the Senator to understand that the delay is caused more by the overall work programme than by the fact that this particular project itself has been delayed. However, I want to assure the Senator and the House that we want to get this project under way as a matter of urgency.

I do take his legitimate criticism that progress has been slower than it should have been. I would expect the project to be ready to go to tender early in the New Year. The Senator must accept that the unusual nature of the project means it is especially difficult with regard to planning and the exact costing of the new development. As he pointed out, it is a very very expensive development. All that contributes to the longer than usual planning period.

I want to assure the Deputy that I will allow the project to go to tender following completion of all the necessary planning details early in the New Year. Following consideration of the tenders it will then be a matter of placing the contract, subject to the available finances.

The Senator was critical of the reply to a question in the Dáil in that respect. We are at present discussing the 1992 Estimates. The Senator will be aware that the Government decided to reduce the Estimates for the primary school building programme from £16 million to £11 million last year which further exacerbated the difficulties in regard to the rate of progress with primary school building projects. Obviously we must await the outcome of the Government's consideration of this year's Estimates before we can be sure of the work we can get through this year. I want to assure the Senator that if we are given the required money in the Estimates this project, which has been given a very high priority within the Department will be started. It is an embarrassment to all of us that the Model School located in the Department's grounds in Marlborough Street is in this condition. I repeat that we are anxious to get on with this as quickly as possible. I realise this is the third occasion on which the Senator and I have had this discussion. I am a little embarassed and will endeavour to make progress as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister of State ask the new Minister to look at the condition of the school these children attend, will he meet the parents and will be do this immediately?

Yes, I will request the new Minister and indeed take him to see the school. With regard to meeting parents I will have to leave that to him because I am sure the whole country will want to meet him during his first couple of weeks in office. We will show him the building so that he can——

They can meet him as they go into school.

He is a man who has no problem meeting people. I will convey your request.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 20 November 1991.