School Accommodation

I welcome the Minister of State. The issue I wish to raise is of enormous importance to the entire school community in Malahide. The Minister of State previously came before the House to deal with an Adjournment matter relating to another school in Malahide, namely, St. Oliver Plunkett's. We are here to deal with a similar case involving similar issues.

Some 28 years ago, the Minister of State's Department provided prefabs at St. Sylvester's infant school in Malahide. This was supposed to be a temporary solution to the overcrowding problems at the school. The prefabs in question are dilapidated, freezing, noisy, overcrowded and not fit for purpose. In addition, they do not have toilets or running water in the winter months. The prefabs are completely unsuited to the new curriculum because they are too small. The school is seeking to rid itself of these despised prefabs and establish a built solution in the form of six permanent classrooms and two temporary resource rooms.

Inspectors from the Department visited the school in 2010 and agreed that the prefabs were both poorly designed and not fit for purpose. Astonishingly, another unit of the Department proceeded to purchase the prefabs, which were previously being rented, prior to Christmas. This was despite strong opposition to this from the school and the wider school community and the views expressed by the inspectorate. The purchase took place at a time when the pipes had again frozen and when children had to be removed from five of the rooms and taught in the small hall. I have in my possession a number of letters from members of the local community which were sent to the Department. Those who wrote the letters sought the Department's help and listed the defects to be found in the prefabs in question. As no satisfaction has been forthcoming, the community has begun a campaign, which I support, to encourage the Department to state that enough is enough and that the school will be provided with the permanent solution which is long overdue.

We often refer to the need to obtain value for money and initiatives relating thereto. Why should value for money apply only in new cases? When it argues that this is a value-for-money issue, the response the school receives appears to indicate that value for money only applies in such cases. That is daft. Value for money must apply in respect of every decision taken by each Government Department. This is the type of reform that will be required in respect of how the country is governed from now on. What is the position regarding the moneys from last year's capital budget that were returned unspent? It is frustrating for school communities and parents to see money being returned when the Department is purchasing prefabs which, according to its own criteria, are unfit for purpose. The decisions that have been made in respect of this matter are unforgivable.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills. I am glad to hear that progress was made in regard to St. Oliver Plunkett national school arising from the announcement made by the Tánaiste on 24 January. I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline to the Seanad the steps the Department of Education and Skills is taking to reduce overall spending costs associated with the rental of temporary accommodation in schools and outline to the House the position on St. Sylvester's national school in Malahide.

A review of policies and procedures for the provision of temporary classroom accommodation is well under way in the Department. The focus of this review is the development and adoption of practical measures and policies to achieve best value for money in the area of temporary school accommodation. It incorporates the development of standard specifications for temporary accommodation, the development of new contractual terms to incorporate buy-out and relocation options to cater for individual local circumstances and appropriately protects the interests of the Department and school authorities.

Work on the development of standard specifications for the provision of temporary accommodation units is nearing completion. The Department will pioneer this high quality specification for the provision of temporary units for schools. Policy changes implemented by the Department to achieve better value for money have already reduced the usage of temporary accommodation and, particularly, the incidence of long-term rental of prefabs. One such change is to grant-aid the purchase rather than rental of temporary accommodation where the need for such accommodation is likely to continue for more than three years.

Another policy change since July 2008 is that the Department now offers schools being approved for grant aid for temporary accommodation the option to use their capital grant aid to build permanent classrooms rather than purchase a prefab. I am pleased to inform the House that as a result of the action taken by the Department, an overall saving of €24 million has been achieved in spending on rental of temporary accommodation in the two year period 2008-10. This is a clear indication of the Department's efforts in the current economic climate to reduce spending in this area.

In September 2009, 2,037 prefabs were rented by primary and post-primary schools. This number has decreased to 1,744 and it is the aim of the Department to continue this downward trend in the coming years. Another strand of the review involves negotiations with prefab suppliers to buy out existing rental contracts and to secure reductions in annual rent, as appropriate. In 2010 the Department introduced a 10% reduction in rental grant amounts sanctioned for schools. This has also contributed to savings on rental costs and will continue to be implemented by the Department in 2011.

In regard to the buy-out of existing rental contracts in place in many schools throughout the country, the selection criteria for buy-out options identified a number of schools where there were lengthy or costly rental contracts. An initial group of schools with rented prefabricated accommodation was identified for priority negotiations with suppliers to buy out existing rental contracts. This group included St. Sylvester's in Malahide. As a result of these negotiations, 171 rented prefab units at 25 schools throughout the country have been purchased. This practice will continue for the foreseeable future.

Officials from the Department visited St. Sylvester's in October 2010 and examined the prefabs being rented with a view to purchasing the units. They reported that the prefabs were in good condition and well maintained. On 29 November 2010 the school authorities were informed that it had been decided to purchase the rented accommodation as it provided better value for money. The school authorities were also advised that the purchase of rented accommodation would not affect the school's application for a permanent extension. The Department is cognisant that there is a requirement for these prefabs for the foreseeable future and they will remain in place, whether rented or purchased, until such time as the permanent building is delivered.

The school has an application with the Department for an extension which has been assigned a band rating of 2.4. The progression of all large scale building projects, including this project, from initial design stage through to construction phase will be considered in the context of the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme. Notwithstanding the purchase of the school's prefabs, I assure the Senator that the application will continue to be considered for progression through the school building and modernisation programme. However, in light of current competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the progression of the project at this time. The purchase of the previously rented prefabs at this school is in no way an attempt by the Department to force a prefab solution onto the school on a permanent basis but rather an effort to achieve better value for money for the taxpayer.

I worked in the private sector until 2007 in a position which included responsibilities for purchasing and renting. If I received a report on machinery that indicated it was unfit for purpose, I would have been shot if I decided to purchase it on behalf of my company. I would not even be allowed 30 minutes to clear my desk. This is complete nonsense. One section of the Department reported the units were unfit for purpose but another went ahead with the purchase. It is unbelievable that a temporary solution was allowed to continue for 28 years. I acknowledge the Minister of State does not necessarily argue this decision was correct but how could somebody decide to purchase redundant kit in the midst of a serious financial crisis? All I have to go on is the answer set out by the Minister of State and, while I am not sure it has anything positive to say, I thank him for it nonetheless.

Officials from the Department visited the school in October 2010 and examined the prefabs with a view to purchasing them. They reported the prefabs were in good condition and well maintained. At the end of the day, this change in policy has saved the taxpayer a considerable amount of money nationwide.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Saturday, 29 January 2011.