Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Schools Building Projects Status

I welcome the Minister, Deputy McHugh, to the House.

The Minister is familiar with Moville community college, having visited it a number of times over the years. Last night, there was a large attendance of teachers, parents and students and there was great anger in the room at the delays that have been ongoing for years in delivering the new school buildings. The Minister will be aware that the existing prefab buildings are completely unacceptable. There are dilapidated conditions on the outside and leaks in the home economics room, for example. Facilities have been completely inadequate for a long time. Young people are crowded in together. The physical education, PE, facilities are utterly unacceptable by modern standards. There is no storage space. They can only avail of two of the approximately 18 options on the PE curriculum because of the limited capacity. The existing school building has substantial cracking throughout. I visited recently and could literally see from one room into the next through a horizontal crack going the whole way along the middle of the wall. They have an excuse for canteen facilities. They have to have caterers come in from outside to provide food on a bench. Toilets are closed. Kids are literally sitting down on the floor eating their food. This has been going on for years. The teachers and students and the principal have acted in good faith and have waited for these plans to proceed to construction phase. The prefabs in which they are teaching are Third World facilities. It was said last night that they provide a First World education in the school with fantastic teachers but that they have Third World facilities. This needs to come to an end. The Minister is a Donegal man and I hope and trust that he feels as strongly as I do. The anger in that room last night was palpable. We need to send a message from this Chamber today that the bureaucracy is coming to an end and that we will fast-track this project to planning and construction. We must end the period of the prefabs. We also need to give assurances that the serious structural issues within the existing building are going to be resolved and made safe as soon as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I was briefed on the meeting last night and I want to put on record my apologies to the staff and students for not being in a position to go as I had a prior engagement that was arranged last October.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to provide an update to the House on the current position regarding Moville community college, a building project that is critical in providing for the needs of the local community. Under the Project Ireland 2040 plan, Moville community college will be provided with 4,500 sq. m of new space through a stand-alone extension. This will allow for the expansion of the college to accommodate 550 pupils. The new extension will include 13 new classrooms, science labs, engineering and technology rooms, a new library, a general purpose room and dining facilities, as well as a PE hall with ancillary space and a 550 sq. m special needs base.

Delivery of the project to which this matter relates has been devolved to Donegal Education and Training Board, DETB, under a service level agreement finalised in January 2017. While it has taken longer than expected to reach the current stage of development, I assure the House that DETB has been progressing the project as effectively and efficiently as possible and has been liaising with officials in the Department of Education and Skills, as appropriate. This was one of the first items discussed at the initial meeting with the building unit when I was appointed as Minister

The House may wish to know that, in accordance with its terms of engagement, DETB has served a notice of termination on the existing architect. No new appointment will be made until the notice of termination takes effect. In the meantime, work is continuing on the project with the remaining members of the design team. The project is currently at stage 2a - pre-planning design. DETB and its design team met my officials on 12 February in respect of that matter. A number of design issues were raised at said meeting and in correspondence with the DETB since. These are being addressed. I am satisfied that DETB will progress the project as quickly as possible with its new architect, once appointed. Once the issues to which I refer are addressed and a new architect is in place, approval will be given to DETB to lodge a planning application for the new extension. It is expected that a planning application will be lodged with Donegal County Council for the project in September or October. Subject to any issues arising during the planning process, the project can then be expected to proceed to tender.

Separately and independently as a stand-alone project, I am aware that a number of issues with the existing building have been brought to the attention of officials in the Department of Education and Skills by DETB officials. I am conscious that this is a cause of concern for the students, staff and parents of the school. However, I can assure the House that officials from the Department of Education and Skills have been in regular contact with DETB, which is working diligently to address these issues. In that regard, the Department has recently received two detailed reports on the matter from DETB. On foot of these, it has approved the completion of a number of surveys and some essential works to be carried out over the course of this summer. The outcome of those surveys will determine the further action required to address these issues.

In addition, DETB has been liaising with Departmental officials in respect of disability access issues, as well as the condition of the current prefab block of accommodation on site. On the latter, I am conscious that the existing prefab accommodation requires refurbishment. I am pleased to be able to inform the House that approval has recently been given for that refurbishment to take place to ensure that it provides for the needs of the school until the stand-alone extension is completed. The works on the existing building and the prefabs will take place under one contract during the summer, and delivery of these works is also devolved to DETB. I am aware from last night's meeting that there is a fear that this refurbishment work will not go far enough. I have asked my officials to provide me with photographic evidence of examples of where this work has been carried out before. I am happy to send those images on to the Senator, and he can share them with his contacts. I do not want to force a decision that the school is not going to accept. It has to buy into the project, and we should try to provide evidence of how good this work is. I am conscious that if we go for new prefabs, they will require planning permission and the project will be delayed even further, possibly until the following summer. I do not feel that is good enough. I have been in the school and in that home economics classroom. I share the concerns of the Senator. This is, and will remain, a priority for me.

As a former teacher, the Minister will be aware that the teachers in the school were very reluctant to move to the point of holding a public meeting. They have been patient and acted in good faith. They waited and waited before drawing public attention to the issues at the school. However, they ran out of patience and have lost much of their trust in the process. It is critical that the timeframe set out by the Minister is met. There was a lot of resistance to the idea of further refurbishment of the prefabs. Teachers had anticipated that there would be a replacement of the prefabs. If Department officials are insisting on that path, perhaps they would liaise with the teachers on the action committee to address the safety concerns they have about the prefabs in order to make matters as workable as possible while they await the new school building. The latter should be as practical as possible in order that the gaps identified by the teachers last night might be addressed.

That is absolutely no problem. I agree with everything the Senator said. It is important to reassure members of the public in Inishowen, in particular in Moville, and the student body, that we will work together on this. I put in timeframes that I want to see met. I do not want to delve too much into the termination of the contract of the architect because it is not finalised yet but once that happens we will appoint a new architect. In the meantime the design team is still in place. It will continue its work and we will have a submission ready for planning. I am happy to keep the Senator posted at every stage.

I acknowledge the input of Mr. Paddy Kelly from the education and training board, ETB, whose expertise will be critical in ensuring we move forward on this. I also acknowledge the input of the local county councillors who have been working very hard on this issue, and I will keep them in the loop as well.

I acknowledge the frustration of the teachers in the staff room. I met them and we considered potential options. We discussed potentially replacing the prefabs and considered what would be the best option. The advice I got back is that in order to do an effective job in a tighter timeframe, what is required is not simply replacing a roof, rather the electrics will need to be done and a full refurbishment to ensure there are a proper safety standards in place in these prefabs for the students and the teachers.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I put down this Commencement matter asking the Minister to provide an update on the process as to how it can forward plan the provision of sufficient places for students with special needs. I have raised this issue with him on several occasions. We need to ensure we have enough special needs places for students with special needs.

Currently the pathway to such access is slightly unclear so the Minister might clarify that. Students go into an early intervention setting, which is provided by the HSE. They might spend two or three years in that setting and then go into a school setting. They would seek a special needs place in a school. I have been informed by parents that the process involves them applying to multiple schools for such a place for their child. That does not make sense in a rural setting, or even in an urban one. Parents have to apply to four, five or six schools. There may be six such places per school and they have to wait until August to find out the school to which their child has got access.

There must be a way of forward planning such provision. Given that the HSE is involved at the early intervention stage, which is two or three years prior to a child going into the school setting, a forward planning network could be put in place to provide a place for the child in their nearest school. Currently, children are being driven in taxis to and from schools that are a distance of 20 or 30 miles from their homes. That does not make sense. I hope a plan can be put in place to ensure parents can get access to the special education services their child needs.

Parents seek clarity. They want to ensure they can get a special needs place for their child and to ensure that when their child is assessed at the age of one or two that in three years' time they will have a special needs place in a school. Such a link does not appear to be in place. The Minister might clarify that. It might be in place and simply needs to be worked on. Such a link would provide an understanding of the system and would work to ensure parents have a school place for their child. A school place, in particular in their local school, is one of main the issues they want addressed. Many schools in my area have six special needs places attached to them, although some schools do not. If there is such a need in a locality, that needs to be provided for at least two years in advance of a child entering the school setting.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue on which we are intensively working. We have a budget of more than €1.9 billion for special needs and a Department budget of €11 billion, which represents quite a substantial injection of money.

We have 1,500 SNAs. We got an additional 950 this year. Special classes have increased from fewer than 500 to approximately 1,500 since 2011. There has been enormous progress. However, I agree with what Senator Lombard said. The piece of work we are doing at the moment is how we can do better at pre-planning and forward planning and how we can improve communication channels with parents. It is not right that parents have to go around to schools or be given a list. That is something I have brought up with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, when I had a meeting with it last week. I will continue to meet with it on that. Timing is another issue in terms of when enrolment for special needs purposes happens. I am happy to keep the Senator up to date in that regard.

The NCSE has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs and consultation with the relevant education partners and the Health Service Executive. This includes the establishment of special classes and special school placements in various geographical areas where there is an identified need. In deciding where to establish a special class in an area, the NCSE takes account of the current and projected demand and available school accommodation both current and planned. The council ensures that schools in an area can between them cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements. As I outlined, they have increased from 548 in 2011 to 1,459 this year. Provision in special schools has increased from 6,848 placements in 2011 to 7,872 this year. When the NCSE sanctions a special class in a school, the school can apply to the Department for capital funding to reconfigure existing spaces or to construct additional accommodation. Similarly, special schools can apply to the Department for capital funding to accommodate additional placements.

Notwithstanding the extent of the investment, issues remain. In some parts of the country increases in population and other issues have led to shortages in capacity in the school system. I assure Senator Lombard that this issue is being taken very seriously. The NCSE formally advised the Minister for Education and Skills that there is insufficient special school and special class capacity in Dublin 15 and in Kildare. The formal notification was sent to me in recent weeks. The letter is a formal activation of a process under the admissions legislation under which ultimately a ministerial direction can be made requiring a school to make additional special education provision available. The NCSE and the Department are actively engaging with education service providers in order to encourage them to address the shortage of places. I am encouraged that, to date, those efforts have resolved the issue in Kildare and resulted in progress in Dublin 15.

Engagement with schools, patron bodies, parents and others is continuing in Dublin 15 to bring the required additional special class and special school placements on-stream. The NCSE will keep in regular contact with the parents of the children concerned to advise them of progress and to identify placements as they become available. The NCSE and officials from the Department of Education and Skills hosted a briefing session for Oireachtas Members in Leinster House on Tuesday last to advise Members on the approach being taken.

I again thank Senator Lombard because we have embarked on a very ambitious journey for special education inclusion and ensuring that special education is at the heart of the education system, but like any journey it is an ongoing and evolving one and I am happy to work with him along the way.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply regarding the issue. It is about trying to find a pathway so that when parents have a diagnosis they can access early intervention and are ensured of a place in two years' time. That is probably the body of work that is required. The HSE has the information and I am concerned that it would provide the information to the Department of Education and Skills in order that we can provide what is required, namely, access to a local school. We have a school bus system and many other systems. As the Minister correctly said, the education model is built on inclusivity and ensuring children can access education in the community and parish.

We have been working on a school inclusion pilot project for Kildare and Wicklow and parts of south Dublin that will involve 75 schools and preschools.

That understanding of need at an early stage is critical. Regardless of whatever resources are needed in the aftermath, it has to be done in a comprehensive way whether it involves speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, complex medical need, behavioural support or whatever.

This pilot will start in September. It has a budget €4.75 million. We will look at the pilot as a potential forerunner of a national roll-out. We are looking at integration involving the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health and Education and Skills in order to identify how we can more effectively work on the issue of inclusion raised by the Senator. I acknowledge the officials in the respective Departments. I know that officials can get a lot of negative attention when things go wrong but in politics, it is important to acknowledge creativity. There is a creative approach to this school inclusion model that I believe will be very positive in the years ahead.

School Accommodation

I welcome the Minister and thank him for taking the time to answer this very important question on Ardgillan community college. The latter is located in the town of Balbriggan in north County Dublin. It not only serves Balbriggan but also surrounding villages such as Balrothery and the Naul. Along with the rest of Fingal, Balbriggan is in the fastest-growing part of the country and has the youngest population in the State. As a result, school provision is very important in Balbriggan.

The school in question is under the patronage of the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board. Phase 1 of the school opened in 2009 and phase 2 was opened in 2015, with the school population increasing to 1,000 as a result. It is an excellent school that has excelled academically and in sports, music and the arts. The school has very high standards and, because it is very popular, there are long waiting lists for entry every year.

Last October, significant structural defects in phase 1, which is the 18-classroom first section of the school, were discovered. This discovery prompted urgent structural assessment of 30 schools built by Western Building Systems that included schools in Greystones, Tyrrelstown and Mullingar. The students in the phase 1 building in Ardgillan community college are now being housed in the nearby Castlelands community centre but this is far from ideal. It leads to the school lacking structure and being disjointed. I do not think anybody is happy with the current situation. They accepted it was a temporary situation.

The school has requested the provision of temporary Portakabin accommodation but has received no information from the Department of Education and Skills on the provision of these Portakabins. Could the Minister tell me whether this request will be granted, whether the Portakabins be on site and when they will be on site? When will phase 1 be reopened? This is very important. Now that we are coming into the summer months, it is vital that as much work as possible be done in Ardgillan community college in order to bring it up to scratch for September. The situation is very difficult for all the students concerned, their parents and the teaching staff despite the best efforts of the school principal, Michael O'Leary, and all the staff. People in Balbriggan, Balrothery and the Naul are very concerned about the school. I have been out canvassing with Niall Keady in Balbriggan and this issue comes up very regularly on the doorsteps. It is a very real topic now that we are coming into the local elections. People are asking Mr. Keady and me about what is happening, which is why I have raised it here today. What is happening? Many parents with children in St. Molaga's national school, who have been studying in really bad 19-year-old prefabs, are very dismayed at the thought that their children will now go into Ardgillan community college despite it being an excellent school because they must contend with temporary and insecure accommodation for their secondary education so it is a really important issue and we need answers and, more importantly, action.