Thursday, 17 October 2019

Questions (8)

Joan Burton


8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the progress on the acquisition by the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board of a permanent site for a school (details supplied); if his attention has been drawn to the lack of further education facilities in the County Meath area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42581/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Education)

I ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he can explain to the Dáil and the staff and students of the Dunboyne College of Further Education, which is an excellent college with 900 students on the outskirts of Dunboyne, why the college is still waiting for a permanent site on which to build a permanent school. This is a fine educational institution, but to progress further, it really needs to get a permanent site. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the school has not been facilitated.

As the Deputy is aware, Dunboyne College of Further Education is currently located in a number of rented buildings and prefab accommodation at Dunboyne Business Park. The Department approved stand-alone status to the college in 2015. It has 800 students.

Prior to achieving stand-alone status, the college was considered part of St. Peter’s College post-primary school. Louth Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB, as patron of Dunboyne College of Further Education, was requested by my Department to identify potential suitable site options. In response to this request the education and training board, ETB, has proposed one site option of significant scale and cost. As the Deputy will be aware, the first ever dedicated capital budget for further education and training has been established under Project Ireland 2040. This will see €300 million invested in the period up to 2027 in the development of modern, fit-for-purpose facilities nationally. The site option proposed by the ETB will have to be appraised in a wider context, including in the context of the strategy for the further education and training sector generally.

I thank the Minister for his reply but it is a deeply disappointing one after the recognition of the college and the progress that was made in 2015. I represent the neighbouring constituency of Dublin West which has many students who attend the college, as has the whole of County Meath. The Minister may not be aware that Meath has no third level institution. Students from as far away as Kildare are using Dunboyne College of Further Education as one of the few very large institutions of further education that are available to them.

The college has a track record, which the Minister can inspect, of students going on to study for degrees in DIT, Maynooth University and across the range of third level colleges and options that are open to them. Many of them have gone on to get work directly or set up their own businesses. The lack of a site is hampering the development of the college.

I appreciate that the frustration here is over the timeline. In May 2018, Department officials gave approval to LMETB to advertise to seek expressions of interest for a suitable site to accommodate Dunboyne College of Further Education, requiring that any identified sites be technically appraised and that the reports of the technical appraisal be made available to my Department. In September 2018, the Department approved the appointment of a consultant to support it in the site identification process. In July 2019, LMETB provided details on its preferred site and requested approval to make an offer. The site in question was considerably larger than expected and the anticipated acquisition costs were significant due to its partial residential zoning. The reports of the technical appraisal have not yet been received. On 3 October 2019, LMETB was advised that the Department was not in a position to consider the proposal further until such time as a broader strategy was agreed in respect of further education provision and associated accommodation requirement.

We are not going to come up with a conclusion to this issue today in this House but my message is that I concur with Deputy Burton that we need momentum behind this initiative now. I call on LMETB to engage proactively with my officials to see how we can move this forward. There is a roadblock here on the scale of the development and we need to bang our heads together about this.

I do not mind if Deputy Thomas Byrne wishes to make a contribution.

I thank Deputy Burton for raising this matter. I have a question further down the list of questions about the matter because I do not know if this also applies to other colleges around the country.

The roadblock to which the Minister referred is not in LMETB. The roadblock is a letter that his Department issued on 3 October baldly stating that the Department is not prepared to consider the project further. That is the roadblock. The Minister said that a number of leases are in place. There are 16 separate buildings, 14 leases, and 100 students being bussed to Navan every day. A constituent of mine comes from Ardcath to Dunboyne and then has to get a bus to Navan.

It is outrageous that this development was cancelled. This is another result of the Minister and his Department accepting a reduction in the capital budget. This college serves young people from all across my constituency and Deputy Burton's. The Minister goes on about working together. I will work together if the Minister sends out a letter saying the Department is considering the project further. The Department's letter to the contrary is what stopped progress. The Minister must reverse that and I am calling on him to do so.

The Minister should, at a minimum, visit the college, and he would be very welcome to. Alternatively, he should meet the Deputies who represent the areas from which the students who attend the college come.

The Minister has delivered very bad news for the college. What do people have to do? The staff, principal and deputy principal are all working their backs off to give young people, particularly those who are not going the direct route to third level education, a future. For many of those young people in areas like the west side of Dublin West, while the official rate of unemployment is 5%, the real rate in more disadvantaged and rural areas is, in practice, maybe 11% or 12% and, in some cases within council estates, can even reach 20% or 25%. The key to unlocking a future for those people and getting them into employment is to give them opportunities around further education. This will not be money in any way misspent. It will produce a future every year for up to 1,000 people in the areas of Meath, Kildare and the constituency of Dublin West. It is a good investment.

I thank Deputy Burton for raising this matter and appreciate what she is trying to do and how she is trying to move it forward. We in this House can pretend that one plus one equals four. The Deputy can claim that the Government is not committed to further education and training, but there was no capital plan for further education and training when she was in government. There never was. There is a €300 million investment earmarked for projects such as this. I want to see this moving forward. There is a great legacy and tradition of third level training in Meath, although the Deputy is right to point out that the county does not have a university or institute of technology. That notwithstanding, there is Drogheda Institute of Further Education, Dunboyne College of Further Education, and O'Fiaich College in Dundalk.

Deputy Thomas Byrne is saying that we should go ahead with the development no matter the size, scale or cost. On the other hand, his party is telling the Government it is not frugal enough and is overspending. Sometimes I do not know what Deputy Thomas Byrne is asking me to do.

I am asking the Minister to consider the matter further when his Department has said it will not.

Acquisitions of such magnitude must be carefully considered and any curricular requirement for land above what would be typically provided for a further education college must be assessed in the general context of further education.