Among the efficiency measures achieved in 2001 was the introduction of new streamlined procedures for processing applications for grant aid for minor primary school building projects involving the provision of additional temporary accommodation and the upgrading or replacement of windows, roofs, mechanical and electrical systems and external areas. These streamlined procedures were introduced with the objective of devolving responsibility to the school management authorities to the greatest extent possible, consistent with achieving value for money and allowing the primary responsibility for administration and compliance to rest with each board of management. Since the introduction of these revised procedures, my Department has received very positive feedback from schools that have used this streamlined process. These schools have recognised the benefit of very significant reductions in the time frame from the date of their initial application to the date for undertaking improvement works.
The introduction of these streamlined pro cedures has enabled my Department to sanction grant aid for a massive 1,350 minor primary school building projects, an increase of 600 from the previous year. Importantly, this is in addition to the devolved grant given to all schools on an annual basis for minor improvement works. My Department has already started to build on the success of these streamlined procedures in 2002 through a further devolution of authority and control of capital projects at primary schools. I have recently held discussions with my staff with a view to introducing further major developments in this regard. My officials are currently working on the details of how this scheme will operate, including those relating to value for money and accountability for public funds, to ensure a smooth implementation of this new scheme. I expect to be in a position to make a further announcement on this shortly.
The focus of my Department's planning and building unit will increasingly be on ensuring quality, best practice and value for money through an evaluation and audit approach rather than a detailed involvement in individual projects. This will enable my Department to fulfil a more strategic, policy-oriented role in relation to school buildings. This changed role is facilitated by measures aimed at empowering schools in relation to direct control of minor projects and the greater use of external design teams and by supporting school authorities in their role as client on major projects. I appreciate what Deputy Creed said in this regard and I hope he will understand that I have been very busy trying to achieve all this and that I hope to be in a position to make an announcement about it shortly. When this sort of change is undertaken many things must be sorted out, both by the officials and by the Secretary General.
In 2001, my Department's planning and building unit initiated the EU tender process for a pilot project involving organising and undertaking a comprehensive inventory of accommodation, including the production of site and building survey drawings and general building condition reports. The pilot project encompasses 115 primary and post-primary schools in County Kildare and the resulting information will be compiled on a geographic information system database. It is envisaged that this inventory of school accommodation will be used for the long-term planning of capital provision, to enable priorities for capital provision to be identified, to enable the Department to identify schools with spare accommodation, for long-term planning for the provision of schools in any particular location and as an information resource for the public.
The EU tender process for this project has been completed. The successful surveying teams commenced work in January 2002 and over the coming months each school in the pilot area will be visited by suitably qualified personnel who will assess and report on site conditions, space norms within the schools and the overall condition of each school. Ultimately, all the data accumulated will be stored electronically on the GIS database and will be available for reference. My Department is currently making the necessary prep arations for the use of Internet technology and for the publication of regular bulletins through which school communities, Members of the Oireachtas and others will be readily able to access up-to-date information on the status and progress of each building project. More general information, including details of the entire capital programme, will be available to the general public.
PPPs are already being used to advance projects. In addition to our impressive programme of development, we have already taken the initiative in introducing public private partnerships to supplement our unprecedented schools building programme. In November 2001 I signed the contract for the first ever educational sector PPP project involving five second-level schools, catering for almost 3,500 pupils, at a cost of €81.5 million. This money is in addition to the allocations in the Estimates. The Opposition does not need to suggest that we should move to a PPP approach or a design and build approach. The reality is that we have led the way. We have already delivered a school PPP bundle in a faster time than in other jurisdictions. This was an historic, ground-breaking pilot project. It gave massive new state of the art second level schools to Tubbercurry, with 675 pupils, Ballincollig, with 1,000, Clones, with 500, Dunmanway, with 700, and Shannon, with 600 pupils. We are now preparing the plans to invite tenders for further PPPs for primary and second level schools and to help meet the demand for state of the art PE halls.
The programme has worked very well. The Department of Finance was impressed with it and it is fully behind our expansion of the programme. Many things had to be worked out during this pilot phase and quite a few builders decided not enter until they had seen how the pilot would go. It went well and now there are many people with an interest in the projects. These projects will contribute to better use of school buildings outside of school hours for adult and community use and for lifelong learning and will take away from school principals the burden of administration with regard to buildings, allowing them to concentrate on their core educational functions.
Another major innovation in which we are currently involved is completion of a comprehensive plan for a single PPP to encompass all primary and second level schools in the Portlaoise area. This will involve new, state of the art buildings and widespread refurbishment. It is a new approach to take the whole of the Portlaoise area and deal with all the schools in it and everything that is needed. The movement of population, which is currently a problem there, will also be taken into account. Everything will be dealt with in one PPP. This is the first time ever that such a major integrated school building programme has been undertaken for any town or city in Ireland. The facilitation process for a second town, New Ross, has already begun. Facilitation means that people must come together, agree to work together and decide what the long-term plan should be for schools in the area.
On the INTO list often referred to by the Opposition and in media comment, what I have to say is not intended to avoid the reality that some schools have substandard and inadequate accommodation. The scale of funding and the programme we are delivering is the most clear cut way of acknowledging what was neglected for years, namely, that there is much work to be done now and into the future. It is important that we are all clear on what exactly is involved and that all claims are grounded in fact and related to need. While I do not doubt the sincerity of the INTO, the criteria it uses in determining which schools are substandard are unclear and seem to have been applied in a very arbitrary fashion. It is not clear, from the information supplied by the INTO, who compiles the reports and the level of technical input, if any, involved in the assessments.
Many of the specific issues raised by the INTO, such as hand washing and drying facilities, heating, replacement of windows and doors and water supply, should in these days be resolved through the devolved capital grant for primary schools. All primary schools now receive an annual capital grant which I increased this year to €3,809 per school plus €12.70 per pupil at a cost in excess of €17.7 million per annum. This grant empowers schools to deal directly with such problems without any need to get approval from my Department. The vast majority of schools now deal with these minor works themselves and do so very effectively.
The INTO and some elements in the media regularly refer to "rat or mice infested primary schools". Rodent problems, as they would in any domestic, industrial or commercial setting, are more likely to arise if pest control policies are inadequate. The most structurally sound buildings can suffer rodent infestation, for example, through drains and sewers. It does not follow that rodent infestation, where it exists, requires the construction of a new building or that dealing with such a problem must await the construction of a new building. It may be colourful and headline grabbing to make such references but responsibility for dealing with such problems resides with local school managements and we provide them with annual funding on which they have total discretion. The vast majority of the schools listed by the INTO are relatively small buildings and, therefore, amenable to considerable improvement with the funds made available to them.
My Department has serious concerns about the effectiveness of the devolved grant from a value for money point of view in these cases and has consequently decided to undertake a detailed expenditure review to determine exactly how these funds are being spent, particularly in the schools which appear to be unable to tackle these minor works themselves.
My Department cannot accept the argument being advanced by the INTO that schools which do not adhere to the current Department of Education and Science planning guidelines are necessarily substandard. These guidelines were drawn up and adopted in January 2000 for the use of architectural design teams where new schools or extensions to existing schools are being planned for the future. My Department is setting new and higher standards and targets as part of a best practice agenda for school design and this will be implemented in all future works throughout the country. Based on these criteria, the INTO recently published a list of 73 schools which they regard as having substandard accommodation. Regular updates are received from the INTO, adding some schools and deleting others from the list. The planning and building unit has also initiated a series of regular meetings with the INTO to ensure that we have better information about priority projects.
My Department's records show that, since 1996, over 165 schools have been highlighted by the INTO. Many of these schools have received substantial funding to carry out refurbishment work and to purchase temporary accommodation. Many other schools brought to my Department's attention by the INTO are among the primary school projects currently progressing through architectural planning. The Department must also fund the building of many new schools in developing areas where none exist and deal with the provision of new special education facilities.
The primary school building programme must proceed on the basis of prioritising needs on a fair and rational basis and not on the basis of who shouts loudest or seeks to grab media attention. We must respond to the need for schools in rapidly developing areas, to the particular needs of schools in areas of social disadvantage, to the accommodation needs of schools catering for children with special needs and to the need for building works that facilitate development through amalgamation.
I wish to return to the details of this year's programme with a specific emphasis on primary schools. Already this year, 84 major primary school projects are under construction or due on site in a matter of weeks at an ultimate cost of €110 million. Work is proceeding on the acquisition of sites for a further 60 new primary schools. Architectural planning is continuing on over 450 major primary school building projects. Over 100 of these are at an advanced stage of the planning process at an estimated cost of €170 million. Some of them will be ready to go to tender in the coming weeks and others will be ready later in the year. They will give rise to expenditure which will naturally spread over this year and next year. Work is proceeding and will continue to proceed within my Department on all these projects consistent with the progress that is made externally by design teams and in relation to local authority planning processes and all the other factors that influence the pace of progress.
The level of capital funding in 2002 is €153.6 million for primary buildings and €184 million for post-primary schools, a total of €337.6 million. We will add to this the projects to be undertaken through public private partnerships. While this funding will be used to meet the cost of projects already on site, new projects ready to go on site and new PPPs, it clearly cannot, and it is not intended to, address this year all the problems that have been identified. That will be the continuing challenge for next year.
I am finalising for Government the details and shape of the programme as it is likely to develop through the year. It is my intention to make available to Deputies a list of school building projects currently in construction as well as major building projects in architectural planning as soon as possible, taking this year's Estimates, the budget allocation and PPPs into account. I will also announce details of projects that are ready to go to tender and others for which tenders have been received and where construction will commence in the coming months. Individual school authorities will be notified of indicative dates relevant to each stage.
The education landscape does not stand still. The building programme must change and adapt to meet emerging curricular and other needs. Over the last five years, we have extended and dramatically improved the specifications for school buildings and ancillary accommodation to meet lower pupil-teacher ratios and the needs of children with disabilities, to provide new and refurbished science laboratories and PE halls and to provide an expanded choice of subjects and 3,500 extra teachers.
The Government has invested significantly in education both in terms of human resources and programmes. The building programme has kept pace with those developments, ensuring that extra teachers are accommodated and new programmes can be delivered. We have done more on all fronts. We have surpassed anything achieved by any previous Government in the history of the State.
Ensuring schools meet the latest safety and technical standards is also essential. The removal of asbestos and the reduction of radon gas levels have been a priority. Already this week, I have announced funding for a major new programme that provides for dust extraction in specialist rooms in second level schools.
The Government is committed to addressing the historical deficit in educational infrastructure. We have allocated substantial extra funding in each of our budgets for school buildings. We have provided almost four times as much this year as the Opposition did when in Government. This level of commitment will continue into the foreseeable future. The Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, recently gave a categorical assurance about our clear commitment to continue the work we have started and to build on the substantial progress that has already been made to ensure that the needs of schools throughout the country are met. I am proud to come to the House and stand over the record of the Government on spending on school building at all levels. No one has matched the performance of the Government in meeting the needs of our schools for modern, state-of-the-art buildings and facilities.
There is still a substantial amount of work to be done, but let no one doubt the seriousness with which the Government approaches the schools building programme. We kick-started the programme from the paltry level at which it languished in 1997 when the rainbow coalition was in power to the record level of building and construction it has reached today. People can come to only one conclusion when they consider the ranting, hypocrisy and attempts the Opposition are making to create panic and undermine the sterling work of the Government's schools building programme. That conclusion is that there is a general election in the offing and they are clutching at straws.