Adjournment Debate

School Accommodation

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this matter once again. It seems to be my perennial issue. This is the 14th year Gaelscoil Bharra, Cabra, has been based in prefabs. Those provided are not the best and have the usual problems of being too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The rooms are untidy and difficult to maintain and the toilets are far from satisfactory. Some of the pupils who have endured these conditions are now in college, which shows the length of time the school has been confined to prefabs.

When the school was originally established, it fulfilled all the Department's conditions for permanent accommodation. It was promised accommodation by a former Taoiseach at every election but it was never delivered. The Department lost the application for four years and other unfortunate circumstances such as locating a site surrounded the school's accommodation needs.

Recently progress was made in the acquisition of a site and that land, currently being leased by Dublin City Council to the Naomh Fionnbarra GAA club, will be extended to allow a school to be built. Has there been a transfer of title? Has the Department prepared any planning applications? Has there been any consultation with the school's staff, board of management and parents on the design plans for the new buildings? It was hoped the building could be used for extra-curricular activities in the community. More important, considering the limits on capital spending, will funding be available for its construction?

This matter has gone on for far too long. It is unfair to the children and the community. We want this intolerable situation to be rectified for once and for all.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it affords me an opportunity to outline to the Dáil the process being utilised to ensure that there will be adequate accommodation in schools at primary and post-primary level in all parts of the country.

The forward planning section of the Department has carried out a study of the country to identify the areas where, due to demographic changes, there may be a requirement for significant additional school provision at both primary and post-primary levels over the coming years. This study has been conducted using data from the Central Statistics Office, the General Register Office and the Department of Social Protection, with reference to recent schools' enrolment data.

School accommodation requirements in Dublin 7 have been considered as part of this detailed study. The indicators are that approximately 12 additional primary classrooms may be required across that area to cater for increased enrolments up to the school year 2014-15. The Department is considering options to meet the deficit identified.

Turning to the specific primary school referred to by the Deputy — Gaelscoil Bharra, Cabra, Dublin 7 — the Department has agreed, in principle, a design solution for Gaelscoil Bharra subject to securing the necessary planning consent from the planning authority. St. Finbarr's GAA Club is agreeable, in principle, to surrendering its interest in the relevant land-holding to facilitate the proposed design solution. The Department has also received permission from the GAA club to apply for planning permission for the school. The Department will now commence working up this planning application. The progression of the accompanying building project will be considered in the context of the capital budget available to the Department for school buildings generally.

I am familiar with the school as my niece is a pupil there. My brother has been lobbying me on this issue and I am aware of the urgent situation that surrounds it. Therefore we will be doing everything we can in this regard. I wish to thank the Deputy once again for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the steps we are taking on this matter.

Home Tuition Grants

This Adjournment matter concerns a simple breakdown in the operation of the Department of Education and Skill's bureaucracy. It concerns a 16-year-old boy who is unable to attend school as he suffers from severe autism and has a profound learning disability. He is non-verbal and has an extremely impaired coping ability. He also has severe dietary problems and is acutely intolerant of all pharmaceutical medicines.

The boy has had a home tuition grant to date. He has been in the system and has been receiving support from the Department of Education and Skills under the criteria which he meets for children who cannot attend school. The parents — who are used to dealing with the bureaucracy involved because of their son's age — completed all the paperwork on 20 August this year. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, as we approach the Christmas break, his application is still under consideration.

I know this matter does not come under the aegis of the Minister, Deputy Gormley's, Department but he has an explanation from the Department of Education and Skills. This family has been driven to distraction trying to get clarification on this matter because they have had to hire a fully qualified teacher to work with the student on a one-to-one basis in his home. They have been denied access to the money, which is unbelievable. This is not a new case because the person concerned is in the system, so it beggars belief. It is out of sheer desperation and a cri de coeur from the mother in question that this has been brought to my attention. It seems tragic to me that I have to raise the matter in the House. I hope the Minister will have good news in his reply.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I would like to thank Deputy Quinn for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to clarify the position concerning the criteria for eligibility under the terms of the home tuition scheme. Furthermore, I wish to clarify that a decision issued to the parent of the child in question regarding their application for home tuition on 1 December 2010.

The home tuition scheme provides funding to parents to provide education at home for children who, for a number of reasons such as chronic illness, are unable to attend school. The scheme was extended in recent years to facilitate tuition for children as an interim measure whilst awaiting a suitable educational placement, and to provide early educational intervention for preschool children with autism.

Through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is responsible for allocating resource teachers and special needs assistants to schools to support children with special educational needs. The NCSE operates within the Department's criteria in allocating such support. SENOs are a valuable resource in assisting parents with regard to their children's special educational needs and placement options.

Processing of home tuition applications made in respect of children awaiting placement involves liaising with the NCSE to establish on a case-by-case basis the position with regard to securing a placement for the children concerned. Parents are advised when applying for home tuition funding that any funding sanctioned in this regard is on an interim basis only, pending the provision of an educational placement, and that regular reports may be requested on the updated position on securing school placement.

The child in question had previously been funded under the home tuition scheme while he was awaiting an educational placement. The NCSE advised that for the 2010 to 2011 school year a placement had been identified for the child. As such, the child in question was ineligible for home tuition funding. However, the Department of Education and Skills sought some clarification on the placement from the NCSE. This clarification led to a delay in processing the application and a letter did not issue advising the parent concerned that the child was ineligible for home tuition. On this basis, the Department decided that, as an exception, given the delay in processing the application, tuition would be sanctioned for a term and the Department advised the parent of this in a letter issued on 1 December.

The Department will shortly be in further contact with the parent to advise the outcome of the application. I hope that this clarifies the position for the Deputy and I thank him once again for raising this matter.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I note that the school of creative writing is alive and well in the Department of Education and Skills.

Schools Building Programme

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this important matter. St. Joseph's secondary school in Tulla, County Clare, has had difficulties with its accommodation needs for over ten years. Various proposals have been put forward by the Department to resolve those difficulties. Some time ago, it was decided by the Department that an extension would be the most appropriate solution to resolve those accommodation needs. Given the population growth in the area and the very small site on which the school is currently housed, it is now clearly recognised that the needs of local children will not be addressed by an extension to the school. The Department should finally make a decision that the appropriate solution to this accommodation problem is a new school. I urge the Department to examine this matter in the context of work that is being done within the community. A community group called Tulla 2016 has been formed, which is working towards providing facilities in the town, including playing fields. An appropriate site has been identified which the Department has reviewed. Now is the time to invest in a school building in conjunction with the community group, thus ensuring a campus-style approach catering for all the needs of the community at the same site. There would be significant savings for the Department if it follows that route, so it should be considered in that context.

The school accommodation needs have to be addressed because during the exams earlier this year there was not enough room to accommodate the various exam centres that were required, including separate centres for children with special needs. The school has an excellent special needs programme, which was developed by the previous principal, Jim Cooney, and has been continued by the current principal, Margaret O'Brien. Those two principals have put an enormous amount of work into developing the school for a student base that is growing in line with the town's population generally. It is now high time that we sought to resolve this matter.

The school accommodation issue has been reviewed by departmental representatives who said that the current accommodation is not fit for purpose. It is a exceptionally small site with no recreational area. More than half the schoolrooms are prefabricated and many are old and in poor condition.

Were it not for the principal, the board of management and the parents, the place would be falling down. They have put a tremendous amount of effort into maintaining this very poor facility. I have reasonable knowledge of schools throughout the country, and this one is in an exceptionally bad state.

The Department has identified the need to increase the priority rating of the school. Last Easter, the Minister moved it from a priority band rating of 2.4 to 1.2. I appeal to the Minister to ask the Department of Education and Skills to include the school in the next round of proposals and to allow it to proceed towards construction. I am aware that there are a number of steps in that process and that they take time. However, it is important that we get the school on that path and get away from the notion of trying to develop the existing site. Let us draw a line under that idea and put a plan in place for the delivery of a new school to meet the needs of the pupils in this area of growing population.

I am happy to reply on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan, who, unfortunately, cannot be present.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Dáil the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects and to outline the current position of the application made for an extension to St. Joseph's secondary school, Tulla, County Clare.

Modernising facilities in our existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

The planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Skills assesses all applications for capital funding. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting, based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity etc., leading ultimately to an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners.

There are four band ratings under these criteria, each of which describes the extent of accommodation required and the urgency attaching to it. Band 1 is the highest priority rating and Band 4 is the lowest. Documents explaining the band rating system are available on the Department's website.

St. Joseph's secondary school has submitted an application for grant aid for an extension and refurbishment project. The application was assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects and assigned a band rating of 2.4. The school made a revised application for major capital funding in 2008 for a new building on a ten acre greenfield site. Due to rising enrolments, the current school site was considered inadequate to cater for the long-term needs of the school. In April 2010 the school's project was rebanded to 1.2 to take account of the fact that the major project will cater for special needs pupils as part of the overall brief.

The school has indicated that its preference is to have a new building constructed on a greenfield site. The Tánaiste met a delegation from the school earlier this year and discussed the possibility of the school's trustees being willing to purchase a new site for a new school building. This issue is under consideration in the context of other demands and the funding required to construct a new school building.

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. 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.

In the meantime, the school has received funding under the summer works and emergency works schemes for various works to the existing building including to the roof, windows, boiler, flooring and mechanical services.

I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Dáil the current position regarding the school building project for St. Joseph's secondary school, Tulla, County Clare.

Heritage Council Funding

I am sorry to have to beg the indulgence of the House to raise the important matter of a massive reduction in expenditure for the Heritage Council in 2011.

The cuts published in the budget for 2011 will impact on the support offered by the State to its heritage assets and the local communities that support them. Our heritage is a vital part of our identity, sense of place and tourism offering and it provides a vital resource for recreation, health, learning and enjoyment. Significantly, the strong economic value of heritage can be shown in job creation, and this has been well tabulated by the Heritage Council itself.

In 2010, the council's budget was decreased by 30% to €9 million. In the 2011 budget it was reduced by a further 47% to €4.49 million. If expenditure cuts to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the built heritage division of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are also considered, there has been a 66% cut in State funding to heritage.

These cuts come at a time when tourism is identified as a key element in the recently published national recovery plan. Some 76% of tourists identified landscape and nature as the primary reason for visiting Ireland. These are integral parts of our national heritage. I cannot understand how this disproportionate cut to the national Heritage Council would be agreed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in view of the contribution it is likely to make to our national recovery. These cuts will affect conservation works in many towns and will mean a cessation in grants to historic buildings and thatched houses. New and innovative research funding schemes will be brought to an end.

I will give another example of the effect of these cuts before I pass to Deputy Tuffy. By cutting investment in State agencies the core functions of which are the delivery of EU and internationally agreed biodiversity targets and the implementation of and compliance with various wildlife related EU directives, such as the birds and habitats directives, we risk not meeting the new EU target and being taken to the European Court of Justice for failure to comply with them. Should the court find against Ireland in any of these cases, significant fines could be incurred. It does not make sense to run the risk of incurring fines to the European Union when we do not have to do so and when the Heritage Council has already suffered significant reductions in expenditure in 2010.

Can the Minister explain why he failed so miserably to withstand the pressure from the Department of Finance to cut funding to an agency that is particularly important for tourism development and heritage by 66%?

The Heritage Council's budget was cut by 30%, to €9 million, in 2010 and this year it has been reduced by 40%, to €4.49 million. A few years ago the budget was €20 million. It has gone down from €20 million to just under €5 million.

The lost funding was used to send assistants into schools to help teachers and children with projects on their local heritage. It provided grants for various projects that created employment, such as thatching. Grants were provided for village design statements. One of these was carried out in my village of Lucan by South Dublin County Council in partnership with the Heritage Council. This involved the stakeholders in the community, including school children and community activists who were interested in the village and its historic character. Money was used to part-fund heritage officers employed in partnership with county councils. These positive developments cannot continue. This is where the cuts will hit. It will not be possible for the Heritage Council to provide funding for these projects unless the Minister finds funding from somewhere else.

Our heritage is important to our tourism. Some 76% of tourists identify landscape and nature as a reason for visiting Ireland. Deputy Hogan referred to the 56% cut in the budget of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. If we are to get moving again and be positive we must invest in our heritage and environment. Instead of going to shopping centres and hotels — too many of which were built during the boom years — people should spend time with their family and friends and in their local communities. They should also visit national monuments, parks, etc. Money spent on our heritage is money well spent. This is a key aspect of the Minister's portfolio and it is a great disappointment, therefore, that the cut in funding for the Heritage Council has been so great. I ask that he suggest other ways in which the work to which I refer might be funded.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. Due to the difficult public financial situation, and in common with other Departments, the recent budget has seen a reduction in the financial resources available to my Department from €2.2 billion in 2010 to €1.6 billion in 2011. In recent years, my Department has strategically focused on contributing to economic recovery, assisting those in need of support and protecting and enhancing the environmental resource base on which economic progress ultimately depends. The significant resources being made available to my Department next year will be utilised to maintain this focus.

The reduction in the 2011 current allocation mainly affects support for the local government fund and also requires savings in the environmental and built and natural heritage areas. While 2011 will see a significant reduction in capital funding in overall terms, the primary effect on the Department will be to extend the timescale for full implementation of programmes, while also taking account of refocused priorities in the current climate and obtaining better value for money — through more competitive tendering and greater efficiency — from the €1 billion which will still be invested in Department capital programmes during the coming year.

The reduction in the overall funding available, contractual commitments on spending programmes and the emphasis on social protection and environmental compliance has lead to a significant reduction in the funding that will be available to the Heritage Council and the built heritage area in 2011. This cut in funding must be seen against the backdrop of considerable allocations to the Heritage Council and the built heritage area in previous years — for example, allocations of €36 million in 2007 and €45 million in 2008. The Heritage Council will be obliged to decide on how to make the best use of the financial resources being made available to it and on its priorities. I hope the council will be able to continue with its activities in the areas of policy, heritage infrastructure support and heritage grants.

Despite the reduction in the allocation to the built heritage area of my Department, work will continue on the national inventory of architectural heritage, the Government's policy on architecture and the world heritage programme. Funding will be provided to progress the work of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland for archaeological research and to progress completed archaeological excavations at important sites to report publication stage.

My Department is considering how best the reduced allocation to the built heritage capital programme might be used to assist in the conservation of the architectural heritage. In addition, I met Mr. Conor Newman, chairman of the Heritage Council, today and I intend to have further meetings with him in the coming weeks with a view to mitigating these reductions. My proposals will be set out early in 2011. In the area of natural heritage, consideration is being given to providing support from the environment fund to the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department.

The Deputies will appreciate that in a budgetary process Ministers are often faced with difficult choices such as, for example, that relating to heritage versus homelessness. While the allocation to my Department in 2011 has unavoidable impacts on funding to the Heritage Council and to the built and natural heritage areas of the Department, work will continue on protecting our built and natural heritage and on encouraging and supporting high-quality, modern architecture.

I thank the Minister and wish him, the Deputies present and the staff of the Houses a very happy Christmas.