Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Education and Training Boards

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

6. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Education and Skills if the number of hours made available for English courses will be considered by the education and training board in view of the fact only two hours per week are being provided; if his attention has been drawn to the benefits an increase in hours will have in order to help new communities, including refugees and asylum seekers, to integrate locally; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10859/19]

This question relates to English language classes for the new Irish and others who come to live here. Their ability to speak the language greatly affects their ability to integrate into Irish society. It is really important to be able to do so. We need to look to expanding the service and the number of hours available.

I thank Deputy Pringle for his important question. My Department and SOLAS fund English for speakers of other languages training for migrants through the 16 education and training boards, ETBs.

Adult programme refugees have access to an initial eight-week language training and orientation programme in a number of ETBs under the resettlement strand of the Irish refugee protection programme. Following resettlement in the community, a full language and training programme is put in place by the ETBs for up to 20 hours per week, for a period of one year.

Outside the arrangements for programme refugees, contact hours for English language learners are determined at local level by ETBs. These decisions are based on local demand and learner skill requirements and ETBs discuss these demands and service requirements with SOLAS as part of the annual funding process.

An analysis of the data on reported beneficiaries and expenditure for English for speakers of other languages and refugee resettlement, up to and including October 2018, indicates that 14,749 beneficiaries availed of English for speakers of other languages training, while 1,341 beneficiaries availed of the refugee resettlement programme.

Combined expenditure for English for speakers of other languages training and refugee resettlement was reported as €5.4 million, with a combined beneficiary total of 16,090.

In March 2018, SOLAS and Education and Training Boards Ireland published a report entitled "English language provision and language assessment for low-skilled and unemployed migrants. Recommendations for good practice at NFQ levels 1-3 in ETBs". The report acknowledges that progress can be slow with some learners due to less intensive provision and insufficient opportunity for them to use their English outside the classroom. The report recommends that provision be for a minimum of 200 hours per year.

The report’s recommendations, including the movement towards more intensive provision, are being progressed by SOLAS and the ETBs.

I am sure the Minister of State will agree that the ability to speak the language is a factor which significantly affects a person's ability to integrate into Irish society. He has said there is a course of up to 20 hours a week for one year. From talking to members of the affected community, I know that they are unaware that this time is available to them. Most have a two or three hour session once a week which is not adequate for them to learn English at a level that will enable them to live and work in Irish society. I would like the Minister of State to elaborate on the 20 hours of provision. Is it at the discretion of the different ETBs whether it is available? Everything we spend to improve levels of English among refugees and asylum seekers will help to improve their integration and pay dividends to the State in the long run. The cost will not be a factor.

I can state categorically that refugee resettlement programme participants are entitled to 20 hours of provision weekly in the first year of resettlement. ETBs can subsequently offer more than 20 hours per week, but we have found that 20 hours a week is too much for many refugees as they are settling into their homes, have children who are in school and their environment and community are all new to them. Therefore, it is not always the case that they can attend for up to 20 hours, but there is that provision under the refugee resettlement programme. Some ETBs are allowed to use what is called a banking system under which those who are capable of attending for 20 hours a week are offered those hours, but for those whose language skills are particularly weak or where there are problems with literacy, a slower approach may be taken. It is at the discretion of ETBs to offer more hours and having spoken to SOLAS and some of the ETBs, I know that they do this.

If the refugee or asylum seeker believes he or she can do more hours, is it open to him or her to approach the ETB to secure them? The ETB may offer them, but there is a question about whether the person has the ability to seek them. The Minister of State has said some refugees or asylum seekers may have difficulties in managing the extra time, depending on their level of education or standard of English. Is it open to refugees and asylum seekers to ask for more? It is vitally important that they can.

Additional one-to-one tuition is offered and available for learners with very weak language skills and literacy difficulties in their own language who may find it beneficial. I do not have the facts and figures for the take-up, but I can obtain them for the Deputy. The onus is on the ETBs which can offer 20 hours a week, although as I have explained, we find that many refugees and asylum seekers are unable to avail of them. The ETBs may offer more than 20 hours and most offer one-on-one tuition. I will revert to the Deputy with the facts and figures.

Schools Building Projects Status

Joan Burton

Ceist:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills the steps he will take in relation to schools (details supplied); when work on the schools will be completed; when the schools will have full possession of all their facilities and school buildings again; the negotiations between the builders responsible and his Department; if there have been developments such as legal action in terms of the flaws and failures identified in the cases of these particular school buildings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10872/19]

What is the proposed timeline for completion of the works at the Tyrrelstown schools affected by the discovery of defects? The schools are surrounded by building works and remain wrapped in scaffolding which makes it really difficult for the teachers, pupils and parents. Notwithstanding the welcome visit of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills which was filmed and broadcast widely on RTÉ and so on, there is no indication as to when they will get the schools back up and running fully in order that they may resume the full range of teaching activities.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta fá choinne na ceiste. Tá dul chun cinn déanta. B’fhéidir go mbeidh an freagra níos soiléire leis na sonraí atá de dhíth agus atá i mo fhreagra.

The schools in Tyrrelstown to which the Deputy refers, namely, St. Luke's national school and Tyrrelstown Educate Together, are in full possession of their buildings, albeit with precautionary measures in place to ensure safe occupancy. The safety of pupils and staff has been and remains our first priority. The Deputy will be aware that, following initial investigations at the schools last October and November, both internal and external precautionary measures were required in them. With the completion of the external precautionary measures, the schools were occupied initially at ground floor only. Works on the precautionary measures required on the upper floors were completed by 12 December 2018. One of the schools fully reoccupied its building at the time. The other opted to take up full occupancy again after the Christmas holidays.

More recently, detailed investigations were carried out at both schools. The purpose of the investigations is to determine the type and extent of issues in each of them and design permanent remediation solutions. The intention is that remediation works necessary in the schools, with 20 other schools that have precautionary measures in place, will be carried out in 2019. My Department has advised the schools accordingly. Work is advancing with the Office of the Chief State Solicitor and the Office of the Attorney General to devise a legal strategy to pursue the contractor in question for the costs of the precautionary measures and the permanent remediation works. Some proceedings have been issued against the contractor in relation to fire safety matters. To date, proceedings have issued in respect of Ardgillan community school which is partially closed as a result of concerns arising from investigations. The case will be back before the Commercial Court in early May.

I acknowledge the principals, teachers, staff, parents and pupils not just of the schools mentioned by the Deputy but of all of the schools affected, not just before Christmas when the issue emerged but also in the weeks and months since. I have met a number of the principals and staff and management of the schools, both at the time and since, and take the opportunity to express my thanks to them for the work they have being doing to make sure the impact on the pupils of the investigations to date is kept to a minimum.

I thank the Minister for his appreciation of the staff and communities in the school; however, I notice that he did not give a date for when the schools would return to full operation.

It will be some time this year. St. Luke's national school has 650 pupils and about 50 staff. It is a very big school, as is Tyrrelstown Educate Together. The school is forced to take three small breaks and three large breaks for the entire school population because it no longer has a school yard. The Minister has visited the school and knows that everything remains closed off. There was a promise that the county council would make a strip of land available along the side of the school that would allow it some space for a yard. I believe the Taoiseach actually told the Minister to have this done and I do not know why it has been held up. I know that staff in Fingal County Council are working on the issue.

The Deputy is eating into the time allocation for her final supplementary question.

Will the Minister tell us what is happening to facilitate the school?

I am interested in the new process in politics where the Taoiseach tells me to do something and I then tell Fingal County Council to do something. The Deputy knows that is not the way it works.

No; I just said the Taoiseach did tell the Minister to do it.

If there is a weakness in my Department, we are committed to acting. We are very committed to the two schools mentioned, as well as other schools. I have been to them and I am conscious that there is an issue with space. Any solution will involve all of the stakeholders. If Fingal County Council owns the land, I am sure it will be in a position to advise on the matter. The works will be finished in 2019. The most appropriate time to undertake them is during the summer.

That will happen. The remediation work needed, the design and work completed to date will inform us as to what other work is needed. I am conscious of the disruption and that other schools were also part of the solution. I met a staff member from one of the neighbouring schools where students were decanted. She spoke in positive terms of being in a position to help. I am from a rural part of the country where we are strong advocates of the meitheal and the community. I saw the urban meitheal in full drive in that area and I do not take it for granted.

All of that is excellent and that community spirit has always been a feature of life in Tyrrelstown. I am glad the Minister has had an opportunity to experience it. Does the Minister understand, however, what it means for a school with 650 children to have to organise six breaks a day? That has to be done because the Department of Education and Skills and the local county council have not been able to sort out the identified strip of land that everybody agrees would allow both schools, and St. Luke's in particular, to have a play area.

The Minister may need to send out an official to take photographs or I will take photographs and send them to the Minister. I am referring to something eminently fixable. I know the Minister wants to be hands-on and he can help fix this problem. What the school is enduring is intolerable. Many of the rooms inside are heavily fenced off. The Minister knows that. It is a difficult scenario for teachers and pupils.

In fairness, the Deputy is being constructive. Sometimes issues like this do not require a meeting or a major formal process, but an individual talking to another individual. I am sure Deputy Burton knows the director of services for the appropriate division within Fingal County Council. I do like to be hand-on. If she will provide that contact number to me, I will be happy to pass that on to my officials.

Schools Building Projects Status

Pat the Cope Gallagher

Ceist:

8. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Minister for Education and Skills the progress being made on three school projects (details supplied) in County Donegal; the timeline for the delivery of the school buildings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10651/19]

Tá áthas orm deis a fháil inniu chun ceist parlaiminte a chur ar an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna maidir le scoileanna éagsúla i mo Dháilcheantar, agus Scoil Mhuire i Srath an Urláir, Gaelscoil na gCeithre Máistrí i mbaile Dhún na nGall, agus Scoil na nAingeal i Leitir Ceanainn ach go háirithe. Tá súil agam go mbeidh dea-scéal ag an Aire.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta fá choinne na ceiste. Aontaím leis maidir leis an ábhar seo. Tá sé iontach práinneach. Tá níos mó scoileanna i nDún na nGall ar an bhealach céanna leis na trí scoil atá i gceist. Ba mhaith liom na sonraí seo a leanas a chur ar an taifead. Ar dtús, gabhaim aitheantas do na daoine agus na foirne uilig sna scoileanna éagsúla - Gaelscoil na gCeithre Máistrí, Scoil na nAingeal agus Scoil Mhuire i Srath an Urláir. Mar atá a fhios ag an Teachta, tá Gaelscoil na gCeithre Máistrí ag stage 1 den architectural planning process. Nuair a bheidh na rudaí sin déanta, táim sásta go mbeidh sé ag dul ar aghaidh go dtí an chéad chéim eile de na forbairtí. Nuair a bheidh na nithe sin socraithe, beidh an togra ag dul ar aghaidh le pleanáil costais. Beidh ullmhúchán de dhíth fá choinne na socruithe ina dhiaidh sin. Bhí mé i Scoil na nAingeal i Leitir Ceanainn mí ó shin agus chas mé leis an fhoireann uilig. Tá siad iontach sásta leis an dul chun cinn atá déanta. Tá an togra sin ag stage 2b. Tá an t-iarratas istigh agus tá athbhreithniú ag dul ar aghaidh i mo Roinn. Tá comhrá ag dul ar aghaidh idir mo Roinn agus an foireann design. Tá an foireann design ag obair ar an iarratas atá le mo Roinn agus ag labhairt fadúda an chéad chéim eile atá de dhíth. Tá sí ag obair ar na riachtanais úra maidir le near zero energy buildings a tháinig isteach in 2017. Is coinníoll úr a tháinig isteach é sin. Mar shampla, beidh coinníollacha maidir le conservation of fuel and energy faoi na rialacháin fhoirgneamh. Beidh coinníollacha le baint amach maidir leis sin. Tá Scoil Mhuire i Srath an Urláir----

Beidh an tAire ábalta teacht ar ais.

----ag staid 2b, detailed design, fosta. Táim sásta leis an dul chun cinn. B'fhéidir go mbeidh sonraí breise ag teacht amach as an gcéad cheist eile.

Tá súil agam go bhfanfaidh Teachta Gallagher laistigh den am.

Cinnte go bhfanfaidh. I thank the Minister for his reply. We need to progress work on St. Mary's national school in Stranorlar. That school was in the capital programme in 2011. For some unknown reason it was removed but it is back in the capital programme now, thankfully. We also know that the process of short-listing, the pre-qualification process, has gone on for too long. It needs to come to a conclusion quickly. Regarding pre-qualification for any school in Donegal, we have some very fine contractors in Donegal. I know we have the same interests in this area. Those contractors should be given an opportunity to submit tenders. I hope that will be the situation because all contractors in Donegal should be given a chance.

I flag that for the Minister and ask him to use his influence as the Minister for Education and Skills. He also perhaps wears the Donegal vest. I ask him to consider this issue from that perspective as well. We have also both been to Gaelscoil na gCeithre Máistrí and that project needs to be moved on as quickly as possible, as well as the work at the Little Angels school in Letterkenny. Perhaps the Minister might give us a more detailed update than he has already.

To be clear, St. Mary's national school is in the capital programme. The project will go to tender when pre-qualification is complete, the design team's near zero energy building, NZEB, submission has been considered, any other issues have been raised and consequential amendments to the stage 2b design and tender document have been implemented. That will progress in quarter two. The tender stage normally takes between seven and eight months to complete. I will be ensuring - not through my intervention - that the process is transparent and open and that work will begin in quarter four of this year.

There was also a major focus on this project in March 2018. There were expectations at that time that it would come in at an earlier stage. I am committed to this project and to ensuring it will be completed within 18 months. I cannot, unfortunately, influence the pre-qualification tender process mentioned by Deputy Gallagher. It is not in my gift. It is under the Office of Government Procurement. I do take the Deputy's point, however, on local companies being in a position to tender. It is not in my gift, however, to decide which company is successful. As I said as Gaeilge, I visited the Little Angels school recently. Work there is moving ahead as well. I know the Deputy shares my motivation in ensuring the 13 major capital projects in Donegal advance as quickly as possible.

I appreciate that the Minister cannot influence the tender process. I am not asking him to do that. I ask him to use his good offices to ensure there is a level playing pitch and that contractors in Donegal have an opportunity to tender. The project at Gaelscoil na gCeithre Máistrí needs to progress urgently. We have both been there and seen the prefabs in which the children are being taught. The high standard there is a credit to the teachers, the board of management and the children. I understood the project in Letterkenny was ready to go to tender more than a year ago. It seems to have taken a retrograde step. The Minister also stated there are also other schools besides those mentioned. That is, of course, the case. We will get an opportunity in the coming weeks to raise those schools by way of parliamentary questions as well. I ask the Minister to use his good offices to ensure these projects progress as quickly as possible.

Taking off my ministerial hat, as a Deputy from Donegal I know which side my bread is buttered on to ensure we get a level playing pitch and are treated in a fair manner. I commend the groups, from boards of management to communities, that have been driving these projects. Ultimately, they are the arbiters who decide when a project is needed and aontaím leis an Teachta maidir leis na fadhbanna sa Gaelscoil na gCeithre Maistrí. Those prefabs are not a suitable environment but the commitment to the Irish language and cultural aspect of learning in that school remains. They are on the right road, an bealach ceart.

We are focused on the Little Angels school and will ensure it continues to get priority, as will any of the other major capital projects in the county that need it. It is important to make the point that my motivation to ensure the detailed design is done correctly is that the fixed-price contract, whoever gets these jobs and whenever they get them, contains a price that we stick with and work within. That is the reason why advance detailed design is done before they go to tender.

Schools Building Projects

Thomas Byrne

Ceist:

9. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the schools built by a company (details supplied) in which issues were identified; when the review into the design and build programme will commence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10880/19]

This question seeks an update from the Minister on the Western Building System debacle. Deputy Burton also raised this matter and some of the issues she raised apply to schools in my constituency, such as Educate Together in Ashbourne, Gaelscoil na Mí and St. Paul's national school in Ratoath.

At the end of October or the beginning of November last year, on the back of the Western Building Systems controversy, the Minister committed to carrying out a review of the Department's design and build programme. I submitted a written parliamentary question about that and was told that the review had not started yet. Has the position changed? Can the Minister give an update as to what is happening? Can the Minister give an update on the four High Court actions that were lodged on 21 December and to what they relate?

The Deputy will be aware that last October and November my Department carried out initial investigations into 42 schools that were built by the company to which he refers. He will also be aware that of those schools, 22 required precautionary measures to ensure that they could be safely occupied. The safety of pupils and staff has been and remains our first priority.

Following on from this, my Department initiated a second phase of detailed investigations for the schools on 18 January last. This is focusing initially on the 22 schools that have precautionary measures in place and at Ardgillan Community College, Balbriggan, part of which remains closed. Eight investigations have been completed to date. The remainder are expected to be completed by early May. Detailed investigations in the schools that do not have precautionary measures in place will be carried out during the summer months.

The purpose of the investigations is to determine the type and extent of structural issues in each individual school and to design permanent remediation solutions where these are needed. The intention is that any remediation works necessary in the 22 schools with precautionary measures will be carried out in 2019. It is envisaged that remediation work in the schools without precautionary measures will take place in 2020.

Preparatory work to initiate a review of the Department’s design and build programme is currently under way. This includes consultation with the Office of the Attorney General given the existing legal process. It must be ensured that the review does not compromise this. I will make an announcement on the review when the necessary preparatory work has been completed.

The Minister has made a quite shocking admission that some of these schools will not be fully remediated or investigated until 2020. That is extremely worrying and concerning. We are already behind the schedule that was indicated to me when I met informally with officials. A much quicker timetable was envisaged for the remediation. I certainly do not blame the Department for the damage that this company has caused, or has potentially caused, but the Department does have a responsibility that this is done, fixed and put right.

It is concerning that the design and build review is being held up. I am not sure what it has to do with the Western Building Systems litigation. The bottom line is the Department is designing and building schools under the system that allowed this to happen. A review was promised with the aim of preventing this in the future and months later, that review has not started yet. That must be of concern, particularly when we were discussing the pressures on the capital budget earlier. All the schools are looking to get jobs done and we want to make sure that when those jobs are done, they are done properly.

We were faced with a major issue last October and November. In the middle of the debate and the prioritisation of making sure students, teachers and the workers within the schools were safe, questions were also raised in the House about the ongoing capital programme and how other schools would be impacted. My officials and I were faced with the challenge of how to prioritise both remediation and the ongoing building programme. We had to figure that out. We are looking at completing the schools that need external and internal remediation work in 2019. They will get first priority. The other schools, which do not require advanced invasive work compared with the other schools, will be dealt with in 2020. It is a question of resources, manpower and womanpower, within our offices. We have now set up a team within the building unit in Tullamore wholly dedicated to Western Buildings Systems issues.

We also want to ensure the independent review continues apace. I am committed to ensuring that an independent person or group is appointed by the end of this month.

I remind Members that there are other Deputies in the Chamber who would like to ask questions and, if people are succinct, we will get to those questions.

I am glad that I submitted a written parliamentary question because the Minister's answer has changed since then. He is now saying the review will start at the end of the month. That is what we are here for. It is not acceptable that the Minister thought the issue would go away and that he continues to build schools under that programme. The issues identified in the schools are extremely serious. The ongoing delays in rectifying this issue are causing significant stress. Deputy Burton outlined what is happening in west Dublin and, in my own constituency, parents are telling me about the position in the schools. It causes distress because of the look of the schools, as well as the practical issues that are being felt.

I accept this was one of the first issues the Minister had to deal with but a commitment was given on an independent review. It is absolutely necessary in the context of the hundreds of millions that are spent on school buildings. I will certainly be following up to ensure this review is started at the end of this month as promised here today.

This is about being vigilant and processes that are fit for purpose to ensure that lessons are learned where they are needed. We will learn if there are better ways of doing things.

We have a dedicated team in Tullamore with a rich history and tradition of ensuring that schools are being built in a proper way. I indicated and committed in October and November that the review will be done this year. We will be in a position to carry out that review and, where lessons need to be learned, they will be learned.

Will the Minister be taking submissions about that?

I am not allowing additional supplementary questions.

Multidenominational Schools

Ruth Coppinger

Ceist:

10. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills if access to a co-educational multidenominational second-level school option will be provided in the Ashtown, Cabra, Phibsborough and Dublin 7 areas. [10863/19]

This question relates to the need for a co-educational and multidenominational school in Ashtown and Dublin 7 generally. A campaign group, Dublin 7 and Ashtown Secondary Options, has been set up by parents in that area who cannot get access to a non-religious school secondary school or one that is not single gender. This trend is emerging throughout the country, not just in Dublin but it affects many parts of Dublin. It is based on both current and future need because there is a lot of development in the area.

The Government recently announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the next four years, 2019 to 2022. This announcement follows nationwide demographic exercises carried out by my Department into the future need for primary and post-primary schools across the country and the four-year horizon will enable increased lead-in times for planning and delivery of the necessary infrastructure.

The Cabra and Phibsborough Dublin 7 school planning area is currently served by eight post-primary schools.

This includes Cabra community college, which is under the patronage of the City of Dublin Education and Training Board. While categorised as interdenominational, Cabra community college is multidenominational in nature and provides for the local community and it could potentially bring additional capacity of this nature at post-primary level to this area.

The new schools announcement did not include a new post-primary school for the Cabra-Phibsboro-Dublin 7 school planning area. However, the requirement for new schools is being kept under ongoing review and in particular would have regard for the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040. It will also take into account that, in the last number of years, three new multidenominational primary schools have been established in the area to cater for the increased enrolment numbers at primary level. The projected increased flow of pupils from the primary schools in this area when the current junior cohort from these schools reaches sixth class, as well as the output from more established primary schools in the area, will need to be taken into account in future demographic exercises when deciding on the need for additional post-primary school provision in the area.

Parents are acting now because two secondary schools in Dublin West have, for some mystifying reason, been appointed to religious patrons. It has happened with Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrrellstown, the most multi-ethnic part of the country, and with the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, a religious group that has not even paid its full reparations to this State. Even if the Edmund Rice Schools Trust is co-educational, it is still religious-based. The catchment area does not extend to where this particular demand is and parents are asking for it to be done.

Can the Minister comment further on Cabra community college? Many people agree that it is a serious option for the Government to develop. It is a co-educational school and non-religious based but it is very small currently and it only began to do the leaving certificate quite recently. It would need a huge upgrade and investment but parents are asking about it. The principal is very open to it as well so will the Minister investigate the option?

At Pelletstown and Ashtown, 3,000 units of housing have been built in the past ten to 15 years, most of them apartments. There is one primary school on the site and there are other adjacent schools so at the moment they can cope but there is no secondary school for the families who make up a large proportion of the 3,000 households to which I referred. There is a massive need for an accessible secondary school for local families.

The recent round of the patronage process showed that every school that was chosen by parents was multidenominational, whether they were ETBs or under An Foras Pátrúnachta or Educate Together. I am aware that there is demand and the choice of patron is also an option. On the question of capacity at Cabra community college and its plans for expansion, the geographic information system, GIS, looks at long-term demographics and where the next housing developments are going to be. We are always open to looking at new opportunities in the context of satisfying demand and I would happy to look at that.

There are massive areas of development and apartments are springing up in Rathborne, Pelletstown and Broombridge. This is not rocket science. When one builds houses, people with children will live in them and will need schools. There is also an existing demand on the part of parents who have children of that age. The only schools that exist are St. Dominic's and a single-sex boys school so there is demand right now. I ask the Minister to examine urgently the option of Cabra community college. It is an existing site, I assume it has land available that could be developed and parents are very open to the idea. We have experience in Dublin West, as they do in other areas, of having to persuade the Department of Education and Skills that demand exists when it is very obvious to everyone else that it does. We then have to play catch-up in providing schools. Let us not do that in this area. We should move on this now.

I am happy to do that. My officials are always looking at ongoing needs and ongoing review. On a personal level I would say that sometimes when we have this debate we talk about the things that are not there, or the options that are not there for parents, but other parents look at other options. I am a Loreto boy myself and religion was not rammed down my throat at Loreto secondary school. A lot of value systems were presented to me as a young person in the area of compassion, respect and dignity. It is important when talking about choice that it is not just one-dimensional.

Is the Minister suggesting that would not have happened in a non-Catholic school? That is what he seems to be implying.

I take the Deputy's point. The majority of schools in the conurbation are of one religion and it is important to give parents choice, but it is also important to value the contribution of schools from other patronages.

School Accommodation Provision

James Browne

Ceist:

11. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Education and Skills when a schedule of accommodation will be provided to a school (details supplied) further to officials from his Department meeting with the school in October 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10781/19]

My question asks the Minister for Education and Skills when a schedule of accommodation will be provided to Bunclody VC. I appreciate that the schedule has now been provided but perhaps the Minister will give an update.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta fá choinne na ceiste. Mar atá a fhios ag an Teachta, tá dul chun cinn déanta. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that the project to which he refers has now been devolved for delivery to Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board, WWETB. A schedule of accommodation has been provided to WWETB in that respect and I understand that WWETB has provided a copy to the school principal.

The next step in the process of engagement with WWETB is the execution of a service level agreement, SLA, between it and my Department. This is currently being arranged. Once this SLA is in place, WWETB can then begin the process of procuring a design team for the project to design the buildings, obtain the necessary statutory planning permissions and move the project onward to tender and construction in due course.

I acknowledge the efforts, both political and civic, that have been made on this project. I have had a lot of contact on the matter and a lot of communications. Colleagues of Deputy Browne, such as Deputies D'Arcy and Kehoe, have been anxious to see this project realised and I thank everybody for the pressure they put on to ensure it happened.

I raise the issue because of the need for the major extension works at Bunclody VC. It is a school of 168 students with significant growth potential and it has a hard-working school principal, namely, James Murphy. It has a wonderful teaching staff, an excellent board of management and an active parents' council. The school has a very strong student-centred approach and a very strong and progressive approach to mental health, something I appreciate as my party's mental health spokesperson. The school principal has a number of ideas in this area and has approached the Department of Education and Skills with them.

I was in the school a few weeks ago and saw a dozen portakabins there. For years, children have had to walk long distances in the rain to go from class to class so I very much welcome the fact that a schedule of works is now being provided. Can the Minister give a timeline for building the extension? There is a scar in the Enniscorthy district from St. Patrick's special school - there was an announcement in December 2016 that the school was about to be built but a shovel was not put in the ground for two and a half years. I hope that is not the case in Bunclody.

I cannot give a timeframe because of the planning permission process. I hope the proposals get through that process and I know the Deputy will be speaking to his colleagues on the ground about it. I was speaking to the CEO of Wexford County Council yesterday. There is a good team at local authority level and I am sure their vigilance will be second to none so that it gets through the process. Until we get to the other end of the planning process, I am not in a position to give a start date for construction.

I thank the Minister; I appreciate that. I am the chair of a board of management myself, that of the Educate Together national school in Wexford town. Our own school is going to the planning and design phase. I know the Minister was in Gorey a week and a half ago where he met school principals and some representatives. Will he set out briefly the position in respect of a secondary school in Gorey? There are sufficient places at present but a bubble is coming in approximately two years and parents in Riverchapel and Gorey town are very concerned.

The Deputy is right. There is an anxiety with regard to the situation a few years down the line. The problem will not necessarily arise this year or next but in three or four years. Gorey community school is at maximum capacity at the moment. I had an opportunity to visit Creagh College, which has a fine new building. We were talking about autism earlier. There are four special classes in Creagh College. It will possibly have 800 pupils in the not too distant future. It has capacity for 1,000, which can be extended to 1,200. We will be very vigilant. I have asked my officials to look at the future population projections. I hear that a large number of applications for planning permission are being made for the development of housing estates. The principals I met were very anxious that we look at some form of engagement in this regard. I am happy to do that. I do not know what the preferred solution will be. It may be to build extra capacity or an additional school. I will, however, continue to engage on that issue. Gorey is now only an hour from this city and people from this city are considering purchasing houses there. We are looking at an increased population.

Autism Support Services

Kathleen Funchion

Ceist:

12. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills the process for parents should they wish to request that their child’s primary or post-primary school apply on their behalf to his Department to open an ASD class in that school; the way in which the decision on whether or not to make an application for additional resources to open an ASD class is arrived at between parents and a school; the way in which the request is then processed by his Department and the NCSE; the requirements that determine if a school is successful in its application; the follow-up carried out by his Department and the NCSE with a school that is in receipt of funding for an ASD class for their school; the way in which the progress of that class is assessed in view of the funding received; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10933/19]

I appreciate the Acting Chairman trying to squeeze this question in. I will be very brief. It is the only comment I will be able to make on the question. It is very similar to the first question I asked in respect of ASD classes. Last year the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, announced that the Department would have powers to compel a school to open an ASD class. If a group of parents sees that there is a need and a demand in their area, what is the process, from the first step to the last, they should go through to request such a class? If the Minister does not have time to answer that question, perhaps he could provide a written answer or we could follow up on it when we are talking about the National Council for Special Education, NCSE.

I am happy to do that. The answer I have is a stock answer similar to the answer to the Deputy’s earlier question. It is very similar so I will not read it. We will pass on the answer. We have work to do in this area. The approach the Deputies in this House have taken since Christmas has been to table a range of parliamentary questions in this area. Even though we are spending nearly €1.8 billion and even though the number of classes has increased from nearly 500 to 1,500, we are looking at enormous challenges in this area. I see it as a massive opportunity for our country. I know that is why the Deputy is raising the issue today. The whole area of inclusion and of ensuring that everybody gets an opportunity to get into the workforce and to avail of lifelong learning opportunities presents a massive opportunity. I will stay in touch on this issue. The Deputy is correct that classes can be requested if parents come together to demand one, but ultimately it is the board of management that makes the decision.

That is where the difficulty lies.

I am not a person for the bata mór, the big stick. Telling schools what to do is not my approach but, if we continue to highlight the great work going on in the schools that have special classes, people will see the benefits not just for the young people with special needs, but for the children around them. When that is in operation it is an enriching environment in which to be. We are spending €1.8 billion and providing 1,500 special classes. We also need to remain committed to the special schools. That is something of which I am conscious. Some parents should still be afforded the choice of their child attending a special school. While some parents would prefer a mainstream school, we have to protect that option.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.