The essential position of the State at present is that if a family seeks an education that actively supports their conscience that is not available in the area, the Department recognises their right to access such an education under certain conditions. They must be prepared to seek out families in similar circumstances, organise a local management body with them, source suitable temporary accommodation, create a patron body or apply to one for patronage and then apply to the Department for recognition of the school. Even in the most glaring circumstances, the State is unable to address proactively the need for a new school.
A central difficulty is the requirement of the State that the promoter of the new school must provide the accommodation in which a school can open. Another is that the Department insist that new schools open with only temporary recognition. Until this probationary period passes, they do not qualify for consideration for the building programme. In the past 27 years, the majority of new inclusive schools could open only in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Of the 28 such schools in the State, 15 remain in temporary accommodation and the average time taken to access a permanent building is ten years.
The most worrying phenomenon in recent times is the growing number of developments in areas in which the State has recognised the need for a new school and has required the local authority to reserve a site. Even in these situations, there is no mechanism whereby the new school can open and develop on the site so reserved.
To illustrate this point, we would like to refer to the example of the emerging crisis of accommodation for primary school children in Lucan. Currently the Department acknowledges that there is a shortage of approximately 400 junior infant enrolments in Lucan this year. There are high numbers of parents expressing a preference for an Educate Together school. In response, a new school opened last September. This school currently has an enrolment list in excess of 750 and a list for junior infants this year in excess of 150. Despite the fact that the State has reserved a site for a school in the area and has held this reservation for more than five years, the new school had to open with temporary recognition in a scout den. The board of management of the school has secured planning permission for the erection of buildings on the reserved site and has an agreement to rent it until the State is in the position to purchase. Despite all this local input, the Department has been unable to engage in negotiations with the landowner to allow the school to develop and commence with an intake of 60 children per year. As a result, the initial enrolment of this school was 24 when it could have addressed a capacity of approximately 80 children in this school year and an additional 60 in the coming year.
Critical issues arise from this. Despite the need for this school having been acknowledged for more than six years, why has the State been unwilling to secure a smooth opening on the site it has required the local authority to reserve for it? Why has the Department been unable to secure the leasing of this site by writing to the owner and making a commitment that it will purchase in a given timeframe? In our view, it is essential that the Department is empowered to make commitments based on multi-annual budgets which will allow timely planning. In this case, if the Department had been able to make a commitment to acquire the site within three years, the school could have been located and healthily developing on the reserved site.
There is a different situation for new schools in established areas. There is a different problem where there is a change in demand in areas where there is already ample school accommodation. In these areas, the private ownership of the system has rendered it inflexible. In 2002, for instance, the increasing demand for Educate Together school places in the Marino and Fairview district of North Dublin, led to the creation of the Dublin North Central Educate Together national school. Despite the fact that there is extensive vacant educational space in the area, the school had to open in prefabs, recently vacated by the Educate Together school three miles away in Glasnevin. This resulted in two Educate Together schools operating barely 200 metres from each other while there are empty classrooms, if not wings of schools in the appropriate area. This empty accommodation is in buildings in which the State has invested heavily over many years.
There are critical questions arising from these situations. Has the State sufficient legal safeguards to protect the massive investments it has made in privately owned educational institutions? Will the State be able to reassign any accommodation that becomes vacant? Educate Together asks the committee to agree with the following measures. Departmental policy should be amended to allow the building section to become actively involved in the development of a school from the moment the viable demand for such a facility is acknowledged; professional services should be provided by the Department for this purpose and a discrete budget assigned; and no new school should be opened without an agreed development plan that will include timescales for the delivery of grants and accommodation. We propose that the planning laws be amended to ensure that land for schools is transferred as a condition of rezoning or at original value. There should be a new basket of measures established to support new and developing schools, in particular that a specific, ring-fenced budget be allocated for new schools on a multi-annual basis.
I would like to draw the committee's attention to the increasing difficulties faced by communities which set up new schools in the past three years. When opening a school in 2000 we were asked to provide temporary accommodation for two years. In 2001, this was extended to three years. In 2002, new schools were told that they were responsible for providing temporary accommodation for "seven to ten years". This is simply not a realistic condition.
In the current year, this requirement has been retained and in addition, the voluntary groups now have to pay for detailed architects' and valuers' reports on such accommodation. This year, the fund raising targets for new groups rose from €20,000 to €40,000. I stress, until a school opens, the State provides no support whatsoever for this voluntary community initiative. I do not need to point out the social consequences for this burden and the inequities that will be created.
In the current budgetary year approximately €347 million is available for the primary capital building programme. The vast majority of this expenditure is being applied to the refurbishment of existing privately owned schools. Only €500,000 is allocated for one site purchase. There is no allocation for urgently required site purchases in developing areas. It is unjustifiable that, at a time of such strong flows into the building programme, the situation for those working to create new State owned schools has so deteriorated.
This year, the viable demand for six new Educate Together schools has been recognised by the new schools advisory committee. However, the Minister has approved these schools only on condition that they can provide accommodation for themselves. A significant number will be unable to do so and as a result the constitutional rights of the parents and children concerned will be violated.
It would be remiss of me not to convey to the committee the sense of outrage, anger, bewilderment and betrayal that people placed in such a situation feel. They are merely seeking an education that respects and supports their identity. They see that the provision of such schools will complement the system and provide a choice where instead there is a monopoly. They deserve better from our State and Government and they are asking for the committee's support.