Thursday, 1 February 2018

Ceisteanna (1)

Thomas Byrne


1. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he is satisfied that schools infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5089/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

The Deputy's arrival is very well timed.

I apologise for being slightly late. I had to query a matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, to whom I am grateful. His office is full of useful information.

I tabled my question to the Minister for Education and Skills in accordance with normal procedures. Is he satisfied that schools infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes? My constituency is in the cockpit of the changes. It is experiencing a huge increase in population which will start to filter into west Dublin, south east Meath, north Kildare, Fingal and other parts of the country. From my experience, I am not convinced that the Department is up to speed and I want to know what in general the Minister is doing about it.

It is a valid question for the Deputy to raise. Ireland has experienced a significant bulge in pupil enrolments in schools. We have seen significant expansion in the rate of provision of new school places, which puts a high demand on the Department's capital budgets. Since 2011 there have been 340 major school projects and over 120,000 new and replacement places have been provided.

My Department's capital programme continues to address the challenges posed by a rapidly increasing school population. To meet this demographic challenge, my Department’s capital investment programme for the period 2016 to 2021 details the school projects that are being progressed through the architectural planning process. The programme also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms in schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified. We are building more schools and providing more school places than ever before. This reflects the priority which the Government is giving to education. In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It uses a geographical information system, GIS, to identify where there will be pressure to provide school places across the country. The GIS uses data from a range of sources.

The nationwide demographic exercises involving all school planning areas at primary and post-primary level which will determine where additional school accommodation will be needed in the future are ongoing. My Department is factoring in the demographic exercises critical updated data, including updated enrolment data and up-to-date information on additional residential development from local authorities. The provisional 2017-18 enrolment data have recently been made available and provide an important update on the available information which will inform the outcome of the demographic exercises. It is anticipated that decisions based on the review will be announced in the coming weeks. In addition, my Department is included in the prescribed bodies to which local authorities are statutorily obliged to send draft development and local area plans or proposed variations to development plans for comment and observations. This enables local authorities to reserve future school sites in areas designated for proposed housing development.

I am glad that a review is taking place. I have raised this issue previously in the Dáil. I have met officials at my request, meetings the Minister organised, to explain my concerns. What is happening in my constituency in Dunshaughlin and Ashbourne, in particular - I suspect it is also happening in other constituencies - is that houses are being built that are not starter homes. They are not for families starting off, rather they are for ready-made families, as a predecessor of mine on the education side in my party described them. They are for families with grown up children who are moving to Ashbourne and Dunshaughlin, in particular. In all my years as a Deputy, until the past few years, I never had to deal with an educational welfare officer to find a school place for a child. Unfortunately, this is now a regular feature of my constituency work in, in particular in Ashbourne. It is not fair. Families who have moved into the area find that there is not a single school place available if they have a child attending first, third or fifth class, despite welcome improvements in schools infrastructure delivery. I am told by my colleagues in Fingal and Kildare that, notwithstanding further developments, the Department is already behind in providing new designated buildings. I am very concerned about this issue. We should not have to ring an educational welfare officer to find a school place for a child. That is the last thing we should need to do.

I accept the Deputy's point that patterns of development are changing and that, as a result, the models used to predict growth in the numbers of children in accordance with new settlements have to factor this in. We liaise very closely with the local authorities which have on-the-ground information. We also track child benefit payments data and pick up data for preschool children as quickly as possible. We use every data source we can track, be it social welfare, local authority or another source. I can give the Deputy information on them. It is a forecasting exercise which is always prone to error, but the Department is using all of the geographical based information data on which the Central Statistics Office and others can lay their hands to improve the forecasting model. As I said, if there are particular needs, there are systems in place to provide additional school places on a quicker basis.

The educational welfare service of Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs urgently needs to be brought within the Minister's Department. Educational welfare officers are finding issues on the ground; they are definitely finding them in Ashbourne, as they will tell the Minister. They are receiving representations from my clinic and I am sure from those of the Minister's colleagues. The service should be within the Minister's Department in order that it would know first-hand from the individuals in question where the critical points were and why a first class or a third class in a school was full. In general, there may not yet be a problem in finding places in junior infant classes in some cases. As I said, the houses being built are four-bedroom detached dwellings in many cases. This presents a real problem. The Department has a long history in that regard and knows all about this problem. It had to deal with a crisis in Laytown, which was the first political issue on which I worked just before I was elected to the Dáil with the late Deputy Shane McEntee. The issues that arose there appear to be beginning to arise again elsewhere and I am disappointed that the Department does not seem to have learned the lessons. That crisis is seared in my memory and I will certainly do all in my power to prevent such an issue from ever arising again.

It is worth saying, for example, that last year we provided 19,000 additional places to respond to genuine demographic pressures. Most of them were in areas where we had identified a need. Of course, the Department has to have a planning process and we rely on the local authorities and other agencies to supply us with data. The data we use come from the CSO, Ordnance Survey Ireland, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Tusla, as well as our own enrolments databases. I will ensure the Department factors in any information coming from agencies such as Tusla that may not be available in the forecasting model.

Tusla staff believe they are not listened to in the Department.

I will check that particular point to make sure any information coming from agencies such as Tusla is factored into the forecasting model which uses the best available information to make accurate predictions.

If the Deputy has a better suggestion or a new input that we should examine we will certainly examine it. This uses information that we can track from any sources that can help refine the process.