Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Topical Issues Debate – Deputy Pat Breen T.D.
Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this Topical Issue, which provides me with an opportunity to raise the serious situation at the CBS secondary school in Ennistymon. I thank the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, for being here personally to take the debate, for which I am very thankful. CBS Ennistymon is a very progressive school where the management and staff promote an all-round education ethos. Its priority is very much focused on the needs of its students and, as a result, the school has a very friendly environment. As well as promoting academic performance, the school provides a range of extra-curricular activities in which the students are encouraged to participate. CBS Ennistymon was the only school in County Clare to be represented at the Web Summit. It is a regular participant at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and this year, for the first time in its history, it won a major hurling title, the Munster schools senior championship, and congratulations are due to all involved. It also runs after-school clubs in applied maths and computers, publishes an annual school magazine and, last week, had a very successful school concert.
I am highlighting these issues to show the Minister the difficult background and deteriorating conditions of the prefabricated buildings against which the students and teachers have to work. Last Monday morning, I visited the school. The main school building is in fair condition, except for one room, which had a smell of damp. At the rear of this building are six prefabricated buildings, all of which were bought second hand and have gone well past their sell-by date. I inspected all six units and not one of them is fit for purpose. One was being used by first year students and was closed down at the end of October because of health and safety issues. Earlier this evening, I presented the Minister with a copy of the HSE report. The other five prefabricated buildings are also in very bad condition, with holes in the external walls, no insulation, uneven floors and rotten floorboards one could walk through. They were extremely cold. The entrance door of one prefab which was used as a classroom was so bad it had to be replaced with a metal door. There are no handles on the windows, and when the weather is windy, two desks have to be placed against the entrance door to other prefabs to keep it closed.
Deputy Pat Breen: ] One of the small prefabs I visited is a resource room. It has no heating, is damp, the paint is peeling and the floor is rotten. These are facts surrounding the appalling state of these prefabricated buildings that urgently need to be replaced in the interests of health and safety.
The problem of course is there is an amalgamation process in place in respect of all three schools in Ennistymon and that amalgamation proposal will put them all into a single site, which leaves the school in limbo. Talks on this project have been ongoing since 1997, and I understand the transfer of the site involved still awaits a decision from the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. Even with the best will in the world and even were the green light to be given for the amalgamated school project in the morning, it would take a number of years for it to happen. However, it will not happen because there are some problems at present with regard to the site transfer. The teachers and students of Ennistymon CBS cannot wait. The school has made an application for funding and given the school’s positive reputation, there also has been a surge in enrolment. At present, 182 students are enrolled and next year, I understand this figure will rise to 215 students, which will place even greater pressure on the school. Will the Minister send down her officials to fast-track the emergency application for the prefabricated buildings in order that they can see the school for themselves at first hand. Being a Clare woman, the Minister is very familiar with north County Clare and I know she will have positive news on this issue, particularly at this time of the year at Christmas.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan): I thank Deputy Breen for raising this issue. His particular concern is the replacement of the prefabs but, as he stated, Ennistymon CBS secondary school is one of three post-primary schools in Ennistymon that have agreed to amalgamate on delivery of a new school building. This building project will require a suitable site for it to be progressed. As the Deputy has noted, the Department acquired land in the Ennistymon area. In addition, the religious congregation that owns existing school properties in Ennistymon has offered to transfer the properties concerned to the State as part of its offer made in response to the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, that is, the Ryan report. The land in question, which the Government has agreed to accept, together with the lands already in the ownership of my Department, will be sufficient to meet the overall site requirements of the building project to facilitate the amalgamation of the post-primary schools.
My Department, through the Office of the Chief State Solicitor, is currently working with the solicitors acting on behalf of the congregation concerned on the legal procedures and mechanisms required to facilitate the transfer of this additional land. When the transfer of the property concerned has been completed, my Department will be in a position to consider how the amalgamated school with the project can be furthered. In that regard, my Department is evaluating technical elements associated with the proposed development of the site. This will facilitate the completion of the project brief for the schools concerned and my Department will be in further contact with the schools concerned in the matter.
However, I acknowledge the Deputy is concerned with the immediate problem facing the school. Although the more long-term solution probably is not too far away in terms of commencement, as the Deputy has stated, Ennistymon CBS secondary school has recently submitted an application to my Department for interim school accommodation consisting of one additional classroom and the replacement of five existing prefabricated classrooms and two resource rooms. This application is being assessed at present and my Department will be in direct contact with the school authorities on that matter shortly. However, I certainly take the Deputy’s point and I note he gave me a report earlier this evening on the condition of the school. I wish to give him an undertaking tonight that my Department will revert to the Deputy and the school authorities as quickly as possible in respect of the more short-term issue. Obviously, the more long-term issue also is being progressed.
Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Minister for her reply and I note she is taking a positive approach to this issue. The Minister has outlined the current position with regard to the amalgamation and there are problems there. As the Minister has stated, I hope these problems can be sorted out in the short term, but whatever happens, the amalgamation will take time. The building project will take time, as a considerable amount of time is involved in an application, particularly when one is building a school in a new greenfield site. However, in the meantime, unfortunately, Ennistymon CBS cannot afford to wait for this amalgamation given the serious situation at the school. I have presented the Minister with a copy of the HSE report, which is very serious, and I acknowledge the Minister has taken time to examine the report. I ask the Minister to send her officials to meet the school officials before Christmas if possible. There is a new principal there, as well as hard-working staff. I reiterate I visited the school last Monday and the pupils and teachers are working in an extremely difficult environment in those prefabricated buildings. There is a health and safety issue, the buildings are rotten and there will be an increase in student numbers in the coming years because of the school’s reputation. I reiterate it was the only school in County Clare to participate in the web summit and it also participates in the BT Young Scientist exhibition. It is an active school with an active staff who are very interested in the students.
This issue must be dealt with immediately in 2015 and it cannot afford to wait. I thank the Minister for stating she will fast-track the project as quickly as possible and will send the officials down to meet the school authorities. An application has been made and I hope the project will go ahead in early 2015. The school needs six prefabricated buildings to be replaced and it is a difficult site because its elevation means it will be necessary to build the prefabricated buildings on site. However, as a local Deputy, I am greatly concerned about the conditions in the school in which the pupils and teachers must work. I thank the Minister and hopefully there can be a positive results in this regard in the coming weeks.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: Again, I assure Deputy Breen that I will ensure that the officials in my Department receive a copy of the report he has given to me and that my Department will follow it up as quickly as possible.