Topical Issue Debate – Athenry Vocational School

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^^ Schools Building Projects Status ^^

 

 

   Deputy Paul J. Connaughton: I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter and the Minister for Education and Skills for attending to take it. I have no doubt that she has a list the length of her arm of people who want new schools and new school buildings and I imagine the pressure on her at the moment is severe. However, it would be wrong to fail to raise the issue of Athenry vocational school with the Minister today. The school has been promised a new school building for many years. While the Minister will probably tell me in her reply how much the process has moved on with the location of a site and work to purchase it, the matter has been going on for so long that there is great frustration among parents, students and many others in the Athenry hinterland. We have heard for so long how close we were to getting a new school. At one stage, it was believed that parents, pupils and teachers would walk through the front door of a brand new school on 1 September 2014. That certainly did not happen.

A great deal of good work has been done in the background, and I pay special tribute to Councillor Peter Feeney, who spent so much time trying to find the site for the new vocational school, but there is a great deal of frustration out there that this is not moving as quickly as it should. We are getting a lot of people saying it is very close or nearly there, but no one is willing to say what the timeline is, when the land will be purchased, when building will commence and when the school will move in. After meeting two weeks ago with the principal and some of the teachers, I note that what we really want today are answers. A further consideration is that in a town the size of Athenry, the Presentation school and the gaelscoil are also looking for new buildings. The CSO figures show that Athenry is a booming town, the population of which continues to grow. Apple is going to make a massive investment in the next year. This is an area that is going places, but Athenry is short of the new schools it desperately needs. We must start to set out a very clear plan for the town of Athenry’s building programmes and when they will start. We must move away from hearsay and maybes. The site is there and we need it to be purchased. We need to know when it will be purchased and when building will start. That is the only way to alleviate the frustration that parents and students face.

 

 

   Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan): I thank Deputy Connaughton for raising the matter, and I take the opportunity to clarify the current position in relation to the major capital project for Gairmscoil Mhuire, Athenry. The Deputy is aware of the demographic challenge facing the education system in the coming years. Funding under my Department’s five-year construction plan is focused on meeting demographic demands to ensure that every child has access to a physical school place and that our school system is in a position to accommodate increasing pupil numbers. This involves prioritising school building projects in areas where demographic demand is projected to exceed the level of accommodation available.

Athenry has been identified as an area of demographic growth. In that regard, a major project to provide a new school building for Gairmscoil Mhuire, Athenry, to cater for 1,000 pupils has been included in the current five-year construction plan announced in 2012. A new site is required to accommodate this new school building. The Deputy will be aware that I signed a memorandum of understanding between my Department and the County and City Managers’ Association in 2012. The memorandum of understanding fosters increased levels of co-operation and formalises the role of local authorities in identifying and securing sites for educational use. In general, the first step in a site acquisition process is the identification of a number of suitable sites by the relevant local authority. The identified sites are then technically assessed on a joint basis by officials from the local authority and my Department. Subsequently, a valuation of the preferred site is procured and negotiations with the landowner are opened. Such negotiations may encompass the resolution of complex technical issues and, in that context, can be lengthy. Once agreement in principle with the landowner has been reached, the legal conveyancing process commences.

In this instance, my Department has worked closely with Galway County Council towards acquiring a permanent site to meet the needs of the school. In the course of the site acquisition process, some matters arose which required further technical assessment and consideration. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that all of these technical matters have now been addressed to the extent that the site acquisition can proceed. I have been informed by my officials that, subject to no issues arising, it is expected that contracts can be signed shortly. I am afraid I have to use the word “shortly,” even though the Deputy wants something more specific. It will then be possible for the project to proceed to architectural planning. I assure the Deputy that the project to provide a new permanent building for Gairmscoil Mhuire, Athenry, will be progressed as soon as possible. Officials from my Department will be in contact with Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board in that regard as soon as the site acquisition is completed. I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Dail the current position regarding the site, although I am not sure I have told him anything he did not already know. It is important to note that “shortly” means “in the very near future.”

 

 

   Deputy Paul J. Connaughton: I thank the Minister for her reply, although the word “shortly” will cause some frustration among people in Athenry tonight. I welcome the fact that a lot of the technical issues have been sorted out and that we are very much nearing the end of the process. However, I ask the Minister and her officials to redouble their efforts to get this over the line as soon as possible. Having met parents and, in particular, teachers, I note that although this is a school with a proud history and a bright future, they are teaching in a school that is not fit for 2015 and are in desperate need of a new premises. They grow frustrated daily at words such as “shortly.” I understand that conveyancing can take time and that legal issues can arise, but it is important to get around them as soon as possible. If possible, we should put timelines in place within the next month or two.

The Minister noted in her speech that Athenry is a booming town, and I invite her to visit the three schools in the town to make herself aware of the concerns people have. It will be an ideal opportunity for her to see that the town is going places. We need to bring these schools up to the necessary standard, and I urge the Minister and her officials to get the matter over the line as soon as possible. Let us get building this school, because Athenry and Gairmscoil Mhuire deserve a new school in 2015.

 

 

   Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: Certainly I know that Athenry is a growing and thriving town. I thank the Deputy for the invitation and will try to get there. We are very much aware of the needs of this school. I assure the Deputy that we will progress the project as soon as we possibly can.