Seanad 1987

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This is taken from a senate debate which took place in 1987. Portlaw at that time had a boys school and a girls school. The boys school was in need of a building project. Three teachers were in the school building and the fourth was almost half a mile away in the Muintir na Tíre hall 

Seanad Éireann - Volume 117 - 21 October, 1987

Adjournment Matter. - Portlaw (Waterford) National School.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I have notice from Senator Brian O'Shea that he proposes to raise the following matter on the motion for the Adjournment of the House: when funds will be made available to build the new national school at Portlaw, County Waterford. I call Senator Brian O'Shea.

Mr. O'Shea: With your permission, I would like to share the latter part of my time with Senator Joe O'Toole, who has some specialised knowledge in this area.

An Leas-Chathaoireleach: How many minutes, so I can remind you when the time comes?

Mr. O'Shea: Five minutes. Portlaw Boys National School is a school with 122 pupils. The children from this school went to Fishguard on their school tour last summer. On the boat they met an American family — a mother, a father and a daughter. Some of the children entered into conversation with the American family and explained about seeking their new school. They made such an impression that the Americans expressed a desire to help out in some way. The school received a cheque for $1,200 some weeks later. This was gratefully accepted and has been used to obtain some badly-needed audio-visual aids for the school.

This House should compliment the boys of Portlaw School, their parents and [693] their teachers for the fact that such a profound impression was made on these benevolent visitors. The boys were able to describe their problem about getting their new school and by their behaviour and eloquence succeeded in greatly improving their school equipment. They were not looking for anything, but their sincerity and commitment to their school and to their town asked for them. I salute those children and I acknowledge the generosity of the donors; but is it not a sad comment on the provision for primary education down through the years, now alone in Portlaw but throughout the country?

The savage attack on primary education in the recently-published Estimates is all the sadder and all the more devastating in the context of this story. In the 1986 Estimates £33 million was provided for school buildings, equipment and extensions. In 1987 this was reduced to £30 million and in 1988 it will be reduced to £15 million.

In Portlaw Boys' National School there is no storage space and it is being contemplated that the teacher's toilet will have to be converted into a strong room to store the audio-visual aids recently acquired from the American subvention. Surely, even within the £15 million provided, this school should be catered for. I read in the fire officer's report on the school what is required to bring the complex to an acceptable standard of fire safety:

Remove all combustible linings in classrooms 1 and 2 and replace with a material with a surface spread of flame rating of class 0.

This refers to the heavy wainscotting and partition between classrooms 1 and 2. These are requirements — to quote the fire officer again “to bring the complex to an acceptable standard of fire safety.”

Portlaw is a town of some 1,252 people, according to the 1981 census. It has been devastated by the recession. Its sole industry, Irish Leathers, has gone from employing over 400 people in pre-EC days to closure in the early eighties. The [694] town is some 16 miles from Waterford city. It is not on a main route between any other towns. There is a “Jobs for Portlaw” Committee which has, with the assistance of State agencies, been endeavouring to provide jobs in the town. Their success, though it may seem modest to date, has been the production of intense effort, dedication and imagination. The important point is that it is ongoing, and last Monday night a very well attended meeting of the community reviewed progress and called for and got the commitment of the Oireachtas Members to put their full weight behind the committee in securing investment and jobs for Portlaw.

The committee has identified projects which would be viable but capital is needed. It is a town that is down, but it is fighting for its survival. It is a town that retains the skills that produced some of the best leather in the world.

Portlaw has been seeking its new boys' national school since 1970. The existing building was bult in 1930 as a two-teacher school. There was a subsequent extension, which provided an extra classroom and toilets. Portlaw is now a four-teacher school. It caters for pupils in standards one to six. The infant classes attend the adjacent convent girls' school. The rooms in the existing building are too small. As I said before, there is no storage space. Recently when a medical examination was carried out in the school the children had to be sent home as the only available space was in the classrooms.

There are only three classrooms in the school. Some of the pupils in second standard and all of the pupils in first standard are housed in the Muintir na Tíre hall which is about 500 yards from the school. Most of these small children are sitting on adult chairs at adult tables. The hall is in use virtually every night by the community and the teacher often has to rearrange furniture because the layout of the furniture required at night is different.

The school has a mainly grassed play area which becomes very muddy and dirty during the wet weather. I visited the school yesterday and the children were [695] excellently turned out in their school uniforms but the problems which mothers face during the winter period in keeping clothes clean are immense.

Every Wednesday water charges are collected in the building. Up to the time that the Irish Leathers Factory in Portlaw was closed a sub-office of a bank operated out of the same building. The toilets, like the furniture, are unsuitable for seven and eight year olds.

From the point of view of the administration of the school, as a teacher who is on leave of absence, I understand the problems which arise from having the school student body split up. The very fact of having second standard split between two buildings is a major problem. One third of the annual budget of the school goes on renting the Muintir na Tíre hall.

I have in front of me a letter from the Minister of State at the Department of Education, dated 30 November last, stating that the Department had agreed to the placing of a contract and that official notification of this decision would be conveyed to the chairman of the board of management immediately. Since then no such notification has arrived. The boys, parents and teachers of Portlaw deserve better than this. I attended a public meeting last Monday night in Portlaw. I was asked should the children be taken out of the school in protest and as a means of bringing pressure to bear on the Minister. In reply I said that, in educational matters, I always put the children first and they should be the last ones to become cannon-fodder in the fight for a new school.

I am asking the Minister in the strongest possible terms to provide a new boys' school for Portlaw by placing a contract in 1988. The community have suffered a great deal. According to a recent survey 47 per cent of males and 74 per cent of females in the families of the children attending the school are unemployed. In spite of all these handicaps the children brought off what I consider to be a major coup in promoting the image of the young people of this country during the school [696] tour last year. I submit that Portlaw has waited since 1970 and it has waited long enough.

Mr. J. O'Toole: Hear, hear.

Mr. O'Shea: I realise that the Minister is constrained because of the moneys that are made available to him. Portlaw has been beaten down by unemployment and the people have waited a long time for a new school. The children have a disruptive daily school pattern. I ask the Minister to make a solid provision for that school in 1988.

Mr. J. O'Toole: I want to thank Senator O'Shea for making this time available to me. I seem to have become the prophet of doom on these occasions and the list seems to go on and on. The Minister can sit there and look relaxed when we discuss schools such as Faha, Frenchpark, Lisdowney and Portlaw.

It seems to be almost a case of maladministration that we have to be taking up the time of the Oireachtas discussing matters which should be dealt with administratively in the Department of Education. It is time that the Government accepted their responsibility to look after the needs of pupils, teachers, education and the service of education in all corners of Ireland. One of the most worrying aspects of this is that it always seems to be the smaller schools in distant areas that are left last on the list. It is as if the decision-makers in Dublin forget very quickly about areas of the country like Waterford and Roscommon because they are outside the general precincts.

The Minister has much to answer for in this case. I appeal to him not to take us through a litany of what happened in the school. We know that it has gone out to tender and parents have been given the impression that something is going to happen because it has gone out to tender. We know very well that the Minister will stand up tonight and say nothing is going to happen there even though it has gone out to tender.

I have no doubt that the Department of Education have it in their minds to [697] make things even worse in this school. I believe they want to change the appointment schedules and probably get rid of a teacher from the school so that they will not have to build an extra classroom. I am aware of the machinations about the future of Portlaw school.

The parents, teachers and the pupils who are suffering all sorts of local problems, as outlined by Senator O'Shea, have enough on their plate without having to worry about this additional problem. This is an area that has been hit badly by unemployment. Already pupils are under difficulty, in terms of finding motivation to address themselves to the business of learning and education.

We have a real duty to pupils and education in areas like this. It is very difficult to motivate the pupils to learn in the very shabby surroundings of the school. Unemployment has created problems in the local community and these children need to get priority. I am sure the Minister understands that it is hard to cover the curriculum in such surroundings with half the school half-a-mile down the road in a hall which is being used for all sorts of other purposes. It is neither suitable nor clean in the morning simply because its use does not allow it to be prepared for teaching, education and learning each morning. Because the school is split it is impossible to implement any kind of curriculum guidelines in it.

It is also clear that the parents are absolutely frustrated. Instead of looking after themselves communities are spending their time and their energy wondering how they can get the Department of Education to give them what they are entitled to. The vice president of the INTO, Mr. Michael Drew, visited that school this week and was appalled by what he saw. He took the trouble to contact me today to give me some information about what he had seen there. He was highly complimentary about the solidarity between the parents and the teachers in the area who are single mindedly approaching this problem in a school where there is not enough hard surface for an outdoor play area and no general purposes room. They are trying against all the odds to [698] implement the curriculum. I appeal to the Minister to consider what is happening in that school. As in the other schools that have been mentioned over the last number of weeks, it is impossible to implement a curriculum in Portlaw and it is almost impossible for pupils to work and learn and for teachers to motivate them to a learning process.

No matter what cutbacks there are or what priorities the Government have, surely the provision of primary education must be a priority for any thinking, caring Government. There is £15 million less this year for the building of schools which means that this list will actually get longer in the foreseeable future. How can that be justified? We are also aware that there is no increase whatsoever in the money available from the State for the running and management of schools in places like Portlaw. That means that if there is not enough money available the only way to give a service to the pupils and to give them whatever extras they need is to go to the local community. In a community which is racked by unemployment that extra discretionary money is not available. By complying with a system which cuts back further and further on primary education what will happen is that the rich will get a better deal because they will be able to pay for a higher quality of education. It is despicable. I urge the Ministers to move quickly on this issue. The people, pupils and teachers of Portlaw deserve better. I appeal to the Minister to give us good news tonight.

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. F. Fahey): I would like to thank both speakers for their contributions. One has to be impressed with the cases made and, in particular, with Senator O'Shea's description of the spirit that is in the town in trying to overcome the difficulties that exist.

Unfortunately, once again the news is bad. Unfortunately again, that is the way it will continue to be. The detailed drawings for this project were in progress during 1984 and in January 1985, my Department authorised the invitation of tenders for the project. The tenders were [699] subsequently received and examined. Senator O'Shea mentioned the fact that in November last year indications were given by my predecessor that the project would go out to contract. A number of projects — I think about 24 in all — were chosen to go to contract in the first months of this year but, unfortunately, the project in Portlaw was not among them. As I already explained to the House, since I have taken over responsibility for schools I have not been in a position to allow any further contracts to be placed because all the money provided in the current year's Estimate has been all utilised as a result of the allocations made before I came into office. The situation now is even worse than it was then, as Senator O'Toole said, because in 1988 we will not be in a position to place any further contracts.

I do not sit in a relaxed way, as Senator O'Toole suggested, almost as if I did not care. I do care. I care more about this area because both my father and my grandmother were national teachers and I trained as a secondary teacher. As I said before, I am appalled at the condition of national schools. However, it is very clear and unequivocal that no new school buildings will be commenced in 1988.

Senator O'Toole was rather scathing in his attack. That is the situation and we must accept the reason for that being the case. The reason is that, if we continue to borrow money for this project and other projects which we want to get on with, in five years' time not alone will we not have the money to build the schools but we will not even have the money to pay the teachers. If we continue to borrow an extra £2 billion per year, as has been happening, in five years' time this country's creditworthiness will be gone.

I am the first person to agree that to have to stop projects like this is a desperately harsh decision. But we have to face up to the fact that there is no option at this stage. If we continue to borrow money at the rate we have been doing in five year's time we will not be able to pay [700] for essential services, including teacher's salaries. Everybody in this House is aware that £2 billion per year has been added to the National Debt over the last four years and that if we were to continue with that type of expenditure the National Debt would continue at that level. The choices are pretty stark. I cannot argue with anything that the two speakers have said. I can only put forward the situation is in which I and the Government find ourselves.

Mr. O'Shea: Can the Minister give any help in proceeding with the new school?

Mr. F. Fahey: I cannot. But what I can do, and what I am attempting to do is this. If there are essential repairs which can be carried out in order to alleviate the difficulties, I will at least examine the possibility of having those repairs carried out.

It is as well for me — and it is now the policy of my Department — to spell out clearly the exact situation, I will attempt to be as honest as I possibly can. Whatever other schools come up for discussion in this House or in the Dáil, that will be the response. It is a terrible thing to have to be so negative, but unfortunately that is the situation. It is as well that that is spelt out for the people so that they know exactly what the options are. There will be no progress in regard to new schools in 1988 and the best I can offer is that, if there are essential repairs which can be carried out, we will at least look at the possibility of carrying them out.

Mr. O'Shea: Is there any possibility that an extension can be provided?

Mr. F. Fahey: If there is intolerable overcrowding and if the situation warrants the provision of an extra pre-fab, my Department will certainly be prepared to look at the possibility of providing one.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 22 October 1987.

 

 

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