1. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the action being taken to address the need for additional schools infrastructure and staffing in areas of rapidly growing population and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 14681/18 asked on 29 Mar 2018)
Deputy Thomas Byrne: Could the Minister for Education and Skills tell me the position with regard to rapidly growing areas? I am not convinced that enough is being done in the Department to make sure the supply of schools and school places is sufficient.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Richard Bruton): I thank the Deputy for his question. I know we had a discussion on the issue last night. Ireland has experienced a significant bulge in pupil enrolments going through our schools. This has seen a significant expansion in the rate of provision of new school places and this puts a high demand on the Department’s capital budgets. Since 2011, some 340 major school projects and over 120,000 new and replacement places have been provided and 8,718 additional teachers have been employed.
My Department’s capital investment programme 2016 to 2021 continues to address the challenges posed by a rapidly increasing school population. The programme details the school projects that are being progressed through the architectural planning process. It also provides for devolved funding for additional classrooms for schools where an immediate enrolment need has been identified.
In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system using data from a range of sources to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. In this regard, 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, is ongoing at the moment and it is anticipated that decisions based on these exercises will be announced in the coming weeks.
My Department is included among the prescribed bodies to whom local authorities are statutorily obliged to send draft development and local area plans or proposed variations to development plans for comment and observations. This information is factored into the Department’s planning process. It also enables local authorities to reserve future school sites in areas designated for proposed housing development.
With regard to staffing, the criteria used for the allocation of teaching posts is published annually on the Department’s website. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing schedule includes the provision where schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional permanent mainstream posts on developing grounds.
We are building more schools and providing more additional school places than ever before. This reflects the priority which this Government is putting on education and is underpinned by the €8.6 billion investment for school buildings that is set out in the national development plan 2018 to 2027.
Deputy Thomas Byrne: I am glad to see that some action is being taken in the Department on foot of concerns that I hope the Minister’s officials have raised with him because I have certainly raised them with the officials over the past year or two. I would like to know when the decision to carry out this exercise was taken because we have been told over the past number of years that everything was in hand in the Department and that the list published in 2015 was what we would need. In fact, many of them are not yet built. The Minister is now the Minister who is bringing back prefabs. He is doing that because there was no forward planning in the Department and he has been left holding that particular baby because forward planning seemed to have been abolished until some of us started to raise it in this House.
I raised the example of a site in Ashbourne privately with the Minister and I know his officials are looking at it. This site is owned by the Department. I hope some of it will be used for a public park but the vast bulk of it was designated by the Department and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government as suitable for housing despite the fact that anybody who drove through Ashbourne would see the houses that were being built and the families moving into the area and see that undoubtedly a school would be needed there at some point in the future. However, the Department of Education and Skills saw fit to put this forward for housing.
Is it the case that the only information sought from local authorities about housing developments concerned the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, scheme, which the Minister mentioned yesterday, rather than all the housing developments that are happening, the vast majority of which are not LIHAF?
Deputy Richard Bruton: We are going through a unique period of population expansion at school level. In the past seven or eight years, there have been almost 60,000 extra pupils at primary level and almost 50,000 extra pupils at second level so it is an unprecedented level of demand. The Department undertakes these demographic studies on a regular basis. This has been done before and it is deemed timely with the new population trends. On foot of this, there will no doubt be the indication of areas where new schools have been planned. Since 2011, some 61 new schools have been opened. By and large, they start in prefabs as a later project for building the school would occur but that is part of an efficient use of the capital resources we have to ensure that we meet demand as it arises.
Obviously, we are very closely allied with the local authorities and we use them to identify sites. It is not for the Department to decide whether a local authority designates an area for a school site but, of course, we would notify the local authority of the implications of population development for school needs. We have regular access to local authority information. Certainly LIHAF, large projects or significant infrastructural acceleration projects would be a major input but we also receive information from local authorities on other developments they have in mind or expect.
Deputy Thomas Byrne: My information is that the Department received that information from the local authority but it was not requested by the Department of Education and Skills regarding the non-large-scale developments, which is all Ashbourne has. There would not be any under the new planning process or indeed under LIHAF but the area is still growing rapidly. I am afraid the spin unit is rubbing off a bit on the Minister regarding prefabs. He said it was understandable that prefabs would be used in respect of schools started since 2011 and that this was an efficient use of resources, but the truth is that the number of prefabs increased by 25% from 2016 to 2017 under his watch - nobody’s else’s watch. This is why I make the charge that he is the Minister who is bringing back prefabs. This is all over the country. A 25% increase is one of the largest increases in prefabs on record under the Minister’s watch. It has happened because of the lack of planning in the Department and because it is fire-fighting. From everything the Minister says, it seems to me that he has refused to ask for more capital money for the here and now. We have plenty of promises for the future but there needs to be more for the here and now. I am surprised that the national development plan shows the number of primary-level schoolchildren falling off a cliff and yet the Government has not done its demographic analysis. I am beginning to think the figures do not add up.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I wish to reassure the Deputy that there has been a substantial expansion in the capital budget. It has increased by €192 million since 2012 and that expansion continues. The Deputy is right to say that over the next three years a further €200 million - at €70 million per year - will be added to the schools capital programme. We continue to have very strong ambitions. It has, however, been a very difficult period, with well over 100,000 additional children entering our schools in a very short time. We have had to respond to that as flexibly as possible at a time when, as we all know, capital has been constrained. The Department has done it in an efficient way. Unlike most Departments, we never return money unspent. We have a very good planning process that identifies a pipeline of projects and we met the demands in that regard. The evidence is there, with 120,000 extra places provided in the period in question.