Fears over conflict of interest in schools inspections

Fears over conflict of interest in schools inspections
The exterior of Tyrrelstown Educate Together School in Dublin which has been closed due to safety concerns. Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The independent company examining the safety of 42 schools built by Western Building Systems was itself involved in the construction of some elements of the facilities.

The Department of Education admitted the situation tonight, but stressed the revelation should not be “misconstrued” as a conflict of interest or an issue that could undermine the urgent reviews of the sites.

A department spokesperson confirmed KSN was involved in earlier work with Western.

It also emerged that Western Building Systems is building two more schools for the State.

After RTÉ’s Six One News uncovered documents showing the link, the spokesperson said KSN signed off on elements of the construction of Ardgillan Community College in north Dublin, which is among three facilities to have already been shut down.

The spokesperson said KSN’s involvement related to “periodic site visits” in a liaison capacity a number of years ago, at which point it was to report back to the department on the progress of the build.

Despite serious concerns of a conflict of interest as KSN is now being tasked with examining the safety of Ardgillan and 41 other sites, which could cost millions of euro to repair, the department insisted the link poses no concern.

"KSN are one of a number of project managers on the department’s current project management framework which was established under a public procurement tender,” said a department spokesperson.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed today that Western is still building schools for the State.

Asked at a visit to Tyrrelstown Educate Together and the adjoining St Luke’s National School — two of the affected schools now shut in his constituency — Mr Varadkar said the company is building schools in Sandymount, Dublin, and Greystones, Wicklow.

Mr Varadkar said he and his officials are “working night and day to find out the scale of the problem”, but admitted there are as yet no clear alternative sites should thousands of children be without a school after the Halloween break.

Education Minister Joe McHugh was briefed by his officials who met with Western yesterday, He said last night that it is “guesstimate territory” on how many of the 42 schools will be shut.

It is believed the department’s main concern is on three-storey schools built by Western between 2008 and 2014, with all three of the schools shut in recent days meeting this criteria.

The department’s examination team will begin full on-site investigations into all affected schools this morning and plans to conclude work by Tuesday, with clarity on which schools must be shut for safety reasons expected by late next week.

The Oireachtas public accounts committee yesterday demanded the Department of Education provide all information on the crisis, what it knew before last week, and the publication of fire safety audits concluded last year.

The fire safety audits — which sources said have found “significant” problems at some Western sites — resulted in this week’s construction audit examinations.

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