To work in these conditions every day is demoralising

In the first of a two-part series, Niall Murray highlights the need for more transparency in how taxpayers’ money is being used to improve school conditions.

Case study: Kilfinane THE Government tells us it is spending more than €580 million on school building projects this year.

That is more than half a billion euro of taxpayers’ money to improve the conditions and facilities in which almost 800,000 children are taught from September until summer.

But it is difficult for hundreds of school communities to imagine where that money is being spent when they see little progress on their own causes.

According to recent data provided in the Dáil by Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe, almost one-third of the country’s 4,000 primary and second-level schools has an application with his department for some level of improvement.

Most have been on waiting lists for years, hoping that the next phase of announcements will see their school listed among the fortunate ones.

But even then, there is no assurance that their project will see tangible bricks-and-mortar work in the two or three years that follow.

When Noel Dempsey became minister in 2002, he decided that the timescales for projects and the projected date by which they would move from one stage to the next should be available to the public.

He set up a website under which taxpayers, teachers, parents and pupils themselves could log on and see how any school included in the school building programme was prioritised. It showed what stage they were at — from initial design and planning, through to construction phase — and when they might progress further, to the nearest three months.

This system gave people some belief that the building programme was more than a political toy; that funding was based on merit and actual need rather than the desires of local politicians to send out letters before elections with promises of planning, contracts and new schools.

Sadly, that system was axed a few years ago, needless to say without any press release, with no letter from government TDs to their local schools and without as much as a whimper from the Department of Education.

Schools were understandably upset, then, when this Easter passed with no announcement of further building project advancements.

As education minister Mary Hanafin declared on February 1 that 30 new schools would be fast-tracked through planning, design and construction in rapidly developing areas. These are mostly in Dublin and the plan was to set up the schools by next September to cater for communities whose existing schools don’t have the capacity for growing pupil numbers.

In the same statement, Ms Hanafin said she planned to make “a further announcement after Easter to allow a further batch of schools to commence construction”. That announcement never came, however, and Government talk about the slowing economy and the need to prioritise capital spending has dominated political discussions in recent weeks.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) president Declan Kelleher is quick to point out, however, that schools awaiting building works cannot accept this kind of talk.

“The country has enjoyed huge economic success for over a decade, yet children are still stuck in prefab jungles, and schools that are older than the state itself,” he said.

“The money for the schools in developing areas should be taken out of the National Development Plan. The Taoiseach has spoken about prioritising economic growth, but what could be more important to help fuel the economy than accommodating the children of the migrants coming here to work?” Mr Kelleher said.

The state of some of our schools certainly raises questions about how wisely the taxes raised by the state over the past decade has been spent.

Unfortunately, tens of thousands of children have — and will have — gone through their formal education in buildings and classrooms more appropriate to the second than the first world in which Ireland classes itself before their schools are upgraded.

But if there was some greater transparency in how the money is distributed, parents, teachers and communities might feel less frustrated; even if they are not included on the next raft of funding announcements — whenever that might be.

Focus point: Funding

THE Government tells us it is spending more than €580 million on school building projects this year.

That is more than half a billion euro of taxpayers’ money to improve the conditions and facilities in which almost 800,000 children are taught from September until summer.

But it is difficult for hundreds of school communities to imagine where that money is being spent when they see little progress on their own causes.

According to recent data provided in the Dáil by Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe, almost one-third of the country’s 4,000 primary and second-level schools has an application with his department for some level of improvement.

Most have been on waiting lists for years, hoping that the next phase of announcements will see their school listed among the fortunate ones.

But even then, there is no assurance that their project will see tangible bricks-and-mortar work in the two or three years that follow.

When Noel Dempsey became minister in 2002, he decided that the timescales for projects and the projected date by which they would move from one stage to the next should be available to the public.

He set up a website under which taxpayers, teachers, parents and pupils themselves could log on and see how any school included in the school building programme was prioritised. It showed what stage they were at — from initial design and planning, through to construction phase — and when they might progress further, to the nearest three months.

This system gave people some belief that the building programme was more than a political toy; that funding was based on merit and actual need rather than the desires of local politicians to send out letters before elections with promises of planning, contracts and new schools.

Sadly, that system was axed a few years ago, needless to say without any press release, with no letter from government TDs to their local schools and without as much as a whimper from the Department of Education.

Schools were understandably upset, then, when this Easter passed with no announcement of further building project advancements.

As education minister Mary Hanafin declared on February 1 that 30 new schools would be fast-tracked through planning, design and construction in rapidly developing areas. These are mostly in Dublin and the plan was to set up the schools by next September to cater for communities whose existing schools don’t have the capacity for growing pupil numbers.

In the same statement, Ms Hanafin said she planned to make “a further announcement after Easter to allow a further batch of schools to commence construction”. That announcement never came, however, and Government talk about the slowing economy and the need to prioritise capital spending has dominated political discussions in recent weeks.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) president Declan Kelleher is quick to point out, however, that schools awaiting building works cannot accept this kind of talk.

“The country has enjoyed huge economic success for over a decade, yet children are still stuck in prefab jungles, and schools that are older than the state itself,” he said.

“The money for the schools in developing areas should be taken out of the National Development Plan. The Taoiseach has spoken about prioritising economic growth, but what could be more important to help fuel the economy than accommodating the children of the migrants coming here to work?” Mr Kelleher said.

The state of some of our schools certainly raises questions about how wisely the taxes raised by the state over the past decade has been spent.

Unfortunately, tens of thousands of children have — and will have — gone through their formal education in buildings and classrooms more appropriate to the second than the first world in which Ireland classes itself before their schools are upgraded.

But if there was some greater transparency in how the money is distributed, parents, teachers and communities might feel less frustrated; even if they are not included on the next raft of funding announcements — whenever that might be.


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