Cost of building hundreds of schools soars amid construction inflation

Rising costs are making it difficult for contractors to stand over tendered costs

Soaring inflation in the construction sector is making it difficult for contractors to stand over tendered costs for delivering hundreds of school-building projects.

Department of Education records show there are more than 300 school building-projects under construction, along with a continuous stream of other projects at or near tendering stage.

Internal records released under the Freedom of Information Act flag concerns over project delays and construction inflation linked to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and “challenging market conditions”.

During the first half of last year the Department of Education was forced to increase its basic building costs by 21 per cent based on reviews of actual tender outcomes. This forced the department to seek an additional capital allocation of €300 million during 2022 to meet “significant budgetary pressures” linked to the rising cost of construction, as well as the need to accelerate school accommodation for children with special needs and young people from Ukraine.

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Of the hundreds of school-construction projects under way they include in excess of 50 new or replacement school buildings and 300 extensions to existing schools, the majority of which are due to be completed by the end of 2023.

When asked if projects will be delayed due to rising construction costs and other factors, a spokesman for the department said a €860 million capital allocation in 2023 provided a platform for “strong roll-out” of school-building projects.

He said this investment would also facilitate an increased focus on the modernisation of existing school stock and help transition the school system for an era of net zero carbon by 2050.

“The Department of Education has a large pipeline of projects for delivery under the school-building programme. There are currently in excess of 300 school-building projects at construction, with other projects in design and at or near the tendering stage.”

The spokesman said inflation has created challenges in the construction sector, and the schools sector was no different. “There are central arrangements in place for dealing with inflation which are reflected in the co-operation framework for inflation which was announced by Government earlier this year. This framework provides clarity for contractors when tendering for public works contracts.”

He added that the status of all projects were listed on a county by county basis at www.gov.ie. and was updated on a regular basis to reflect their progress through the various stages of capital appraisal, site acquisition, design, tender and construction.

Special education, meanwhile, was a driver of increased school-construction costs last year. Moves to ensure 900 children with special education needs had access to an appropriate school place required additional investment of €100 million. This was achieved through 83 projects involving mainly modular accommodation.

There are also big pressures on the special education front at post-primary level and in large urban centres at primary level, with assessments of needs backlogs and increased evidence of autism.

While most Ukrainian pupils are being accommodated within existing schools, the greatest pressure on capacity is at post-primary level where student numbers are rising and there remain significant special needs capacity deficits.

A total of €55 million was required for 45 projects at second level to cater to these additional Ukrainian enrolments.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent