One in five second level schools do not have a PE hall despite the recent introduction of physical education as an exam subject.
An Oireachtas education committee heard on Tuesday that some schools are bussing students to sports halls, while others are forced to raise money in the hope of building indoor PE facilities.
Physical Education has been available as a Leaving Cert subject across all schools which have the capacity to teach it since 2020.
Given this development and the need to tackle the obesity crisis, Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD said the provision of indoor halls must be a priority.
“It is important that every child, at post-primary level at least, has access to a hall and has the ability – given that this can be a wet and cold country – to continue to participate in PE, regardless of the weather,” he said.
He said it was his understanding that schools were only provided with PE halls if there is significant redevelopment work, which means some may have to wait years before securing proper indoor facilities.
Hubert Loftus, head of the Department of Education’s planning and building unit, confirmed that 80 per cent of post-primary schools have a PE hall, while 10 per cent have access to one nearby.
However, he said PE halls are being delivered in new post-primary schools and major refurbishment projects as part of a wider €4.4 billion capital programme for schools between 2021 and 2025.
He said there were other priorities which the Department is seeking to manage such as new special education facilities and ensuring there is capacity for additional pupils at post-primary level, including newly-arrived Ukrainian students.
The Oireachtas committee heard that the department’s planning and building unit is using child benefit data and other indicators to forecast the demand for new school places.
Faced with questions over the need for new schools in growing areas such as east Cork, officials said the approach of the department is to examine where capacity can be expanded in additional schools before embarking on the construction of new schools.
Where a new school is required, the department looks at opportunities for campus sites with other existing schools.
Generally speaking, Mr Loftus said, the construction of 10,000 new homes in an area equates roughly to a need for about 5,000 school places, with 60 per cent at primary and 40 per cent at second level.
However, most school planning areas are on a downward trend at primary level with national demographics projected to reduce by over 100,000 over the next decade or so.
National demographics at post-primary level are projected to peak in the next couple of years.
In relation to expanding school choice, Mr Loftus said there are currently about 166 multi-denominational schools with a Government target of reaching 400 by the end of the decade.
He said the reconfiguration of existing schools to multi-denominational patrons has been a “slow burner”, but the outcome of a new pilot project with the Catholic Church aims to provide more diverse patronage in a number of areas.
Mr Loftus said there should be good clarity on the outcome of this pilot in the coming months.
Senator Pauline Reilly of the Green Party said she felt there was little chance of hitting the Government target and said better data was required to measure parental preferences across the State.
The committee also heard that the department has bolstered its forecasting model for special education and projects that the number of special classes at post-primary level will have to double over the next three years.
Martina Mannion, head of the department’s inclusion division, said that a Department of Health study has estimated that the prevalence of autism in the population is 1.5 per cent, the Department of Education forward planning works off a prevalence rate of 3.38 per cent.