Department still to spend €331m of its school budget


MINISTER FOR Education Mary Coughlan has defended her department’s record on school buildings after new figures revealed almost half of the 2010 allocation has still to be spent.

In all €331 million of the 2010 school-building budget has still to be allocated, the second year in succession that the department has failed to spend its full allocation in this area.

Unused funding is generally returned to the Department of Finance at the end of the year.

Teachers’ unions, the construction industry and the Opposition have expressed dismay at the new figures.

Last night Ms Coughlan said it was expected that by the end of 2010, 53 new schools would have commenced on-site. This compared to projects for 34 schools going on-site last year, a 56 per cent increase in on-site commencements.

She said “difficulties” within the construction industry linked to very low tender prices were creating delays.

“In addition, the costs of sites have been reducing, and there have also been some delays in completing planned site transactions arising from legal and planning issues.’’

The dispute about the department’s capital programme comes after a recent Economic and Social Research Institute study found that the quality of school buildings had a significant impact on teaching and learning.

Responding to the figures, the Irish National Teachers Organisation described the failure to spend almost half the budget earmarked for school buildings this year as indefensible.

“This stands in marked contrast to commitments given that funding for buildings would be allocated to projects,” the union said.

“Nearly one in three schools need major building works. It beggars belief that half the annual building fund remains.”

The Construction Industry Federation said it was startled by the department’s failure to invest despite the unemployment crisis in the Irish economy and the deficit in our school infrastructure.

Federation director general Tom Parlon said the failure to spend the allocated money had cost significant jobs in construction and represented a major blow to the local economies that were to benefit from the Government’s investment.

“The excuse that this relates to reduced tender prices is very disingenuous...I would imagine that communities that have been on waiting lists for up to 10 years for school upgrades will take particular issue with such a suggestion,” he said.

Fine Gael spokesman on education Fergus O’Dowd said the failure to spend the allocated funds reflected “either gross incompetence or political chicanery by the Government”.

Architects have called on the Government to use the funds to build schools and create employment in the building sector.

Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland director John Graby said: “This is an opportunity for the Government to take advantage of cheaper labour and materials in the sector and finance projects that are not only good value for money but are an investment in children’s education which will greatly improve their learning environment.”