Donegal school crumbling following 18-year wait for full upgrade
Structural concerns and dilapidated prefabs at Moville Community College
Prefabs at Moville Community College are due to be refurbished over the summer.
Cracking in a wall at Moville Community College. Photograph: Freya McClements
Moville Community College has what must be one of the most spectacular locations in Ireland. Set on a hillside on the edge of the fishing town of Moville, on the coast of Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula, it overlooks Lough Foyle. On a sunny day, the views are breathtaking.
“I’m fed up hearing about the view,” says one teacher. “A view’s not much good to you when your classroom’s falling apart.”
Inside the school’s main entrance stands a bright yellow support column. “Have a look at that pillar,” instructs the principal, Anthony Doogan.
It is leaning to one side. “There’s another one upstairs,” Doogan adds, then points out another. “That one’s not entirely straight either, you’re just too close to it to see it.”
Moville Community College opened in 2001 in prefabricated buildings; a permanent structure opened in 2005 but was half the size of the building that had originally been promised. In 2006, an application was made for the remainder of the permanent accommodation. Eighteen years after the school opened, pupils and staff are still waiting.
In the interim, the prefabs have deteriorated, and last winter the roof blew off one of the home economics rooms during a storm. They are to be refurbished over the summer. “In 2014, two Department [of Education] architects recommended their replacement,” says Doogan. “When the department tell you they should be replaced, it is time for them to be replaced.”
Structural questions have also arisen regarding the newer building. Structural and fire safety reports, commissioned in 2015, were updated last month. “We’ve had confirmation from the structural engineers that the building is not currently dangerous, but that there are stress factors on aspects of the building that are cause for concern and need to be investigated immediately,” says Doogan.
These include internal and external cracking to the structure. “You’ve seen the cracks in the middle of the windows,” says Doogan. “That’s every building, every window. There’s internal cracking. We’ve about six sets of windows that are leaking. All the doors need to be replaced.”
There are concerns over fire-stopping: “Service penetrations – which is a pipe or anything that goes through a wall – creates a pathway for fire and smoke,” explains Doogan, “so it’s about having pipes fire-stopped to an appropriate level.” There are also doors without the necessary seals against smoke.
Remedial work – with the most essential repairs prioritised – will take place over the summer, and work will also to take place to make the school wheelchair-accessible.
The extension to the school was approved in 2014 and is currently at the pre-planning stage of the design development process.
The department has said it is working with Donegal Education and Training Board (ETB) to address a number of issues which have emerged during this process. “Approval can then be given to Donegal ETB to lodge a planning application with Donegal County Council, which can be expected to happen in September/October,” a department spokesman said.
“Subject to any issues arising during the planning process, the project should then proceed to tender.”
Such a timeline is “achievable but ambitious,” says Doogan. “We have seen too many delays in the past to be confident that the most ambitious time frame will be achieved.”
Staff and pupils remain unconvinced; they point out that the planned “extension” is in fact the balance of the accommodation that was first promised in 2001. Last month, teachers took the unusual step of holding a public meeting in the town.
“Teachers don’t do that without really good reason,” says PE teacher Seamus Gallagher. “We’re completely and utterly frustrated.”
“It’s like you’ve been promised Christmas and they keep pushing it back and back and back so that Christmas never comes,” adds student Niamh McDermott.
For her, it is too late; the 17-year-old is currently sitting her Leaving Cert. As a member of the student council, she has been among a group of students who have campaigned for improvements; in the absence of a canteen, they have organised an external caterer to supply hot food to the students at lunchtime.
She gives The Irish Times a tour of the school. We start in one of the girls’ bathrooms; vast areas of tiling are missing. “These have fallen on a student,” McDermott explains. “She was actually on the toilet and they collapsed on top of her. You shouldn’t have to be worrying about going to the bathroom and tiles falling on you, it’s shocking.”
A storeroom reveals the extent of the structural problems. The cracks in the wall are so large that it is easy to see into the adjoining classroom; the brickwork is uneven and bulges out from the wall.
The “lower” building – as the prefabs are known – is clearly in a state of extreme dilapidation. From the outside it is easy to see where the building has rotted away, and insulation is protruding from the gaps. McDermott points to the underneath of one prefab, warning not to go too close. “We’ve had rats there.”
Gallagher’s class are playing soccer on a concrete basketball court; the two courts are the school’s only outdoor sports space. Despite this, the girls’ senior soccer team are the current schools All-Ireland champions.
Teacher after teacher explains how the students make up for the building’s drawbacks. “The only thing that keeps a lid on it is that our kids are so good,” says Gallagher.
Lack of facilities limit the curriculum. “We teach improvised PE here,” Gallagher explains. Exam students’ options are limited, because they are required to submit video evidence of their performances on sporting areas which are the proper dimension. “Anything like that, we have to go off-campus. We have to pay money to go to leisure centres, or we’re reliant on the goodwill of local clubs.”
“The students see what the other schools have. One of the young fellas in my Leaving Cert PE class, he said, ‘Sure I wouldn’t worry about them with all their fancy stuff, sure we have a foam roller.’ It’s funny but it’s not funny, because he’s basically right.”
Inside the floor is sloping, and a radiator looks like it is all but falling from a wall. Three classrooms have been joined together and are used for PE, though the lack of space and the low ceiling mean it can be used only for certain sports. McDermott lifts posters from the wall to reveal holes underneath. “The posters are there to hide them.”
Gallagher demonstrated the first-aid room. It is packed full of weights, with a couch at the far end; he gestures towards the back wall.
“Mildew comes on to that wall, and there are mushrooms that grow out. I clean the mildew off with bleach but the mushrooms, there are spores on the top of them and bleach doesn’t kill them. I have to get a shovel to take them off.
“I worry about what the kids are breathing in.”
His colleagues have similar concerns. Barry Molloy teaches woodwork and construction; as we talk, there is a loud bang; particles of something drift down from the ceiling. “That’s just a ball’s gone up on the roof,” he explains.
“We have dust extraction but it’s not adequate, it’s not sufficient. It is a concern.”
Gallagher too worries about the roof. “It would only take one teenager going up there after a ball. If they go through the roof nobody will be talking about planning or red tape.”
In many ways, the school has been a victim of circumstance. Doogan cites the economic difficulties of the 2000s and the pressures on the department to build schools in the greater Dublin area and other major cities.
Latest official figures show that there are almost 1,000 schools across the State waiting for major renovations or replacement buildings.
At an Oireachtas education committee last year, Department of Education officials acknowledged that much of this was linked to underinvestment in the sector during the economic downturn.
Moville’s prefabs were purchased, not rented – “Had they been rented, the department would have had our building built,” Doogan says.
Other teachers believe the school’s Inishowen location, and its remoteness both from Dublin and from the rest of Donegal, is a factor; some hope that having a Donegal man and former teacher Joe McHugh as Minister for Education could make the difference: “This school could be his legacy in this area.”
The condition of the community college was raised by Sinn Féin senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn during a Seanad debate earlier this year. Mr McHugh said he had “been in the school and in that home economics classroom. I share the concerns of the senator. This is, and will remain, a priority for me.”
“You’ll hear patience mentioned,” says Molloy. “Everybody has been patiently waiting in the hope this would be sorted for us.”
“We’ve kept quiet for too long,” adds science and religion teacher Angeline Kelly. “I’m here 11 years now and every year it was, ‘next year’.”
Geography teacher Margaret Mulhall has been at the school since it opened 18 years ago. “You hear of other schools being fast-tracked, well ours is fast cracking,” she says.
“Moville Community College is at a huge disadvantage compared to all the other kids in the country and I’m very saddened that it has come to the staff to try and stand up for them.
“I just feel that on every level students and parents and staff have been failed.”