‘Our children are left in limbo’: Newly built Greystones school lying idle for a year

Talks to resolve row over fire safety issues between department and WBS fail to reach agreement

The gleaming three-storey school building was completed a year ago, but the classrooms are empty and the gates are closed.

Hundreds of pupils and their teachers at Greystones Community National School in Co Wicklow have been unable to access their new building due to a dispute between the Department of Education and building firm Western Building Systems (WBS) over fire safety issues.

In recent days it has emerged that a conciliation process aimed at resolving the dispute has finished without agreement. As a result, parents say their children must continue their education in prefabs in the carpark of the local rugby club, where they have been based for the past six years.

"It's incredibly frustrating that we still have no certainty over when the new building is going to open," says Michelle Boehm, chair of the school's parent-teacher partnership.

She said the school’s first intake of junior infants will be going into fifth class in September without having been in a proper school building.

“They’re left in limbo. Our teachers are great, but the situation is far from ideal. There’s no PE hall, library, resource room. Some toilets are used as storage rooms. They can’t risk having IT equipment, as they can be easily broken into. There’s no facility for after-school activities.”

In a statement, the Department of Education confirmed that the conciliation process in relation to Greystones Community National School has concluded without agreement.

Alternative options

It said the conciliator has since issued recommendations which are understood to identify alternative options for achieving compliance with the fire cert.

The department said it intends to pursue these options and will keep school authorities updated on next steps involved.

However, WBS chief executive Martin McCloskey insisted there was “never any basis” for delaying the handover of the school which had been certified as suitable for use by the department’s own experts last July.

He acknowledged the role the conciliator had played in attempting to resolve the dispute to date.

“The reality is that the department’s concerns were challenged. In fact, further independent fire safety tests, undertaken by UK fire testing experts BRE, showed the buildings performed to almost double the required standard.”

Mr McCloskey said his company has accepted the recommendations by the conciliator and hoped the matter could be brought to a close soon.

The department is, separately, suing WBS over alleged structural safety issues at about 40 schools built by the firm which came to light over the last two years.

Referring to these disputes, Mr McCloskey said WBS was defending all allegations.

Wicklow political representatives, meanwhile, are due to meet with department officials to discuss the issues on Friday.

Mitigation measures

Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore said she had repeatedly raised concerns over the awarding of the contract to WBS in light of concerns over fire safety issues in other schools.

“The department assured me that they would put measures in place to mitigate against potential problems,” she said. “That was obviously not done in a robust enough fashion, and now we have a brand new school sitting empty while children are educated nearby in prefabs. There are serious questions that need to be asked about how this was allowed to happen.”

Local TD and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris TD said it was vital that the department outlines how pupils can access the school in the coming school year.

“They have waited far too long and the sense of frustration is palpable. We need to see all the options mapped out which will get children safely into their new school whatever happens,” he said.

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