Building new schools

 

ON THE face of it, the new school building programme – unveiled by Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn yesterday – appears impressive. In all, 219 major school building projects will be rolled out over the next five years as part of a €1.5 billion capital investment programme. These represent good news for school communities and, not least, for the hard-pressed construction sector.

The Department of Education says up to 15,000 new jobs will be created directly and a further 3,000 indirectly. In truth, the department has little alternative but to plan on this scale. The baby boom of the past decade is placing unprecedented pressure on school capacity. Total pupil enrolment is projected to grow by around 70,000 between now and 2018: by more than 45,000 at primary level (currently 509,000 students) and 25,000 at post primary (currently 351,000).

The department – and its building unit in Tullamore – deserve credit for the way in which they have responded to the increased demand. The school accommodation crisis in north Dublin five years ago, when some newcomer children struggled to find a school place, prompted an urgent review of planning. Today, the department is working with other government agencies to ensure it has the best information on future demand. There is greater confidence that a school place will be available, as it should, for every child.

That said, there is what the Irish National Teachers Organisation calls “considerable confusion” about the latest announcement. How many of the “new” schools have already been announced? How many are new buildings for existing schools, currently in prefabs or dilapidated accommodation? Why is the Minister promising 70,000 new places only weeks after he promised 80,000 in the Dáil? How can the Government respond to the pressure on school places with just €300 million per year, a considerable decrease on the figure available during the boom years?

Mr Quinn appeared hesitant when questioned about the apparent cut in the number of school places on RTÉ radio yesterday. He has made impressive claims for the new building programme but, given a history of false dawns, parents and local communities will not be fully reassured until the diggers move in. Parents will also be looking for reassurance on another key issue – class size. It is clear there will be many more schools and many more pupils. But will there be a corresponding increase in teaching posts?