Speaker Continuing: Deputy
Deputy Declan Breathnach
^^ Minor Works Scheme ^^
Deputy Declan Breathnach: Boards of management, principals and parents’ committees across this country are struggling to run schools due to the lack of a proper adequate funding structure.
I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to introduce a defined timescale for the payment of minor works grants to all schools. Is he aware that delays in the payment of approved minor works grants are causing huge financial difficulty for schools that are trying to keep their accounts in credit and that the Department has said that such grants will be considered in the context of the Department’s overall capitation position, which is unfair for schools desperately in need of these moneys? I am all too aware of these problems as I was a teacher for 35 years, 23 of which were spent as a teaching principal in a small primary school that struggled every year, regardless of who was in Government.
Circular 62/2013 states that the grant will only be paid in future years as funding permits. However, the grant first came into operation in 1997 and has been issued in all years since then with the exception of the 2012-13 school year. Schools rely on the grant as part of their operational income as there is always a need for funds to cover the type of works covered by the scheme. The Acting Chairman, Deputy O’Rourke, discussed this matter with me on many occasions in regard to the issue of playgrounds in his constituency not being available to be used because of delays in minor works grants. If we are serious about health and safety as well as improving children’s physical health, surely this issue needs to be addressed and we need to ensure it is on a firm footing.
The principals of schools in my constituency are under a lot of stress trying to balance the books as schools are not permitted to go into overdraft except in exceptional circumstances. They have told me that the minor works grant has not yet issued this year. In answer to a parliamentary question I tabled earlier this year, the Minister said that the overall 2017 capital position, and expenditure levels in particular, would be assessed in the late autumn and that the issue of the 2017-18 minor works grant would be determined at that time.
One of the principals to whom I have spoken said that she, along with a huge number of her colleagues around the country, is absolutely outraged to be back in this position. There has been much engagement on the topic on the website of the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN. There is no point issuing IT grants, for example, if principals cannot keep the school running on a day-to-day basis. The minor works grant should be mandatory rather than dependent on money left over at the end of a calendar year.
The schools in question are depending on the grant arriving in November. Their principals are fearful that the schools will not otherwise get to January, when the first of the capitation grant money arrives, without applying for an overdraft. This can be extremely stressful for staff. Many schools are reliant on parents’ committees constantly running fundraisers to get them through, along with the minor works grant.
The Capital Review 2016-20 states in regard to the minor works grant to primary schools: “It is not possible to maintain the school infrastructure without the payment of the minor works grant and an annual summer works scheme.” Primary schools are the Cinderella of the Department’s funding regime and I ask the Minister to address the issue.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Richard Bruton): I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and I know it is of significant concern. I have to put my cards on the table because we are working to very constrained capital budgets and have been through a period of very rapid population growth, which is very good fortune for us in one sense. We have to provide approximately 12,000 to 15,000 new places and 5,000 replacement places every year. Those demands are putting the Department to the pin of its collar to ensure there are places for children when they turn up in September. This year, the Department will deliver almost 14,000 new places and 5,000 additional replacement places That has to be prioritised, which has put a squeeze on some other funding areas, as the Deputy will understand, such as emergency grants, summer works and minor works. The Deputy made the point that it would be great if the minor works grant were mandatory but I have to live within the capital framework provided and the Deputy knows the background to that. Over the past eight years, the overall capital programme has been cut to one third of what it was at its peak. We are living in a very financially constrained period. Although I acknowledge the minor works grant is an important element of funding, we are continuing to review our work programme both this year and next in terms of meeting the demands of the new schools we have to build and places we have to provide. Since 2011, we have provided 120,000 new school places and 200 new schools, and that is being done in accordance with a very strict system whereby it is only when an area can show a shortage of school places that we commit to build, as the Acting Chairman, Deputy O’Rourke, knows. That is a constraining factor.
We are continuing to review our funding position but I cannot give a commitment as to when we will be in a position to make a decision on the issue. I am very conscious of the concern expressed by the Deputy and many others on all sides of the House. I am working with the Department to seek a solution.
Deputy Declan Breathnach: I thank the Minister and acknowledge the constraints under which he is working. Will there be a minor works grant for schools before Christmas? The principals and boards of management need to know that because otherwise they need to look elsewhere for funds. As we head into December, schools need to have enough money to pay insurance, heating bills, ancillary staff, electricity, fire alarms and so on. They are unsuccessfully trying to manage on a shoestring. To have to jump from one grant to another, never quite sure when the next one might land in the bank account, if, from what the Minister is saying, it happens at all, is no way of running finances. I ask that the Minister seek to guarantee that the yearly minor works grant would be made mandatory and end the practice of making this essential funding dependent on leftover capital that may be available in the Department.
Furthermore, the Department needs to carry out an audit of what it costs boards of management to run their schools and provide a realistic level of funding for minor works grants and capitation grants. The use of the word “grant” should be removed because this funding, as I said, should be mandatory and is part of the necessary expenditure for running a school.
Will a grant for minor works be issued before Christmas or is the Minister fearful it will not? If the answer is in the negative, schools need to be informed.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I regret that I am currently not in a position to answer the Deputy on that issue. I understand he is saying this should be the top priority in the capital budget but if children had no school to attend next September, the Deputy would be clamouring about hopeless planning such that the Department cannot use its capital in order to ensure every child has a school place. We are trying to balance all those conflicting pressures. It is often the situation that there are more schools in the pipeline waiting for the go-ahead than there is funding available and we have to manage our funding to meet those demands. That is the constraint under which we are working.
As regards capital spending, both this and the former Government led by Fianna Fáil sought to protect our education system as much as possible and that continues to be the case. As the Deputy knows, we have made commitments regarding an increased pupil-teacher ratio, guidance counsellors, the resource teaching model and SNAs. We have sought to meet those very immediate children’s needs. It is a balancing act, but all I can say to the Deputy is that I am very aware of the concern he expresses. I will work with my Department to see whether we can resolve the issue.