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Our schools are falling to pieces - can the cash be found to repair them?

Leaking roofs, run-down toilets, dilapidated mobile classrooms, no hot running water and potholes in driveways.

These are just some of the dire conditions experienced every day by dozens of teachers and pupils in schools across Northern Ireland.

Poor maintenance work — often involving cheap temporary fixes - and less money available each year to address problems — have led to a serious deterioration in school buildings.

It can be revealed today that the cost of the maintenance backlog in Northern Ireland's crumbling schools’ estate has grown to almost £300m.

Up to £100m of this is needed for essential maintenance work which involves cases where there are health and safety concerns about school buildings.

The figures were revealed during questioning of Department of Education officials during a recent meeting of the Assembly’s education committee.

One teaching union told the Belfast Telegraph earlier this month that some run-down school buildings are costing more to maintain than it would cost to completely replace them.

And today, two school principals reveal details of the dire conditions their staff and children have to work in.

Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea said that £100m was needed for “must-do health and safety issues” and that a radical rethink is needed on the management of the whole schools' estate.

The news comes as the 11 local government departments brace themselves for further budget cuts as the economic crisis continues to impact on all parts of the UK.

A paper presented to the committee by the officials shows that Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has submitted a bid for £10m for school maintenance to the Department of Finance and Personnel as her department's first priority in the June monitoring round.

A bid for £30m in capital funding has also been registered “in light of a very constrained position both on funding for new capital works and funding to undertake essential minor works”.

The Minister still has not decided on the fate of 68 capital school building projects put on hold during a controversial review — with one of the projects first announced 10 years ago. Most involve new builds but some are extension and refurbishment projects.

DE currently has around 600 applications for minor works — all of which have a capital value of less than £500,000 — in the voluntary and maintained sectors with a conservative total cost estimate of around £45m.

The department document states: “The extent of maintenance backlog in schools is significant and failure to address this will compound the problem through further deterioration of the education estate.”

The officials’ paper said that the department “has limited scope to make any investment in new schools in 2010/11.”

Mr McCrea said: “It is a legal requirement to carry out maintenance work where there are health and safety issues.

“The Minister must prioritise and come forward with a new spending plan in light of the current realities.

“It is time for action and one thing we need to consider is whether we can afford to support so many school sectors in Northern Ireland. At the very least there must be greater sharing between them.”

Frank Bunting, northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, said: “We need to concentrate on essential repairs to schools but the choices are bleak in the current budgetary circumstances. It is repair the schools or hit frontline services.

“Education boards’ budgets need to be increased not cut. Politicians need to stop wrangling about the Education and Skills Authority and get it up and running. The situation is that dire.”

A department spokesman said: “The total school maintenance backlog has been estimated at £279m, of which £63m is categorised as requiring immediate attention.

“The total backlog figure may alter on a daily basis.

“This includes any urgent work required to address health and safety issues, prevent immediate closure of premises and to avoid serious deterioration of the fabric or services to buildings.”

Factfile

  • Total school maintenance backlog — £300m
  • Essential work — £100m
  • Bid from department — £10m
  • Value of 600 applications submitted for minor building work — £45m


Still waiting for a new building, years after funding was approved

Tor Bank Special School opened in 1968 and currently caters for its pupils, who all have severe learning difficulties, within one main building and nine mobile classrooms in Dundonald.

Principal Colm Davis is hoping they will move into a new school building by September 2012 — 10 years after the Department of Education announced that private funding would be provided for a new build.

The project is due to be funded through a private public partnership (PPP) scheme.

“It has been a wearing process but we are hoping to be one of the lucky ones to end up with a new school in the end,” Mr Davis said.

The head teacher, who is a member of the Northern Ireland committee of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “We were pushing for years to get our mobile classrooms painted and repaired but it was only when they began falling apart at the sides at the end of last term that maintenance work was carried out.

“They had been left in such a state of disrepair that they had to take the side of every single mobile out and that must have cost a lot of money.

“Continuing to just do reactive rather than proactive maintenance of school buildings will lead to major problems.”

Mr Davis said that there seems to be a feeling that when a school is on the list for a new building, it is a lower priority when it comes to maintenance.

“We are delighted to be getting a new school but in our case it is likely to be 10 years from the initial announcement before the new school opens and that is a long wait in crumbling mobiles,” he said.

“Schools have to be kept in an acceptable state but we have had to fight for essential repairs to be carried out.

“I know a lot of other schools are in a similar situation and it does impact on children when they are being taught in shabby old buildings unfit for purpose.”

And Mr Davis added: “The longer buildings are left in a state of disrepair, the more it will cost to address the problems.”

‘The conditions in which our staff and children work are unacceptable’

Bunscoil Bheann Mhadagáin is a primary school at the heart of the Irish-speaking community of North Belfast.

The school, which opened in 1994, is based in an old church hall and temporary mobiles on the Cliftonville Road — catering for 106 pupils.

The school’s principal Máire Bn Uí Eigeartaigh said: “There have been significant problems from the early days with the premises and over the years, as the school has grown in numbers, the situation has not improved.

“The school became recognised by the Department of Education as a voluntary maintained school in 1996.

“At that time, the department identified the urgent need for alternative premises and a commitment was given in principle to provide funding for a new school building, subject to an appropriate site becoming available.”

However, plans to build a new five-classroom school are on hold as part of the department’s capital building review.

The principal said that the problems include the school being housed in a “dark and dingy cramped building”, the main entrance to the school opens directly onto a public road, “appalling” conditions in the toilets, no hot water and no appropriate space for indoor physical play .

She continued: “We feel our application deserves to be given priority over other projects for a number of reasons, including the health and safety of the |children who attend the school.

“It is also obvious to anyone who has visited our school that the conditions in which our teachers and children are forced to work are unacceptable.

“The governors feel that, if the ongoing review of capital projects aims to address the most acute accommodation deficiencies in our education system's school estates, there cannot be a more pressing need for investment than that of Bunscoil Bheann Mhadagáin.

“There has been some talk about a minor works application but I would just view that as a sticking plaster which puts off dealing with the reality that we need a new school.”

A recent Education and Training Inspectorate report said the school’s accommodation was “inadequate and falls far short of acceptable standards”.

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