Monday 14 October 2019

Relief as some schools shut for safety checks to reopen - but blame game is only beginning

Concern: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Vivienne Bourke, of St Luke’s NS and Tim Stapleton, of Tyrrelstown ET during a visit to the two schools. Photo: Colin Keegan
Concern: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Vivienne Bourke, of St Luke’s NS and Tim Stapleton, of Tyrrelstown ET during a visit to the two schools. Photo: Colin Keegan
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The mid-term break starts on a more positive note for parents, children and staff at three schools forced to shut this week because of concerns about structural safety.

With almost 40 schools still awaiting the outcomes of safety inspections and a war of words between the Department of Education and the building contractor over who had responsibility for certification of the buildings, the saga is far from over.

But there will be some sighs of relief for Tyrrelstown Educate Together and the neighbouring St Luke's NS in west Dublin, which have been told they can use their ground floors when schools reopen after the Halloween break.

The partial reopenings will allow about half the classrooms in the two primary schools - which have about 1,200 pupils between them - to function, with special needs children prioritised.

Engineers have decided that bracing the first floors provides a temporary solution - work starts on this on Monday - and allows the ground floor to open. Other schools are being asked to provide temporary accommodation for the remainder of the classes.

Meanwhile, Ardgillan Community College, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, will be able to accommodate all pupils on Monday week, through the use of a community hall and some facilities in neighbouring schools.

Over the weekend, the department expects to provide information on a batch of schools inspected in recent days, and there were indications last night that a number where checks have been conducted will not have to close.

The mid-term break provides breathing space for all caught up in the shocking developments of the past week, most importantly allowing time to inspect empty schools, with most concern around those constructed between 2008-13, an era of so-called light-touch building regulation.

But whatever disruption lies ahead for school communities, and it will be considerable, it will be more short-lived than the emerging battle over who is to blame for the problems highlighted this week.

Some 30 of the schools under scrutiny were built in a rush, under a rapid build programme introduced in 2007/08 to deal with a surge in school enrolments that the Department of Education somehow did not see coming, despite high birth rates and an influx of immigrants since the late 1990s.

In its early years, the rapid build programme allowed for a project to be completed in 26 weeks, as Phase 1 of Ardgillan Community College was in 2009, and gave the contractor significant autonomy,

As events unfolded this week, the Department of Education has insisted that the contractor and its design team "were fully responsible for the construction and certification of the buildings in accordance with the regulations in force at the time".

WBS, which has defended its record as a quality contractor, disagreed and yesterday issued a statement claiming that the department had a "right" to inspect before signing off.

It also released the signed certificates of completion issued in respect of Ardgillan Community College, and Tyrrelstown Educate Together and St Luke's National School. The certificates were signed by representatives of project management companies, who acted in a client liaison capacity with the contractor on behalf of the department.

The department responded in kind, stating that "the Certificate of Substantial Completion releases payments under the contract. It is not a certificate of compliance with the Building Control Regulations and should not be confused with such".

And it added: "In order to provide further clarification on this point, the department is now publishing certificates relating to Ardgillan Community College on its website: Confirmation of compliance with the Building Control Regulations, signed by Western Building Systems; Certificate of Substantial Completion, signed by KSN Project Management in its capacity as Employer's Representative for the Department of Education and Skills."

Irish Independent

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