Tuesday 23 January 2018

Schools warned over major health and safety risks

€340m of Coughlan's budget for improvements remains unspent as buildings 'out of bounds'

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

SEVEN schools have been served with enforcement notices because of the health-and-safety risks posed to staff and pupils.

Five primary schools have been served with improvement notices by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) since 2009. Two secondary schools received prohibition notices that put certain areas of the buildings out of bounds to both students and teachers.

The HSA has refused to identify the seven schools. But the fact that the statutory agency has taken enforcement action indicates there were serious health-and-safety risks.

The news will further embarrass the Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan, after last week's disclosure that up to €340m which had been earmarked for dilapidated school buildings this year remains unspent. That revelation prompted protests from several school principals who cited rat infestations, sewerage odours and damp as amongst the dangerous conditions that have been endured by pupils for years.

Some of the worst affected schools are Gaelscoileanna, many of which are housed in prefabs while awaiting funds to build permanent schools.

Sean O Donaile, principal of Gaelscoil Bharra in Cabra, Dublin, highlighted last week how 230 of his pupils are taught in a prefab building that he said is "infested by rodents", has rotting walls (due to damp) and holes in the floor.

Pleas to the department for funds for repairs and new buildings are often based on health-and-safety grounds.

The HSA inspected 202 primary schools and 144 secondary schools since 2009. Some of the inspections were as a result of complaints from teachers about the health and safety of their working environments. Others were random checks.

The HSA used to release inspection reports of schools under the Freedom of Information Act, but the findings were so embarrassing to the Government that it changed the rules to exclude safety inspections from the Act.

Reports included evidence of poor sanitary conditions, dangerous electrical wiring and damp working conditions.

Enforcement notices are the last steps before prosecution, forcing schools to carry out improvements and repairs before court proceedings.

However, the HSA said there was a new drive by the authority to increase the number of inspections of education workplaces. The authority has recently circulated guidelines to secondary schools, outlining safety in the workplace. Tanaiste Mary Coughlan defended her department's record on school buildings -- although almost half of her budget for the school building programme has yet to be allocated for this year.

The department also underspent its budget last year, with the unused funds being returned to the Department of Finance. The minister blamed difficulties in the construction industry, with the cost of building and of sites falling, which were causing delays to site transactions being completed.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation said one in three schools needed major building work. Into said it "beggared belief" that half the school buildings budget remained unspent.

The Construction Industry Federation also said the department's failure to spend the money allocated to it had cost jobs.

Sunday Independent

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