HAPPIER TIMES The 2016 pupils and staff of Gaelscoil na Cruaiche on the occasion of the school’s twentieth anniversary in 2015. Just five years after they moved into their new school a decision was taken last week to shut the building on health and safety grounds.
Closure recommended of five-year-old school building
SUMMER holidays came almost a week early for pupils at Westport’s Gaelscoil na Cruaiche last week when the Board of Management and Principal took the decision to shut the building early on health and safety grounds.
In recent months there has been increasing concern over the structural integrity of the roof of the building, due to signs that it had been compromised. An engineer’s report last week stated that the building is not fit for purpose. This report was acted on immediately, and the school was shut from Friday, June 24, until further notice.
It is hoped that essential works can be carried out over the summer months to remedy the problems. If this does not happen, 215 pupils and their families, and over 20 school staff, will face a real dilemma in September when the new school term is due to start.
The Department of Education, which was aware of the issues since they arose, has been informed of the decision to close the school. In response to questions from The Mayo News they stated that they are ‘in the process of arranging a meeting between the contractor and the Department’s technical staff to carry out a joint inspection of the roof’.
“Following this meeting a plan will be put in place to have the on-going problems rectified as soon as possible,” the response states, adding: “The Board of Management of the school has been informed of this intention and will be kept updated of all developments,” something the school said is not the case so far. Minister of State for Regional Economic Development Michael Ring has said that he has been in contact with Minister for Education Richard Bruton and officials in his Department, and is pressing the urgency of the matter at every opportunity and in every way he can, including raising it in the Dáil.
“This project cost €1.6 million and professional people were working on it and signed off on it, and now we want to know who they were and how this happened? The taxpayer paid for this project and they cannot be asked to pay for it again.”
After a hard-fought battle over more than a decade, Gaelscoil na Cruaiche finally moved into a permanent state-of-the-art new building in 2011, on the Carrowholly Road in Westport. The Department of Education purchased the site and constructed the large building at considerable cost, before handing it over to the Board of Management and Principal Mairéad Ní Ruáin.
In the last number of months however, it has been obvious that all was not well with the new school. The first sign was flooding at the entrance, which required extra drainage to be installed. This was followed by leaks in the roof and sagging in the ceilings, which necessitated in some instances that structural supports be inserted right in the middle of classrooms, while a section of ceiling had to be replaced.
With mildew starting to appear on walls and an obvious ingress of water, as well as a problem with the ventilation and putrid smells from the sewerage system, the Board of Management and Principal were sufficiently worried and contacted the Department of Education, who told them to get an engineer to investigate their concerns.
Two separate companies were employed to survey the building, one locally and one from Dublin, and in correspondence seen by The Mayo News, they give damning reports.
This includes water-saturated timbers in the roof and wall plates; punctured felt in many places, with structural roof timbers rotting underneath; ventilation ducts disconnected or badly connected, with the end result that the extraction from bathrooms is being sent directly into the attic cavity; and the conclusion that the roof was not constructed with a good level of craftsmanship or in accordance with best practice. Gaps in the roof and ridge boards are evident due to roof deflection (moving).
One of the reports also found that the steel straps used to secure the wall plates were not correctly anchored. Collar ties were too high and above the recommended one-third height in some instances, and timber wall plates were spanning over large openings with no structural support.
The report shows that the roof’s steel straps were only secured to the outside wall face and not the inside. As a result, the weight of the roof caused the wall plate to lift and rotate, and there is evidence of these timber wall plates moving.
Bolts are missing from steel plates, and cracks and fractures are clear in concrete pads. Pictures show timber purlins with inadequate support. One purlin has ‘clearly deflected’, while some have no end supports. Coach bolts are listed as missing in places, and the holes in timbers no longer align, again illustrating movement in the roof.
“There are a number of areas where it was noted that compliance with building control regulations and the associated technical guidance documents have been breached,” one of the reports states.
The cost of having these surveys completed was placed on the school, which is now asking how such a defective building was accepted by the client (The Department of Education) from the contractor, and who signed it off as compliant with regulations and appropriate as a place fit to be a school full of children and teachers.
The engineer’s letter, which the school felt legally obliged to act upon and close the building, stated: “It would be complacent to suggest that the school is fit for purpose, but to the contrary, matters of health and safety have no compromise and therefore I would suggest that the building is not fit for purpose until all matters of structural integrity and health matters are resolved.”
The school has contacted the parents and guardians of all pupils, informing them of these events and why the decision to close the school was taken. The entire school community at Gaelscoil na Cruaiche has backed the decision, with the health and safety of children and staff being of the utmost importance.
The cost of remedying the issues is not yet known. Nor is it known whether the Department of Education will fund the works or seek to have them addressed by the contractors who worked on the build project at Gaelscoil na Cruaiche. The local engineer describes the issues as ‘amounting to an elaborate works programme’ and states that ‘following the Department protocol will likely have to go to an E-Tender process, which would be a minimum of 31 days on-line, followed by a cooling down period of 16 days’.
“All of this is followed by preparation of an agreed ‘Scope of Works’ and ‘Specifications’ for tender purposes. Realistically, the process would consume a time period of three months before one could begin,” he states.
This would means that the work would not be completed by September, creating a real headache for pupils, teachers, parents and all involved with the Westport school, which is too big to simply re-home elsewhere.
However, Principal Mairéad Ní Ruáin told The Mayo News that the problems could be rectified by September 1 if the ‘powers that be’ agree that it needs to be done over the summer months.
“Nobody wanted to close the school, and this step was not taken lightly. We understand the knock-on effect on parents, but the health and safety of the children is paramount and we have a duty of care to them and the staff,” she said.
“We took the school in good faith, that it was suitable and fit for purpose for children, and now it has proved otherwise and it needs to be rectified and can be rectified by September, but only if the Department of Education step up to the mark. We are too large a school to move, so this simply has to be put right while the school is empty over the summer.”
The school is fully subscribed up to 2020 and has a waiting list.
Cathaoirleach of the West Mayo Municipal District, Brendan Mulroy, is inherently familiar with the school, which both his children attended.
“A huge amount of work was done by a lot of families, staff and politicians over many years to get the Gaelscoil a permanent home and to get that project over the line and now just five years later we have what looks like a major problem. There is only one course of action and that is to sort this out and sort it quickly,” he said.
Gaelscoil na Cruaiche was founded in 1995 with five pupils on the roll. In 1996 it received Department of Education recognition, and Mairéad Ní Ruáin was appointed principal, although the school did not receive permanent recognition from the department until 2000.
From 1995 to 1998 the school was located at the site of the old shoe factory on Altamont Street. It then moved to the spot currently occupied by Tesco from 1998 to 2006, and from there it relocated to the Lodge Road from 2006 to 2011, before settling at its current location on the Carrowholly Road.
The building is also occupied by an Irish-speaking playschool (Naíonra na Céimeanna Beaga) and an after-school club, while the facilities are used by many community groups and sporting clubs for classes and get-togethers.
The school currently has 215 pupils, eleven permanent teachers, and numerous part-time teachers, teaching assistants and auxillary and support staff.
At one point during their lengthy campaign for a new home, Gaelscoil Na Cruaiche famously held lessons outdoors on The Octagon in the heart of Westport, with pupils sitting at their desks on the plinth of the monument.