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November 11, 2010

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Irish schools deemed unsafe – but which ones?

An alleged lack of government investment in Irish schools has led to seven being served with enforcement notices for health and safety failings – but the regulator is not obliged to identify the schools involved owing to a “bizarre” exclusion in the country’s freedom of information laws.

Ireland’s Sunday Independent newspaper reported last weekend that the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has issued Improvement Notices to five primary schools and Prohibition Notices to two secondary schools since last year. The revelation came just a week after the Education minister admitted that the school building budget had been underspent by €50 million, and the higher-education institutions’ budget by €32 million.

According to the newspaper, this prompted several school principals to protest that pupils and teaching staff have had to endure problems such as rat infestations, sewerage odours and damp for years. It added that requests to the Department of Education for funds for repairs and new buildings are often based on health and safety grounds.

This was backed up by Irish teaching union the INTO, which told SHP: “It is absolutely right that schools have used health and safety legislation to get things done – that is what it’s there for. Schools have had reports done by health and safety consultants to back up their case for remedial works. Of course there is genuine concern among teachers about the state of the buildings in which they are working, especially when young children are also present.”

Since 2009, the HSA has inspected 202 primary schools and 144 secondary schools but, following a specific amendment to the country’s Freedom of Information Act, it is no longer obliged to furnish any details about the enforcement action it takes. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive publishes details of all enforcement action – including Improvement and Prohibition Notices issued – freely on its website.

When asked why it doesn’t do the same with information that is clearly in the public interest, a spokesperson for the HSA explained that because the regulator’s activity comes under “law enforcement and security”, information on it is exempt from release. He added: “You cannot ask us who we have issued notices against but if you know who received one and provide a name, we will confirm. We cannot proactively inform, just confirm.”

The INTO described the situation as “bizarre”. It said: “It is wrong that this information is not covered by the FOIA – parents and teachers are entitled to know about these things.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has been at pains to point out significant capital is being invested in schools projects this year. Said minister Mary Coughlan TD: “In excess of €450 million has already been spent this year from the capital budget. In total, it is expected that by the end of 2010, 53 new schools will have commenced on site this year. We are continuing to roll out a vastly improved infrastructure for those at all stages of their education.”

The HSA, too, is focusing more effort on the sector as the size of traditionally resource-heavy industries like construction and manufacturing has dwindled in the recession. It recently issued guidelines for post-primary schools on managing health and safety, while in February, health and safety was included as a module in the national curriculm for secondary-school students.

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