URGENT building inspections went ahead at three Portlaoise primary schools at the weekend, amid concern over students’ safety.
The surveys began last Saturday at three schools on the €8m Summerhill campus built by construction firm Western Building Systems (WBS), the same company that built three Dublin schools that were shut down last week over ‘significant structural safety’ fears.
The three Portlaoise schools – Gaelscoil Phortlaoise, Maryborough NS and Portlaoise Educate Together – were among the first to be tested as part of a national investigation into 40 schools built by WBS. The three schools on the Summerhill campus have more than 800 pupils between them.
A structural survey is also being carried out at Presentation Primary School in Portarlington, the fourth and by far the largest school built by WBS in Laois with 740 students on the school roll.
The inspections in Laois follow the closure of three Dublin schools after serious structural problems were found during fire inspections. All three schools closed are three-storey buildings. The structural survey in Balbriggan disturbingly found an 80% risk of the outer walls collapsing in storm force winds, with a 20% risk of collapse of internal walls in bad weather.
While the structural surveys carried out in Laois await final analysis, initial assessments indicated no issues that would warrant closure of any of the schools.
Speaking to the Laois Nationalist last Friday in advance of the survey, Maryborough NS school principal Brid-Ann Buggie said: “The department has told us not to be too concerned and that it is just protocol. They will be keeping us updated on developments.”
Maryborough NS is a single-storey school with 93 pupils, while both the 393-pupil Gaelscoil and 320-pupil Portlaoise Educate Together are two-storey buildings whose design is similar to the two-storey Presentation Primary School in Portarlington.
The Summerhill and Portarlington schools were all part of a ‘rapid-build’ construction programme carried out by Tyrone-based firm WBS between 2008 and 2013, using a particular construction method of steel frames with timber in-fills. The Portarlington school opened ten years ago, while the three WBS-built primary schools on the Summerhill campus in Portlaoise were completed in 2013.
The structural surveys are particularly examining the cables that secure outer and inner walls, as well as the bolting of timber frames to steel girders. The surveys are being carried out by three teams of independent engineering consultants.
Fire safety audits, similar to those that uncovered structural problems at the Balbriggan school, were carried out at the Portlaoise schools earlier this year and the final reports, issued last June, indicated no serious safety issues.
Portlaoise Educate Together NS issued a statement last week confirming that, according to the Educate Together National Office, the Department of Education was considering carrying out further investigation on WBS schools using a bore scope to minimise disruption.
The Portlaoise school added: “The national office have further advised that they have not been given any information that indicates any immediate danger to persons in our school building, nor any reason why our school should not operate as normal. The national office has been in contact with the department and will communicate any further information as it emerges.”
In a statement on behalf of the school’s board of management in advance of the survey, Gaelscoil Phortlaoise principal Dominic Ó Braonáin said there was no indication of any immediate danger. The statement said: “The board of management have not been given any information that indicates any immediate danger to persons in our school building, or any reason why our school should not operate as normal.”
The Department of Education says that inspected schools “will be vacated only where it is considered necessary to do so. In the event that structural issues are identified in any schools, it may also be possible to manage those issues through engineering solutions, without the need to close the building.”
If closures are needed, the department says it will “work with the schools to put contingency accommodation arrangements in place”. An ‘interim accommodation team’ has been established in the department to look at solutions and consultations have already been held with local authorities and education and training boards (ETBs) to look at alternative accommodation for students and teachers if any school has to be closed temporarily.