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Priority Questions - Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 752 No. 2

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 5.  Deputy Seán Crowe Information on Sean Crowe Zoom on Sean Crowe  asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  the reason he increased class sizes in schools of two, three and four teacher schools in view of the fact that smaller class sizes particularly at infant level would seem to have a positive affect on learning outcomes; and the capital costs that will arise from his decision to pursue a policy that will lead to the amalgamation and closure of small schools. [3234/12]

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The staffing schedule at primary level disproportionately benefits small primary schools. It is worth noting that of the 3,200 primary schools across Ireland, more than two thirds have more than 86 pupils and, as a result, have far higher average class sizes than all of the schools affected by this measure. For example, a two-teacher school with 32 pupils has an average class size of 16 pupils, while a typical ten-teacher school with 272 pupils has an average class size of 27.2 pupils.

It is important to retain a sense of perspective and balance when discussing this matter and to realise the exceptionally favourable supports my Department will continue to provide for small schools. For that reason, as part of the budget 2012 decisions, the number of pupils required to gain and retain a classroom teaching post in small primary schools will be gradually increased between September 2012 and September 2014. Even when all of these phased increases are implemented, the threshold for small schools will be still significantly lower than the minimum of 28 pupils that were required for the appointment of a second teacher in schools prior to the mid-1990s.

Deputy Seán Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe Zoom on Sean Crowe It was in 1991 that the OECD published a report citing the importance of small schools to rural regeneration. What most people want to know is why the Minister is going down this track. Is it to achieve cost savings? If so, what are those savings? He said in his reply that he is trying to spread the increases across the system. Much of the concern is because such schools are part of their communities’ distinct identities. The reports coming back to me, as a public representative, are that the changes announced in the budget will lead to the closure of schools. If the reason for the decision was to try to achieve some sort of rationalisation or amalgamation of schools, changes will be required in the Department. If he is encouraging the amalgamation of small schools, the issue of school sizes needs to be examined. If two schools agree to come together, that is not recognised under the current system. The big concern is that these changes will lead to the closure of more schools. They will also affect rural and Gaeltacht areas that have already suffered due to the closure of Garda stations and post offices. The school is the heart of the community.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I understand what the Deputy is saying; my colleagues in Fine Gael and the Labour Party have articulated similar concerns as conveyed to them. A gradual change in the threshold for a two-teacher school from 12 to 14 pupils, and similar changes for three- and four-teacher schools, is required. The Deputy is correct in stating that if two two-teacher schools were to amalgamate they would be at a disadvantage under the current system. We must examine those anomalies within the system. Nothing will happen quickly on this matter but there is an argument in favour of schools amalgamating if the geography, location and so forth make sense.

I remind Members, as I did on a previous occasion, that we now have 3,200 primary schools. At one time, and I am not referring to the 1800s, there were over 6,000 primary schools in Ireland. Nobody had a motor-car and nobody had a fear of letting their child walk to school [281]whatever the length of that walk. The change must take place. The reason is that this country is in receivership and I must find savings as we cannot afford it.

Deputy Seán Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe Zoom on Sean Crowe People are asking that it be done in a planned and coherent manner as there are all types of sensitivities involved. They are asking that the Minister even signal that he would freeze the September date, which would give them 12 months to prepare. The difficulty is that schools will be pushed to closure as a result of this measure. Some schools are on the edge in this regard. It is also down to demographics. We talk about change in society and we must encourage that. One way of doing that is by keeping the local school open.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn It is not my intention to force the closure of any school. We have given three years for the schools located in affected areas. Some schools will not be affected by this; in fact, the majority will not be affected in one way or another. However, they need to start talking to each other about co-operation and clustering through the INTO, the patron bodies and the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN. There are many models, some of which are working very satisfactorily. If schools wish to talk to us about it, they should do so through their patrons in the context of how best to adapt to the changed circumstances in which we live.

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