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Other Questions - School Staffing

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 752 No. 2

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 6.  Deputy Michael McGrath Information on Michael McGrath Zoom on Michael McGrath  asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  if he has taken on board the concerns of rural communities following the announcement that there will be changes to the staffing schedules for one, two, three and four teacher schools; if he has considered the impact on minority faith schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2935/12]

 8.  Deputy Barry Cowen Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen  asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  if he will provide further details on the proposed changes to the staffing schedules in one, two, three and four teacher schools as outlined in budget 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2914/12]

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 8 together.

  5 o’clock

I am of course aware of concerns that have been expressed in relation to this and other budget measures. At a time of great strain in our public finances, we have to ensure that the very valuable but limited resources available for the education system are used in the best way possible. The staffing schedule at primary level disproportionately benefits small primary schools. It is worth noting that we have 3,200 primary schools across Ireland. Over two thirds of those schools 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 one teacher for 16 pupils. In contrast, 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. The phasing of these measures can provide the schools concerned with time to consider the potential for amalgamation with other [282]schools where this is feasible. If amalgamations take place, they will be voluntary and follow decisions taken by local communities and not by the Department.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith The Minister is aware of how every primary school is an integral part of the local community. Thankfully, over the past decade there has been huge investment in improving the school infrastructure through modernisation, refurbishment and providing new accommodation. All international evidence shows that outcomes from small schools are as good as those from larger schools. In fairness, it is not comparing like with like to compare the pupil-teacher ratio. In a two-teacher school there are a number of separate classes to teach, so the pupil-teacher ratio is not an exact comparison.

I have spoken to the Minister previously about my particular concern about Protestant and minority faith schools, given that I represent Cavan-Monaghan and am familiar with Donegal and other neighbouring counties where there are a number of small schools, predominantly of the Church of Ireland faith but also of other Protestant faiths. I have discovered that the immediate scheduling changes next September will affect 25% of the Church of Ireland schools. I have brought one case to the attention of the Minister previously. A school in my neighbouring parish moved into a brand new school building a few months ago. It is a three-teacher school with an enrolment of 50 pupils. It needed 49 to retain three teachers. Next September the school will have 52. However, in the new schedule proposed by the Minister it would need to have had 51 pupils on 30 September 2011. If that school loses a teacher, it loses one third of its learning support as well.

People would consider that to be a retrospective decision. Will the Minister ensure that where a school met the requirements last September it will not be affected, once it meets the ongoing enrolment requirement?

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn These matters will be examined. The schools can appeal through the appeals mechanism if they can demonstrate that they will be at the required number next year. We know the data; the Department has the numbers of child benefit payments in the area. This is not an assault on rural Ireland but an attempt to secure some reasonable savings at a time when we must get such savings while, at the same time, maintaining the fabric of rural areas during the second decade of the 21st century, which is totally different from what it was 40 years ago, let alone 140 years ago.

Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen I realise funding is a major issue for the Minister. It is something on which he predicates his replies, both written and oral, to Members. However, the Government’s decisions have been taken collectively and it has made the decision to proceed with these cuts in the education sector. I have a few questions that arise from the Minister’s replies. Does he believe that these schools are too expensive to retain? Does he believe that various investments in capital infrastructure in these schools over the last number of years was wrong, ill-advised and a waste of money? Some of these schools have been hit with this cut in the pupil-teacher ratio, DEIS cuts, higher transport costs and cuts in back to school allowances. Is it death by a thousand cuts? Can the Minister bring forward specific proposals relating to minority faith schools? The Minister has referred to amalgamation in many of his replies on this issue. Has the Department carried out an audit of cost savings that could be achieved through rural school amalgamations throughout the country? There must be pockets of the country where this is more evident, such as in Gaeltacht areas and where there are minority faith areas such as in Cavan and Monaghan.

[283]Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The Deputy asked five or seven supplementary questions. I will take note of them as I might have to reply to them in writing. There are fixed standing charges for a school, such as insurance, which take no account of the size of the school in real terms. There are other related costs, regardless of whether the school has 50 or 150 pupils. There are disproportionate costs for smaller schools, but they tend to be in rural areas where they are isolated. However, the level of isolation now, given the use of motorised transport in those communities, is different from what it was 15 or 20 years ago, notwithstanding the downturn in the economy.

When these measures are introduced across the country by the end of 2014 the pupil-teacher ratios will still be very favourably biased or skewed in favour of rural areas. They will be far different and far more beneficial for the rural community than are the current pupil-teacher ratios for urban areas. That is what we are trying to reconcile. It is essentially a cost measure.

Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen Will the Minister respond in writing to the other questions?

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I will refer back to the Deputy.

Deputy Willie Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose Zoom on Willie Penrose On rural schools, and particularly three-teacher schools, 49 is the current number of pupils required. In September 2012, there are four schools in my constituency that will have 51, 54 and 52 pupils respectively. That means they exceed the number. Is it not foolhardy to take a teacher out of those schools in September 2012 and have to put the teacher back in the school in 2013? That is a recipe for a mess. There is no gain in it.

Second, the school transport system is falling asunder because it has become so costly. Amalgamation is not the panacea where schools are in widely dispersed rural geographical areas. I can provide the names of schools. I have spoken privately to the Minister about Killasonna national school, Bunlahy national school and Scoil Bhríde, Glen, Edgeworthstown.

The Minister has the projections and knows these schools will not be able to fool him next September. Retrospection, an issue raised by Deputy Smith, is key. The schools should be given an opportunity to achieve the targets in September 2012. If they do so, they will then know the targets for 2013 and 2014 and will not be in a position to keen and cry. The Minister is entitled to set targets but he must give the schools concerned a chance in 2012. I have a suggestion in this regard. When people from an urban area into a rural area with an expanding population, the local school should be classified as a developing school. A submission could then be made in June that the school is developing and will have the required numbers. Now that the computer systems of the various Departments are talking to one another, officials can examine issues such as children’s allowance statistics, social welfare payments and so forth. Let us take this approach because it is a fair one.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett On the same theme, I was contacted by Scoil Bhríde in Glen, Edgeworthstown, County Longford, a three teacher school with 49 pupils. It informs me that, as a result of the budget, it will lose a teacher if it does not increase numbers to 51. It argues that it could meet this target by September but needs to be given some breathing space and an opportunity to do so as it will otherwise become unviable due to the loss of one teacher. This is a reasonable plea.

I disagree with all the cuts in the Department as there is no justification for any of them.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The Deputy disagrees with reality.

[284]Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett That is not the case. It is unconscionable to cut teacher numbers and rob our children of their education. If we cannot deal with the general issue, can we at least give the schools concerned some breathing space?

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I appeal to the Minister, as Deputy Penrose did, to examine the practical option of taking a retrospective view as of 30 September as this would enable schools to exceed the required enrolment. Until the budget was introduced, learning support and resource hours could be combined to make one full-time post in a school. This is no longer the case and the scenario that has been put to me is that this could result in two teachers going to two different schools on the same day. I understand it has been suggested to the unions that this matter can be fixed through local arrangements. Will the Minister reverse this decision and deal with the issue in a practical manner by allowing learning support and resource hours to be combined if the number of hours is such that it necessitates a full-time appointment? This would reduce unnecessary waste in terms of travel and teachers’ time.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn Deputy Smith has raised another element, namely, resource teachers and people spending teaching time in the car travelling between schools. We are examining how we can eliminate this type of waste of everyone’s time.

To return to the central point raised by Deputies Boyd Barrett and Penrose, schools in rural areas have been given a signal that the pupil-teacher ratio will be changed in the next three years. I will respond flexibly if we are given the facts. There is now an onus on schools and their patrons to look at what will be the future population of a particular area. As I indicated previously, the Department is now linked with the Department of Social Protection and every child benefit payment is geographically and electronically tracked. As a result, we know what will be the population cohort in two, three or four years when a child presents.

As Deputy Penrose noted, the developing schools model serves as an example. We do not want to get into the nonsense of removing a teacher from a school in year X only to bring the teacher back in year X plus one. That approach is not common sense. By the same token, however, we have to change and move to a position in which we retain a biased pupil-teacher ratio in favour of rural schools on the basis of the nature of the location of such schools.

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