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Topical Issue Debate (Resumed) - Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 762 No. 1

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Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this extremely important issue. It is very important given that yesterday was the final day for receipt of appeals from the small schools that face losing a teacher and face increased class sizes in September 2012. This cut to the pupil-teacher ratio is a cut to front-line services which will predominantly affect small rural schools, schools of minority faith and Gaelscoileanna. The Government tells us that this decision is based primarily on value for money and not on the ideology of the Minister, which I find hard to believe. I am disappointed the Minister is not here, with all due respect to the Minister of State, given that he will be in the Chamber in an hour to take questions.

This is a very important and emotive issue and it is being discussed the length and breadth of this country. We all agree that savings need to be made across all Departments because the country cannot continue to run the deficit that currently exists. However, why has the Minister put forward these proposals before he has consulted the value for money review which so many schools, boards of management and so on, lodged in March 2011? These reviews allowed teaching staff and boards of management to highlight where the necessary savings could be made.

Small rural schools are the lifeblood of rural Ireland. The Department’s own whole school evaluation report clearly demonstrates that small schools throughout the country meet the needs of pupils, parents and teachers. One school in the report is described as a “warm, welcoming, inclusive school, where all pupils are cherished equally”. Another school is described as providing “very good quality learning experiences”. Another quote in the report praises “the total commitment and professionalism of the teacher and her staff in delivering a broad and balanced curriculum”. There are references to the school buildings and grounds being exceptionally well maintained as a location for the education of children, along with parents’ efforts and willingness to fund raise for school infrastructure such as additional accommodation and so on.

The Minister has been disingenuous when he compares the pupil-teacher ratio in small rural schools and small schools with the larger schools. He is not taking cognisance of the multi-class setting in the one classroom. He also talks about increasing the choice of patronage. The Church of Ireland bishops stated that “No single issue has in recent years caused such a degree of anxiety amongst our communities as this one.” A number of schools in the Longford-Westmeath constituency are affected by this.

My local school is Ballynacargy national school, which faces losing a teacher in September due to a decrease in the number of pupils by one. There are excellent teaching staff in the [65]school. Huge resources have been pumped in through the Department’s summer works programme over the last few years, and also through local fund raising. It is a fabulous school and it risks losing one teacher for one pupil. I am a member of the management committee at the local playschool and we have increased our opening hours there in a bid to ensure that people from the locality do not move elsewhere to send their kids to preschool and as a possible result, sending them to alternative primary schools in the county. We have looked at that and we believe that in a short space of time, the pupil numbers will be back up. In the space of 12 months, that will cause a lot of disruption to the school and I ask the Minister of State to look sympathetically on this appeal.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Sean Sherlock): Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. He says we all agree that savings need to be made. If he agrees with that premise, then it is not enough to suggest that he change the pupil-teacher ratio without providing an alternative to make savings.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position on the budgetary measure relating to the staffing of small primary schools, to which I assume he is referring. There is no scope in this year’s departmental budget to reverse this measure or indeed any of the budget measures concerning teacher allocation at second level. Furthermore, the unallocated deficit in the education budget for 2013 is €77 million, and €147 million for 2014. There are no easy solutions to this challenge.

  4 o’clock

The Government has protected education as much as it can. Far greater reductions in the number of public servants are being made in other sectors relative to those in schools, but there are limits on the number of teaching posts we can afford. In the case of primary schools, there is no increase in the staffing schedule general average of 28:1 for the allocation of classroom teachers at primary level. However, there is a phased increase in the pupil threshold for the allocation of classroom teachers in small primary schools. As part of the budget decisions announced, the number of pupils required to gain and retain a teaching post in small primary schools will be gradually increased between September 2012 and September 2014.

The schools concerned are those with four or fewer classroom teachers with enrolments of fewer than 86 pupils.

All schools are being treated equally irrespective of the type of patronage. The Government recognises that small schools are an important part of the social fabric of rural communities. With the notable exception of those Deputies who are in larger conurbations, we all represent constituencies where there are strong and viable rural communities, so we are very conscious of this issue as well. The small schools will continue to be a feature of our education landscape. However, this does not mean that small schools can stand still or never have their staffing levels changed to something that is more affordable and sustainable for these difficult and challenging times.

The teachers in small schools cannot be immune from the requirement that is being asked of all public servants to deliver our public services on a reduced level of resources. Even after all these budget measures are implemented, small schools will, in relative terms, be better staffed than medium to larger schools, which are currently operating at a general average of one classroom teacher for every 28 pupils.

The phasing of these measures can provide the schools concerned with time to consider the potential for amalgamation with other 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. The Department has expanded the existing appeals process so that it is accessible [66]to the 73 small schools that are losing a classroom post as a result of the budget measure. These schools will not lose their classroom post if any of them are projecting increased enrolments in September 2012 that would be sufficient to allow them to retain their existing classroom posts over the longer term. The detailed arrangements are set out in the Department’s staffing circular that is published on the Department’s website. The appeals board meeting is taking place this week and schools will be notified of the outcome as soon as possible.

A value for money examination of small schools, to which the Deputy referred, has been carried out and the Department expects to publish the analysis and findings of that in the near future. I hope this report will foster constructive engagement both in the Oireachtas and among all interested parties in examining the challenges ahead and how best to provide for primary education in rural and dispersed communities.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy The value for money report will be published in the near future but it is disappointing that this decision has already been made. The Minister of State said that it is not fair to say that savings need to be made without saying where the savings should be made. I wish to point to a school, Glen national school, Edgeworthstown, County Longford, which faces losing a teacher. Its nearest school is bursting at the seams and without a shadow of a doubt in the near future people will be coming out from that school. Instead of closing and amalgamating schools why does the Department not consider the possibility of repopulating existing schools rather than constantly expanding already large schools? Why does it not propose taking pupils out of schools that are bursting at the seams and repopulating rural schools?

We have talked about abolishing quangos. The Minister’s predecessor abolished a quango, the National University of Ireland, but the Minister reinstated it at a cost of €3 million per year. Why was that done? Maybe it was done to pacify and satisfy the Minister’s academic friends.

Who will make the decision in the appeals process? Will it be made by the Minister or will he abdicate his responsibility and pass it over to somebody else?

The Minister of State compared small schools and schools with a pupil-teacher ratio of 28:1 but that is not a fair comparison. There are multi-talented children in multi-class settings in smaller schools. The Minister of State knows that, as he, like I, represents a rural constituency.

I ask the Minister of State to refer to this issue in the context of the discussion on opening up the patronage of many schools. The Church of Ireland and other minority faiths have come out quite publicly and said that this will have a detrimental effect on small schools.

We talk about making savings but only yesterday we saw another ministerial adviser has been appointed and once again the salary cap, which the Government promised it would introduce when it came to power, has been exceeded. These are areas where savings could be made. That can be contrasted with a position where schools are at the risk of losing a teacher for the sake of one additional pupil being enrolled for one year. I hope the Minister of State will take on board what I have said.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock With due respect to the Deputy, if he wanted to speak about a particular school in his constituency, I respectfully suggest he should have put that into wording of the text of the matter.

I reiterate that the unallocated deficit in the education budget for 2013 is €77 million and it is €147 million for 2014. If I understand the Deputy correctly, he said that there is a school in his constituency that is bursting at the seams and he asked why do we not take some of pupils out of that school and populate a smaller school in the constituency with them. We are not in the business in this country of engineering solutions whereby we would go into people’s houses and say they must put their son or daughter into a particular school because one school is [67]bursting at the seams and another one is just about thriving. We do not interfere with parental decisions.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy If schools are closed, the Government will interfere with parental decisions.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock We do not interfere with parental decisions as to where they decide to send their children to school. That would set a dangerous precedent if that is what the Deputy is suggesting.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy I did not suggest that we populate——

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock If the Deputy is talking about taking pupils out of schools and putting them into other schools, he is setting a dangerous precedent.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy I am talking about repopulating by way of transport.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock Parental choice as to where one sends one’s child to school is paramount. It is important we recognise that within this State.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy The Minister of State is misrepresenting me. I am talking about repopulating.

Deputy Sean Sherlock: Information on Sean Sherlock Zoom on Sean Sherlock There is not much else I can say. I have said it all.


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