Tuesday, 24 October 2006
Question 98: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the way she proposes to respond to the 200,000 plus parents demanding that the Government implement the promised reduction in class sizes in primary schools contained in the programme for Government in 2002. [34145/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 98 and 120 together.
The parental representations to which Deputy Crowe's question refers were given to me in the form of a petition by the INTO. In response to that petition, I wrote to all schools pointing out the huge progress that has been made in providing extra staff to our primary schools in recent years.
As the Deputies will be aware, there are now, compared to 2002, no less than 4,000 extra teachers in our primary schools. Furthermore, there are almost 7,000 more primary teachers than there were in 1997. This represents the largest increase in teacher numbers since the expansion of free education. The average class size in our primary schools is 24 and there is now one teacher for 17 pupils at primary level, including resource teachers.
The number of children in large classes has been significantly reduced. When the Government entered office, there were more than 52,000 children in classes of 35 and over — five times the number that there were in the last school year. There were also more than 1,900 children in classes of 40 and over, compared to just over 200 in the last school year.
While I appreciate the need to make further progress in reducing class size, it should be acknowledged just how much has been achieved. In recent years, priority has rightly been given to providing extra support for children with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and those that need help with English. Special education provision in particular has undergone a level of expansion the extent of which nobody could have predicted a few years ago, and this was only right. If we had put all 4,000 of the teachers hired since 2002 into classroom teaching, our average class size would be a lot smaller than it is now. However, we would have done a great disservice to those children who need extra help the most. I am sure the Deputies will accept that we have taken the correct approach.
Now that children with special needs are finally getting the support they deserve, we are providing extra teachers this year and next specifically to reduce class sizes, through a reduction in the mainstream staffing schedule. This has meant that, whereas all primary schools were staffed on a general rule of at least one classroom teacher for every 29 children in the 2005-06 school year, in the current year the number is 28. Schools with only one or two teachers have much lower staffing ratios than that, with two teachers for just 12 pupils in some cases. The general rule, however, is that there should be at least one classroom teacher for every 28 children in the school. Next year, we are committed to hiring even more extra teachers in order to reduce this to a general rule of at least one teacher for every 27 children.
We also acted this year to specifically address the needs of growing schools by making it easier to qualify for developing school posts. Over 280 such posts were sanctioned for the 2006-07 school year, compared to 170 in 2005-06. This change specifically addressed the needs of schools that are seeing large increases in their enrolments year on year.
Significant progress has, therefore, been made by the Government in reducing class size, in providing extra support for children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas and in addressing the specific needs of schools in developing areas. Nonetheless, I assure the Deputies that we will continue to prioritise further improvements in school staffing going forward. I also assure them that we will also continue our focus on measures to improve the quality of education in our primary schools to ensure that increased resources lead to better outcomes for our children.
Everyone accepts that progress has been made but the Minister must accept that there is overcrowding in many classrooms. The figures in my possession indicate that 111,000 primary school pupils are in classes of 30 or more. This means that more than one in four of the State's 442,000 primary school students are in such classes. Does the Minister agree that this is unfair on students and on their teachers? In many cases, this is not conducive to learning, it contributes to indiscipline and it hampers the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that small class sizes must be maintained from early years right through children's education because this would prove beneficial? When does she propose to reduce class sizes to the 20:1 ratio promised by the Government?
As already stated in respect of a previous question, there is no correlation between small classes and higher standards. Reports indicate that this is the case in respect of literacy and maths. Notwithstanding that and in light of the integration of children with special needs and the greater needs that exist in disadvantaged areas, I recognise the importance of reducing class sizes. Approximately 500 teachers were appointed this year with the aim of reducing the class size schedule and there is a commitment to reduce it further next year.
If classes are very large in particular schools, it is because such schools have made local agreements to divide classes in a certain way. I have studied the figures and monitored schools which chose to put in place small classes at one level and those with over 30 students at another level. There seems to be some objection, particularly in urban areas, to teaching split classes. More than half of our schools have mixed grade classes. This system has worked extraordinarily well for generations but schools in urban areas refuse to put it in place and opt for larger classes in some years and smaller classes in others.
On the general allocation, there is a teacher for every 28 pupils. I refer here only to mainstream classroom teachers and am not referring to resource teachers, etc, of which there is one for every 17 students. Next year, the general allocation will be reduced to one for every 27 pupils.
The Minister indicated that there are just over 200 children in classes of 40 or more. The figure for the past year was 287. A total of 1,792 pupils — the highest in the country — in Cork county are in classes of between 35 and 39. I do not believe that the argument that schools opt to have lower numbers in particular years is always fair. It is not the case in every instance.
Over a year ago, the Minister spoke about the number of teachers provided to schools with non-national students and she said she hoped to make some progress. Has any progress been made? This is a key difficulty for some schools in which there is a significant number of non-national children. There have also been problems with children changing schools during term time as their families have moved, with schools in Newbridge being the most recent example. Has the Minister any ideas to address that problem?
The figure of 287 referred to two schools that shared one number, so the real figure is 206. However, there should not be any child in a class of that size. When we checked with those schools, in most cases the school was awaiting accommodation under the building programme.
We have made progress on the issue of non-national students, especially in the allocation of extra teachers as well as in providing training supports for teachers. There is a problem with children moving school during term time. I really wish that parents who are choosing to move house within term time would make arrangements for their children to be in a school at the beginning of the school term. It is entirely unacceptable, in the educational interests of their children, that they would have checked out the colour scheme in the bathroom of their new house but would not have found out if a place was available for their child within a school. The Department, local schools, patrons of schools and boards of management cannot predict what kind of family will move into a particular house in a particular estate. This is causing pressures and we will respond to those pressures as quickly as possible. However, I ask that local communities do not object to the temporary accommodation provided to facilitate these children. We need to provide the spaces for them. If parents are moving house during term time, they must make sure that they have made arrangements for their children's education.
Is the Minister aware of the widespread anger among parents and teachers about class sizes? Does she support the campaign by the INTO on this issue? The Minister can blame parents and the housing situation, but there is no excuse not to have proper class sizes in schools, with all the money in the State. Will the Minister continue to prioritise this issue? The programme for Government committed to a pupil teacher ratio of 20:1. Parents and teachers need answers to these questions because they are very important. The Cabinet is fast asleep on this issue. Will she put pressure on members of the Cabinet to do something in the budget about class sizes?
I accept the point the Minister made when she said that parents should make provision when they are moving. However, I saw the television clip involving two school principals in Newbridge. They said that they have been demanding more capacity for their pupils for years, so the issue is not just about parents failing to make provision for their child a month before they move. Has the Minister plans to improve the situation to enable the Department to intervene early enough to provide schools and classrooms for children so that they are there when the houses are built?
I remember when the development plan for Kildare was being carried out and the land was being rezoned. The point was made that the schools would not be in place at the appropriate time. That was predicted several years ago and that is exactly what has happened. Does the Minister accept that there is a different need in areas that are rapidly developing? Students showing up during term time is only a symptom of that. There is a lack of provision in the rapidly expanding areas.
The provision of schools in developing areas is a matter of concern for the Department. That is why we have carried out studies on developing areas. Long-term and short-term plans have prioritised schools in developing areas to try to ensure that places are made available. If the Deputies look at the schools that are currently being built in those areas, they will see that families that move from one school to another during term are causing a big problem to both schools.
If any Member of the House wishes to tell me that we should have reduced class size before we dealt with children with special needs, before we targeted disadvantaged or before we aimed for integration of children——
Government is about priority and our prioritisation is directed towards those who need it most. Those who needed it most were special needs children, disadvantaged children and children with language difficulties.