Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Pupil-Teacher Ratio: Motion
That Dáil Eireann in view of the promise in the programme for Government 2007 to reduce class sizes, by reducing the staffing schedule from a general rule of at least one teacher for every 27 pupils in 2007-08, by one point a year, to one teacher for every 24 pupils by 2010-11;
calls on the Government to:
prevent the following primary schools from losing a teacher for the school year 2008-09 or any other schools that might be similarly affected:
SN Naomh Pádraig, Baile Uí Mhurchadha, An Bhuirgheas, Co. Cheatharlach
Our Lady of Mercy, Bantry, Co. Cork
SN Bharra Naofa do Bhuachaillí, Beaumont, Cork City
Christ King Mon, Turners Cross, Cork City
St. Columba's Boys NS, Douglas, Cork City
Baldoyle BNS, Brookstone Road, Baldoyle, Dublin 13
St. Patrick's NS, Chapelizod, Dublin 20
Corpus Christi NS, Home Farm Road, Drumcondra, Dublin 9
SN an Spioraid Naoimh, GNS, Sillogue Road, Ballymun, Dublin 11
St. Killian's Senior NS, Castleview, Tallaght, Dublin 24
Presentation Primary School, Terenure, Dublin 6W
St. Kevin's Junior NS, Newbrook Ave, Donaghmede, Dublin 13
Scoil Phádraig Naofa Boys NS, Hollypark, Foxrock, Dublin 18
St. Mary's Senior NS, Rowlagh, Clondalkin, Dublin 22
Scoil Cholmcille Naofa, Knocklyn, Templeogue, Dublin 16
St. Francis Xavier Senior NS, Coolmine, Castleknock, Dublin 15
St. Patrick's Girls NS, Foxrock Avenue, Foxrock, Dublin 18
Scoil Mhuire, Killorglin, Co. Kerry
Scoil Eoin, Tralee, Co. Kerry
Aghards NS, Celbridge, Co. Kildare
Mercy Convent Primary School, Naas, Co. Kildare
JFK Memorial School, Ennis Road, Limerick
Muire na nGael NS, Bay Estate, Dundalk, Co. Louth
Oliver Plunkett NS, Navan, Co. Meath
Rathoath Jnr NS, Ratoath, Co. Meath
SN an Spioraid Naoimh, Laytown, Co. Meath
Rathcormack NS, Rathcormack, Co. Sligo
Scoil na mBráithre, Tipperary, Co. Tipperary.
I propose to share time with Deputies Ulick Burke, Deirdre Clune, John Perry, Olivia Mitchell, P. J. Sheehan, Tom Sheahan and Jimmy Deenihan.
The motion is relatively straightforward. It deals with an issue of fundamental importance in education, namely, how we can give our children the best start in their journey through school. It specifically addresses promises made and broken by a Government which treats local school communities as mere pawns on a chess board, there to be used and abused as fodder for the Fianna Fáil Party at election time. In short, class size matters and the scandal of super-size classes being acceptable in education must become a thing of the past.
It matters that six and seven year old children must try to learn in classes of 30 pupils or more, many weaker pupils are being left behind because crowd control is now the order of the day in so many of our schools, Ireland has one of the highest average class sizes in the European Union and this Administration has reneged on a clear commitment that this issue would be addressed in its first three years. Instead of making progress on class size, we have been moving in the opposite direction in recent years.
The new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has a golden opportunity to wipe the slate clean and begin delivering on the promises made so forcefully by his party only 12 months ago. He could send out the most positive signal to date on class sizes by agreeing to this motion, the terms of which would prevent the loss of teachers in schools from September only where they would otherwise have kept the teachers had the Government kept its word.
Meeting the terms of the motion would not create a significant cost in the context of the Department's €9.3 billion expenditure allocation for this year. The Minister would give a small sign of goodwill and show flexibility on this issue if he were to accept the motion which would only affect a small number of schools. The schools cited would not lose a teacher if the Government had kept its word. This is the reality they face. Amending the staffing schedule is possible for the schools in question and would indicate a strong sign of intent on the Minister's part that he takes seriously the issue of class size and intends to deliver on it during his stay in Marlborough Street.
Six years after Fianna Fáil promised that by 2007 no child of nine years or under would be in a class of 20 or more, at least 200,000 children find themselves in this position. We do not know if this promise still holds. I want the Minister to state unequivocally where he stands on the commitment. Has he dumped the promise made by his party in 2002 or is it still a priority? This is a straight question to which I want him to give a straight answer on the record tonight.
All the evidence shows that early intervention and small class sizes, particularly for younger children, make a major difference in terms of giving children the best start in school. While smaller classes are not of themselves the only factor in improved educational outcomes, when allied to school leadership, professional development, learning supports and support for special needs, these factors can make all the difference in the early years.
I have been the Fine Gael Party education spokesperson for the past eight months and throughout that time I have not yet met anyone involved in education who can justify how a young child can possibly be given every opportunity in large classes. It is beyond comprehension that in 2008 anyone would claim that seven year old children can get the attention they deserve in classes with as many as 35 children. The motion is important because the Minister can start a process, albeit in a small way, by sending out a signal that large classes in our primary schools will not be tolerated and will become a thing of the past.
The Minister will no doubt point to the new teachers who are being appointed and inform us again of the commitment in the programme for Government to provide 4,000 additional teachers during the lifetime of this Administration. What he will not tell the House is that the vast majority of new teachers appointed will simply go to serve the massive intake of new children entering our primary school system every year. We have more teachers because we have more children coming into the system. Unless a start is made on reducing the staffing schedule, no progress will be made on eliminating large class sizes.
The schools referred to in the motion have been the victims of a Soviet-style planning system which the Department of Education and Science describes as the "staffing schedule". On one day last year — 30 September — the Department asked schools all over the country how many children were on their rolls. In the vast majority of the schools referred to in the motion, last year's enrolment showed numbers had fallen by one or two on the previous year. This small change has resulted in the loss of a teacher in each of the 28 schools despite the fact that many of them have enrolled more children since 30 September last year. This is a ridiculous way to run a system. Schools which experienced a tiny reduction in their numbers were confident they would not lose a teacher because the programme for Government includes a commitment to reduce the staff schedule. However, the commitment was made before the election when, in typical Fianna Fáil style, promises were made to be broken.
Many Deputies will use this debate to place on record the implications of this broken promise for schools in their constituencies and we make no apologies for doing so. One of the schools listed in the motion is in my constituency of Dublin South-West. The implication for St. Killian's senior national school, which is in my parish of Kingswood Heights in Tallaght, is that the four current fifth classes will have to be reorganised as three sixth classes, each with 30 pupils. Such a measure would break the Department's guidelines on maximum class size. Moreover, each of the three classes will contain pupils with special educational needs who need additional one-to-one attention due to their circumstances. The teacher who will be lost to St. Killian's is currently doing postgraduate work and study in the area of inclusion and special educational needs. This is an example of a real teacher in a real school being let down by the Minister's stroke politics.
During Question Time last week, the Minister suggested his Department's failure to adhere to the proposed staffing schedule was due to the current economic and budgetary environment and a need for prudent expenditure and fiscal management. However, in light of the already overcrowded conditions in classrooms, significant evidence of chronic under-funding of schools, over-reliance on temporary accommodation, dependence on voluntary contributions from parents, cutbacks in grants for minor works and summer works, excessive waiting lists for special needs assessment and services as well as excessive water charges, the commitment on class sizes is the latest in a long line of promises to be broken by the Government and the current programme for Government is not yet one year old. Now is not the time to make education pay for the economic incompetence of this Administration.
Irish class sizes are among the largest in the EU and regarding the OECD — they are just above Korea, Chile, Japan, Turkey, Israel and Brazil. At primary level, the average class size across OECD countries is 22 students per class, while the average in the EU is 20.3. The average primary school class in Ireland comprises 24.3 pupils. We have a long way to go.
Since the start of this year I have tried to obtain from the Minister for Education and Science the list of schools that would lose out from this broken promise. I was first told it was about 50 schools. Having raised the matter as a priority question on 9 April, I was told that information would be sent soon after. As the then Minister, Deputy Hanafin, left the Department by the back door, I finally got the list on 6 May and it contained the names of 40 schools that would lose out. However, when the schools were contacted, only 28 were sure that they had received correspondence from the Department confirming that they would lose a teacher this September. Either some schools still have to be informed by the Minister and his Department or I have deliberately been given misinformation by the Minister. Either way, it represents a shocking indictment of the Minister and his Department, and the way in which schools are routinely treated.
Members opposite have a choice to make tonight and tomorrow night. They either support schools in their own areas and the commitments made in the programme for Government or they can face the wrath of those communities. I propose this motion and I submit that this is the way forward and must play a part in education.
I second Deputy Hayes' motion in the name of the Fine Gael Party and I thank him for sharing time with me. This Private Member's motion highlights the Government's failure to adhere to a commitment in the programme for Government to reduce class size on a year by year basis, eventually ensuring that there will be one teacher for every 24 students by 2011. It remains unclear how many schools and teachers will be affected by this failure. Some 28 schools have declared a loss of teachers, but many others will receive notification of further cuts from the Department in the next couple of months.
The new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has suggested that his Department's failure to adhere to the proposed staffing schedule is due to the current economic and budgetary environment. However, the Government also reneged on its commitment during the Celtic tiger era of budget surpluses. The programme for Government in 2002 stated that the Government would continue to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in our schools and would progressively introduce maximum class guidelines, ensuring that the average class size for children under nine would be below the international best practice ratio of 20:1. When the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, was challenged on those promises, she admitted that this was a noble aspiration. Nothing has been done on this issue since then.
The programme for Government in 2007 stated that the Government would increase the number of primary teachers by at least 4,000, which would enable it to reduce class sizes, while the pupil-teacher ratio would be reduced from 27:1 in 2007 to 24:1 in 2012. It was agreed to reduce class sizes, but the Government did a U-turn on the issue when it abandoned the commitment for economic reasons in last December's budget. The programme for Government pledged to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 26:1 by September 2008, but the Government reneged on this promise earlier this year. As a result, schools that would have kept their full complement of teachers will instead see teachers sacked. I ask the Minister to rescind his predecessor's order regarding the schools involved.
There are overcrowded classrooms across the country, with 200,000 pupils in classes of 20 or more. The OECD report stated that Irish classes are the largest in Europe, with an average of 25 per class in 2005. In County Galway, there has been an increase in the number of students in classrooms with over 30 pupils from 2,500 in 2001 to 2,787 in 2007. A quarter of all students in Galway are in classes of 30 or more. Can the Minister state that he is committed to reduce class sizes to that planned originally in 2002, or even that planned in 2007? I support themotion.
I congratulate Deputy Brian Hayes on his tenacity in bringing this motion before the House tonight. It is an issue that was extremely important in last year's general election. We all remember the campaign by the INTO to highlight the fact that the previous Government did not follow through on its commitment to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in classrooms, particularly in primary education. That was a real issue for parents, students and teachers.
The Minister represented my constituency of Cork South Central until the last election. In that area, three schools are losing teachers. The boys' schools in Turner's Cross and Beaumont are losing one teacher each, while the boys' school in Douglas is losing two teachers. I spoke to the principals of those schools and they are not losing teachers because of falling numbers but because of a commitment made by the Government that it would reduce the pupil-teacher ratio from 27:1 to 26:1 and because they based their enrolment policy last year on that commitment. Last week, they received a letter from the Department stating that they would be losing those teachers, even though there will be extra demand for places in some of those schools this September. This means that the pupil-teacher ratio will go up instead of down. That is the sting in the tail for those schools.
What is so disappointing is that this does not really involve a large amount of money as each post would cost about €60,000. Even just restricting this to the 28 schools that are losing teachers, it is not a great amount of money in the overall budget. The Minister and his colleagues should consider this motion. Many of them made a commitment in front of packed halls last year to pupils that they would support a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio. Now is their opportunity to do it. It will not break the budget and I ask the Minister to look at this issue. It is his first opportunity to come before this House for Private Members' business and it would be a break with precedent set by his colleague.
The OECD report showed that 4.6% of our GDP is spent on education. That is very low compared to the OECD average of 5.8%. I heard Professor Drumm on the radio suggesting we should not compare ourselves to Germany in respect of health spending because it has an older population. If that is the case, we should be spending above the EU average because our population is so young. The pupil-teacher ratio is not just about space for desks or cubic capacity for pupils but about giving teachers an opportunity to do the job they are trained to do: imparting information, supporting individual students and helping pupils with needs. Anyone who visits a school will see it is not a question of standing in front of rows of students and using a blackboard but of group teaching and supporting students in groups, which demands more attention and time from teachers. It is not rocket science that the fewer students a teacher has, the more support can be given to individual students. It is accepted Government policy and I ask the Minister to review this matter. It is small beer in the overall scheme of things but it will make a major difference to these schools, pupils and teachers.
I thank Deputy Brian Hayes for tabling this motion. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well.
Last year we had a crisis in schools because of water charges and a few months later some national schools are engulfed in a crisis of cuts in staff numbers. The importance of a first-class primary education cannot be stressed enough because it is the foundation of all further education and the period in which lifelong aspects of personal character are initiated and shaped. A well educated population has been the cornerstone of our economic success. Investment in education has delivered a well educated, highly confident and motivated population well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities in the global economy. After last year's election the agreed programme for Government promised to reduce class size. Specifically, the Government said that class sizes were to be reduced in 2008-09 and over the following three years.
I am delighted that people from Rathcormac national school are here this evening. On 30 September last year the school had 229 children on the roll, in line with the expected retention figure as outlined in the Government's commitment to reducing class sizes, but recent U-turns by the Fianna Fáil-led Government has decreed that this enrolment figure is not high enough to retain all current staff members. As a result of the Government decision not to honour its commitment to reduce class size each year over the next three years, Rathcormac national school has been informed that one teaching post is to be suppressed on 31 August. Once more, the Government has broken its promise to the parents of school-going children and let down the children. My son attends a class of 34 students so I speak with knowledge.
School enrolment figures are set to rise in Rathcormac national school for the foreseeable future. Next September it is expected that 233 pupils will attend the school. If the school must reduce the number of teachers by one in August 2008, this year's expected increase in pupils will mean that the school will be entitled to appoint a teacher in September 2009. It is absurd that the school will lose a teacher because of the number of pupils in the school on 30 September last year, yet class sizes are projected to go up in the current year. The school will have more pupils and one fewer teacher to teach them. The suppression of this post will have serious repercussions for the school. Not only will the school lose a teacher with a wealth of experience and expertise in the area of special education, it will be forced to replace her with a teacher who has responsibility for a mainstream class. The obvious knock-on effect will be larger classes. I urge the Minister to review the decision and not reduce the number of teachers in Rathcormac national school.
It makes no economic sense to fire a teacher in August 2008 and reappoint another teacher in September 2009. A little flexibility and common sense is required in the case of Rathcormac national school. The educational needs of the pupils of this country demand that the Fianna Fáil-led Government should honour its commitment in all aspects of primary education. It must increase capitation grants and it should preserve the capital investment programme and reinstate the summer works scheme. Otherwise, parents will be driven back to endless local fundraising to ensure the best education for their children. These steps are essential requirements so that teachers are provided with the best possible circumstances within which to deliver a first-class primary education to the young people. I ask the Minister to intervene in the Rathcormac national school situation.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion because this time last year the Government made serious commitments on class sizes and at every single door on which Members knocked they witnessed frustration and fury from parents and teachers. On foot of that campaign, commitments were given and promises were made, and while they were not to the desired extent, they were realistic and achievable but now they have been reneged on. People believed those promises notwithstanding the promises of the previous election regarding the pupil-teacher ratio of 20:1 for nine year olds, which has gone up. The most recent commitment has been reneged on and since the budget we know that the class size commitment will not be met. What disturbs me is that there is no intention of meeting it.
There is a simultaneous clampdown in the school building programme. One cannot increase the number of teachers if rooms are not provided. The Government clearly intends to provide neither teachers nor rooms, which go hand in hand. It is one thing to teach many pupils in a modern, bright, airy, purpose-built classroom but it is another matter to teach the same number in a dilapidated, cramped, isolated prefab. The outcome for children must be sub-optimal.
In my constituency, schools await accommodation for the class sizes they have at present, never mind the promised smaller classes. When Deputies, as public representatives, ask a question about the status of the school on the waiting list we get the same inane answer, that the matter is being considered on an ongoing basis in the context of a multi-annual programme.
That is nonsense and it means nothing. It is utterly frustrating for schools. Recently, the answers have become more frustrating, referring to the economic climate, budgetary constraints and the need for responsible spending. The suggestion seems to be that looking for spending and classrooms for children is somehow profligate and irresponsible and that we are feckless spendthrifts to suggest it. If the Government thinks spending on education is feckless, there is no hope for the future. This spending is vital investment in our future productive stream and is precisely the kind of investment our new Taoiseach said would be given priority in the new economic climate. We have less money but what could be more important use than spending money on our children? As parents, no matter how hard times get and how little money we have, we prioritise our children and expect the Government to do the same. It is shameful and short-sighted to do anything less.
In St. Colmcille's, Knocklyon, one of the biggest schools in the country is about to lose a teacher in September. Some 500 children are taught in prefabs that are so old and dilapidated that their condition cannot even be maintained. I thought about the terrible conditions of the hedge schools of old but they did not have the class sizes of today nor the challenges teachers must face today.
In Divine Word, Rathfarnham, there are three sets of isolated prefabs with no commitment to build although one was given before the election. Now, three junior infants classes must be merged with two senior infants classes. This is taking place all over the constituency. So much for a reduced pupil-teacher ratio — the opposite is happening.
The situation is outrageous at Our Lady's Grove. It got the go-ahead through the stages of planning, up to having planning permission, but now it is told the project cannot go to tender. Two teachers who retired from the school recently spent their entire teaching careers in pre-fabs. The conditions of these schools are sub-optimal from a learning point of view. Even if the promise to decrease the pupil-teacher ratio was to be kept, they have no meeting rooms or, in many cases, PE facilities. Cloakrooms and toilets are being converted to facilitate meetings, breaks and special needs supports. Small prefabs are being partitioned off into even smaller inadequate spaces. This is the stuff of the Third World.
Holy Trinity national primary school in Stepaside, a newly developing area in my constituency, is now entering its fourth year in prefabs. It has spent more than €1 million already on prefabs and site works for prefabs. This is money down the drain. Parents will not commit to a school that has not received a commitment in regard to a school building and has been told not to apply for planning permission.
I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, on tabling this motion. I also congratulate my county colleague, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, on his elevation to the position of Minister for Education and Science. I hope he will bring some good news in respect of this Ministry before the year is out.
We are here tonight a year after the general election that saw Fianna Fáil Deputies opposite elected on a promise to reduce class sizes by one pupil every year for four years. However, Fianna Fáil Members and their groupies, including the Green Party, the Progressive Democrats and associated Independents, will vote en masse tomorrow night to break that promise to the schoolchildren of Ireland. Another broken Fianna Fáil election promise. Has the Minister no shame? He is not robbing children of their lollipops but of much more, including his respect and that of his party. He is not only breaking the promise for this year but will continue to break that promise every year for the next four years.
I speak tonight on behalf of the pupils, parents and staff of Our Lady of Mercy School, Bantry, and Scoil Mhuire national school, Schull, both of which are located in the heart of my constituency of Cork South-West. I hope the Fianna Fáil public representatives for Cork county, including my constituency colleague, Deputy Christy O'Sullivan, will stand behind me and vote to retain the teachers at Our Lady of Mercy School, Bantry, and Scoil Mhuire national school, Schull.
I am disappointed but not surprised that it is a Cork Minister for Education and Science who is now forcing the principals of Our Lady of Mercy School, Bantry, and Scoil Mhuire national school, Schull, to sack one of their teachers. I accept this is not the Minister's fault but I hope he will correct it. The Minister has inherited a false promise from his predecessor, former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, who two weeks before the last general election gave a commitment to reduce class sizes, thus hoodwinking many voters and saving Fianna Fáil many seats that it would otherwise have lost. However, she has paid the price and been moved sideways to other pastures. The electorate will have its chance for revenge in the local elections next year.
In a time of economic contraction, it is the Minister's job to protect the interests of our school-going children. If he were to amend the order and allow these 40 schools to at least maintain the status quo, he would be doing his job. Just over three hours ago I was contacted about Scoil Mhuire national school in Schull which was informed today that it will lose a teacher in September, reducing it from a five teacher to a four teacher school with one class now having 35 children. This makes a mockery of the Minister's so-called target of 28:1. I will raise this specific issue with the Minister at a later date.
It is bad enough that the Department makes school principals and boards jump through bureaucratic cartwheels for years to get school building projects moved on to the next stage of a shaky rope ladder to which they will have to hang on until it is approved at some unknown date in the future. I will come back to this subject another day when I will look for definite commitments in respect of a number of schools building projects in Cork South-West that have been lost in the pipeline.
It is nothing short of a disgrace, with schools in Cork South-West already suffering from a lack of funding and overcrowding, that Our Lady of Mercy School in Bantry and Scoil Mhuire national school, Schull, have been ordered to let go another teacher. I ask that the Minister maintain the status quo and allow these 40 teachers to remain in the classroom, teaching our children, and that he keep his promise to reduce the ratio by one more next year.
Perhaps he will be transferred to the Department of Social and Family Affairs following the local elections. I remind the Minister of the epitaph: "Once I wasn't. Then I was. Now I ain't again." The Minister should not let this be his epitaph. If the Deputies opposite vote down this motion and force the schools in Bantry and Schull to sack a teacher, then I will have to agree with Voltaire that common sense is not so common.
I will get to the point. I thank and commend my colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, on bringing forward this motion. I represent Kerry South and wish tonight to speak on behalf of Scoil Mhuire in Killorglin which has 378 pupils and 14 teachers, a ratio of 27:1.
Like my colleagues, I too was out canvassing during the last general election when we were told that the Government would, during the following three years, reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 24:1. Teachers and parents believed this, which made our work harder. I am not shocked that Fianna Fáil has again broken its promise. It is more of the same. My colleagues are shocked by this, but I am not because it has happened so many times.
If Scoil Mhuire, Killorglin, loses a teacher, the ratio will automatically increase to 29:1, which is an absolute disgrace. The Government's promise may have been aspirational but one would expect it to at least maintain the status quo this year and to try to reduce the ratio nextyear.
Last Monday, 140 new jobs were announced for Killorglin. These jobs will bring new families into the area.
I wish to speak specifically on behalf of Scoil Eoin, Balloonagh, Tralee. I have raised several times in this House the issue of accommodation at this school. A solemn promise in respect of a new school given prior to the last election by the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, has not been delivered.
Scoil Eoin will lose a teacher next September based on its enrolment figures as of 30 September last. The school had at that time 367 pupils on its roll book, but by November it had 378 pupils, an increase of 11 pupils which would have allowed the school to retain that teacher. Broken promises aside, perhaps the Minister will agree to have his Department examine the reference date in this respect.
If Fianna Fáil had kept its promise made during the last general election to provide 4,000 extra teachers, thereby reducing the pupil-teacher ratio over four years, Scoil Eoin would have retained its teacher. Whatever about the con job perpetrated in 2002 on the Irish people, teachers, the INTO, pupils and parents, the con job in the last election is unforgivable. This is the bottom line. It is amazing how the INTO, teachers and everybody else accepted the Government's bona fides on the 2002 promise, but to be caught again is inexplicable.
Will the Minister consider the reference date of 30 September? It is grossly unfair that a school where children arrive in the month following the opening in September, which they do, is penalised the following year. The Minister and I are teachers and we know full well that every child in the country must go through the primary school system. It is the only aspect of the education system that is equal. We spend less on it than we do on secondary and post-primary education. All that should be done is that it gets a fair deal like all the other sectors of the education system.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
recognises the major improvements that have been made to staffing levels in primary schools over recent years, including:
over 2,000 extra teachers being provided in primary schools for 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years;
the increase in primary teacher numbers since 2002 of over 6,000 bringing the current total to over 30,000 primary teachers;
the reduction in class sizes for the current school year to a general rule of 1 teacher for 27 pupils;
average class sizes of just over 24 pupils;
substantially lower class sizes for primary schools with the highest concentration of disadvantage;
a pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools of 16.4 to 1; and
€4.6 billion, €380 million extra, provided in 2008 for teachers' pay and pensions;
notes that it is the policy of the Government to continue to make progress on reducing class size in the context of the programme for Government.
I will share time with Deputy John Cregan.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. I am glad they did not give me a chance to redden the seat at the Department of Education and Science. I hope the transfer Deputy Sheehan has in mind for me at this early stage is not realised.
I am glad to set out for the House my commitment and that of the Government to the provision of teaching resources to primary schools. This is being done as part of our overall investment in education which has increased significantly in recent years by more than 70% since 2002 to more than €9.3 billion this year. This represents a significant increase of more than €690 million, or 8%, on the funding position after budget 2007 and will enable us to consolidate the major service and funding improvements put in place in recent years and to make further progress in a wide range of areas.
Ultimately, this investment is about improving outcomes for our learners whether in schools, colleges or non-formal settings. The specific issue before the House on reductions to class sizes in primary schools is important in its own right. Nonetheless, it is but one policy instrument among many by which we are trying to ensure learning outcomes that enable the individual child or student to achieve his or her full potential and participate to the fullest extent possible in society. The €9.3 billion being provided for education this year will enable us to deliver significantly on a number of fronts by investing almost €600 million in school buildings, by bringing expenditure on special education to twice the 2004 amount, through putting additional teachers and special needs assistants in place in primary and post-primary schools and by providing €4.6 billion, or €380 million extra, for teacher pay and pensions.
I will now discuss the specific issue of class size. The programme for Government sets out the overarching policy position on the provision of additional teachers and on reductions in class size over the life of the Government. The programme contains a commitment to increase the number of primary teachers by at least 4,000 and on that basis to make further progress on reducing class sizes.
The programme also sets out how improvements in class size in primary schools will be brought about by changes to the staffing schedule that is used to allocate classroom teachers to primary schools based on the total enrolment in the school. The schedule allocates teachers within enrolment bands and the current bands are based on an average of 27 pupils. The programme for Government sets a revised basis for the 2010-11 school year of an allocation based on an average of 24 pupils to a class and this will be achieved on a gradual basis by a series of annual reductions of one point on the schedule.
While the schedule allocates on the basis of an average, each individual school decides how to arrange its classes. This means that two different schools with the same enrolment and allocated the same number of teachers may choose to configure their classes differently. Depending on a school's own circumstances one school may aim for an even distribution across all class groups while another school may chose to have lower numbers in a particular class group or groups with consequently larger numbers in other classes.
In any discussion on class size and classes where the number of pupils exceeds the average, it is important to understand how the main staffing schedule sets out to treat schools in like circumstances in a fair and consistent manner. As I stated, the current allocation is based on an average of 27 pupils per teacher and the fact that schools make individual choices in assigning teachers to class groups. With more than 20,000 individual classes spread across all schools throughout the country there will always be differences in individual class sizes.
Preliminary indications from my Department's analysis of statistical returns from schools for the current school year appear to indicate a drop in the numbers of pupils in classes of more than 30 pupils.
The analysis of all the returns from schools has yet to be completed and the final outcome will be published later in the summer.
Of course it is the case that some schools can have class sizes of greater than 27 but, as I pointed out, this is often because of a local decision by a school to use its teaching resources to have smaller numbers in other classes.
I appreciate that an even distribution and splitting classes may not always be an option for a particular school because it might have a large group in junior infants and a small group in sixth class, but where it is possible, principals should consider the benefits of having smaller multi-grade classes as against having particularly large differences in class sizes at different levels in the school.
I respected every speaker on the other side of the House. I did not interrupt and I seek the same respect.
We in this House are aware that the mainstream staffing of a primary school is determined by reference to the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous school year. In any year, not just this year, when enrolments are falling in a school this can result in the loss of a teacher. Equally, when enrolments increase a school can gain a teacher under the operation of the staffing schedule.
While approximately 120 schools will lose a teacher in the next school year compared to this year, there will still be a net increase of approximately 500 teachers. The reason for this is that five times as many schools are expected to employ an additional teacher due to an increase in enrolments. An important consideration with regard to the staffing allocations for schools is that schools should be treated in an equitable manner. The staffing schedule should operate in a manner that treats schools in like circumstances equally.
I am aware that the Opposition has put a particular focus on those schools that will lose a teacher in the coming year simply because the total enrolment at the school on which the teacher allocation is based is one pupil fewer. Under a system that allocates additional teachers at different step points under a common schedule, it is a fact of life that a single pupil change in enrolment can cause a school to lose or gain a teacher. In recent years, when improvements were being made to the staffing schedule it was also the case that there were winners and losers depending on individual enrolment profiles.
It is opportunistic of Deputies on the benches opposite to argue for special treatment for some schools.
If I were to change the staffing schedule to allow the schools due to lose a teacher to retain that teaching post, I would be treating them differently from other schools with the exact same number on the rolls and I do not propose to do that.
We can validly have a debate on changes that might be made to the overall schedule but I will not enter into the space of political opportunism portrayed by the Opposition by trying to give preferential treatment to some schools for no objective reason.
I have a responsibility to ensure that, whatever the overall allocation, the system for allocating teachers to schools is transparent and fair and that everyone knows where he or she stands and each school knows that it will be allocated the same number of mainstream class teachers as the school up the road with a similar enrolment.
The system should not create anomalies or operate on the basis that one or more schools should be treated differently from others because the Opposition thinks political capital can be made.
Any school that believes it is treated unfairly under the schedule has access to an appeals process. The board of management of a school can submit an appeal under certain criteria to this independent appeals board, which was established specifically to adjudicate on appeals on mainstream staffing allocations in primary schools.
I have taken time to elaborate on how the staffing schedule operates because I am concerned that anyone picking individual cases in isolation and out of context could cause unnecessary concern. Budget 2008 provided my Department with €4.6 billion or an additional €380 million for teacher pay and pensions. This was a substantial additional investment, given the economic environment on which the budget was based. The allocation provides for pay increases to all teachers but, critically, it will also fund more than 2,000 additional primary teachers, more than the number in schools when the Government took office less than a year ago.
It covers the additional teachers that went into schools last September for the previously announced reduction to a 27:1 based staffing schedule with additional teachers this school year and in the coming school year to meet increasing enrolments, provide for special needs and meet the language requirements of newcomer children.
I am sure the House will agree that it was appropriate to continue to prioritise resources for those with special needs and the language requirements of newcomer children——
——and to meet increasing enrolments generally as well as the needs of rapidly developing areas by providing additional school places. In making choices within available resources, these were the correct choices to make in terms of our priorities. However, in terms of the overall commitment to provide at least 4,000 additional teachers over the five-year life of the programme for Government, we have gone well down that road in a short time.
All programme for Government commitments to improve public services, including those relating to class size, are contingent on the economic and budgetary environment and the need for prudent expenditure and fiscal management. Even since the presentation of budget 2008 last December, the external and domestic environment has altered significantly.
In that context any reasonable observer would regard the fact that the Government has taken measures that will result in the allocation of more than 2,000 additional teachers to primary schools as a considerable investment.
While the programme indicated a specific timeline regarding further changes to the staffing schedule to reduce class sizes, it was not possible to move further in the current year.
The Government wants to maintain its focus on measures that can improve the quality of education in our primary schools and, ultimately, to ensure that increased resources lead to better outcomes for our children. I am mindful of the need to continue to make progress on the schools building programme and I am anxious to improve the general funding position of primary schools through increases that will enable them to meet day-to-day running costs. All such measures contribute to the capacity of schools to deliver a quality education to children.
The commitment on improving class size can only be examined and considered in the context of the overall economic and budgetary position that might prevail in the coming years and other competing priorities such as funding for schools for the available resources.
Good management of public expenditure means identifying priorities and making choices within the resources available and not flip-flopping like Fine Gael, abandoning responsible management.
Within the terms of the current staffing arrangements for primary schools, there is also provision for additional posts, referred to as developing school posts, to be assigned to schools on the basis of projected enrolments for the next school year. Under these arrangements, a developing school post may be sanctioned provisionally where the projected enrolment at 30 September of the school year in question equals or exceeds a specified figure and an excess of five over the appointment figure for the post in question. If the specified figure is not achieved on 30 September, sanction for the post is withdrawn. Up to the 2006-07 school year the specified figure to attain the post was either 25 or 30, depending on the size of the school. In the 2006-07 school year the specified figure was changed to 25 for all schools. An improvement in the arrangements for the allocation of developing school posts to smaller schools, that is, schools with a mainstream staffing of principal plus six mainstream class teachers or fewer, was made this year. In the case of these schools, the required stipulated increase in enrolments was reduced from 25 to 15. These supports reduce the threshold for getting a developing school post so as to help schools experiencing large increases in enrolments each year. More than 330 such posts have been sanctioned in the 2007-08 school year compared with 280 in 2006-07.
In addition to the supports provided in the classroom, additional resources, including teaching resources, are also provided to cater for the needs of pupils with special educational needs. I intend to build on the progress made in recent years, which has resulted in a huge increase in resources for special education. Since 2004 investment in this area has doubled to €900 million and significant progress has been made. Almost 6,000 additional teachers and SNAs have been put in place mostly at primary level, bringing the total number of special education staff to approximately 19,000. The training available to teachers has improved significantly. All schools have been assigned learning support resource teaching hours based on their enrolment figures and the application process for additional supports has been transformed for the better with the establishment of the NCSE and its team of more than 80 local special educational needs organisers.
A significant expansion in the number of NEPS psychologists is under way, with a view to all schools receiving a direct service in the 2009-10 school year.
There has been a particular focus in recent years on improving services for children with autism. In the past year alone, approximately 100 additional special classes for autistic children were set up, bringing the total number to almost 280. In addition, my Department has also, in consultation with educational interests, developed a model of general teacher allocation for pupils in the high incidence disability categories of mild and borderline mild general learning disability and dyslexia. This model was designed to put in place a permanent resource in primary schools to cater for pupils in these categories. The model was constructed so that allocations would be based on pupil numbers, taking into account the differing needs of the most disadvantaged schools and the evidence that boys have greater difficulties than girls in this regard. There are a number of advantages to using a general allocation model. First, it reduces the need for individual applications and supporting psychological assessments. Second, it ensures that children can be given help at a much earlier stage as the resource will already be in the school. Third, it gives schools more certainty about their resource levels. Finally, inclusion is the desire of the vast majority of parents and my Department is providing the necessary supports in schools throughout the country to facilitate this wherever possible. There are four special schools among the list of schools that are planned to open in September. How am I doing on time?
To conclude, it is important not to lose sight of the wider picture of the range of improvements that have been made. Teacher numbers at primary level have increased significantly. Additional resources have been provided both within the classroom and also by way of additional supports in areas such as language support and special education.
We will continue our focus on measures to improve the quality of education in our schools to ensure that increased resources lead to better outcomes for our children and that the modernisation agenda for teachers is fully delivered again so that learning outcomes improve. I want to put onto the record of this House that I am confident and remain committed to further improvements in the education sector over the lifetime of this Government. In this regard, as the budgetary situation improves, the reduction in class sizes will be one of my key priorities.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak to the amendment tonight. At the outset, I welcome the appointment of my colleague, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, an appointment I believe is long overdue. I have no doubt that he will leave his mark in a very positive fashion during his tenure as Minister for Education and Science.
In particular, since he comes from a rural constituency and represents rural people and schools, I welcome the fact that the Minister attended a rural primary school. I hope and appeal to him to ensure that we can continue investment in our rural schools over the coming years. That is very important. We have needs to meet in urban centres but, equally, we have needs to meet in rural centres throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Unfortunately, because of the economic situation, we saw a situation whereby the summer works scheme and the devolved grants scheme had to be abandoned, for want of a better word. Both of the schemes were very positive and of huge importance to rural schools to improve accommodation. It is very important that we continue to improve accommodation throughout the country, particularly in our rural schools. I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency last weekend. We have a very serious problem with accommodation in Kilfinnan national school. I again appeal to the Minister to make every effort to ensure that this problem can be overcome in the shortest possible space of time because the people have been patient and need to have their project moved on.
It is fair to say that any of us who find ourselves in a tight economic situation are faced with priorities. I will be honest. I do not want to be confrontational but it is important to be honest when we have debates such as this. All of us have to make priorities when the resources which were there in previous years are not there. It is very easy to govern and be a good Minister and all things to all people when one has plenty of money and resources. Unfortunately, the Minister has found himself in a situation whereby those resources are not as plentiful as they were in previous years.
The Government has decided to make priorities. I welcomed the commitment in the programme for Government to continue the reduction in class sizes. It is an important aspect of ensuring that we improve our education system because overcrowding in classes is not good for teachers, pupils or anybody. We must be honest and say that we cannot always live in ideal situations or in the ideal world. While that aspect needs to be addressed, and the Minister is on record tonight as saying that it will be addressed during the lifetime of the Government, I will roll back five or six years to when a similar downturn in the economy occurred in the days when Charlie McCreevy was Minister for Finance and each Department had to curtail its spending.
Despite that, during the five years of the last programme for Government, the Government managed to deliver on all promises made. I am very proud of that fact and have no doubt that during the five years of this Government's lifetime, it will continue and deliver on the promises made, be they in education or in any other Department. I am quite confident that this will happen.
Again, I appeal for honesty from the other side of the House. When Fianna Fáil set out its election manifesto prior to the last general election, at all times, the Taoiseach or any Minister or Member who spoke stated that what was in that manifesto or what would be in the programme for Government would be dependent on the economic position of the day. On the Opposition benches, Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte and others rightly said the very same thing. They said they would put their priorities in a manifesto initially and, if elected, in a programme for Government. One then looks at the economic situation and is honest with the people. One tells them that we do not have enough money and must prioritise and that we would love to deliver upon what we have promised and will do so when times get better. That is exactly what the Minister and Government are saying. It is important to recognise that because it is no different for any other party.
Reference was made to the retention figure. It is also important to be honest and acknowledge that this figure is agreed by all the partners in education. It is important to point out that it was not a figure that the Minister, his predecessor, Deputy Mary Hanafin, or anybody else plucked out of the sky and decided that this was going to be the cut-off point.
The September date has been mentioned. Perhaps it is wrong or unfair. I do not know. Again, this is the agreed date. Of course, it seems cynical. One takes a teacher out in the month of September and the numbers go up again the following year when a teacher, perhaps a different teacher, goes back in. That is the biggest issue I have with that because, obviously, teachers might have to leave one school and take up a post in another school and it might be discommoding for them. That is being honest about the situation. It is very important to recognise that this date is agreed by all the partners involved in education. Trade unions and everybody else who has an input has agreed that. One must have a cut-off point.
I acknowledge that we have had serious and unprecedented investment in education over the past number of years and why not when we could afford it? We all go on record as saying that if we do not have the good and solid foundation of a good education for our children starting at primary schools, we have nothing. I am quite proud of the record of Fianna Fáil-led Governments over the past number of years. When the resources were there, they were spent and were not spared across all the different aspects of education, from primary schools to second and third level education and onwards.
Tonight, the issue is about class sizes and primary schools and I respect that. I would love it if the Government was in a position financially to say that it could honour its commitment. We honoured our commitment in 2007-08 and I have no doubt that when things take a turn for the better financially, we will go on to honour our commitments next year and in future years. At the end of those five years of Government, people can stand up and say that the Government did not implement what was in the programme for Government over the lifetime of the Government and I will accept that. What I cannot accept are accusations being made that this did not happen in the first, second and third years. It is not so long ago that allegations were made with regard to a promise in a previous programme for Government to increase the number of gardaí on the streets.
It is fair to say that after five years in Government, that commitment was met. We were accused in years one, two, three and four that we were not doing it but it was done by the end of the five years. I hope and feel confident, given what the Minister has said, that he will be totally committed to improving every aspect of education. It must be balanced between rural and urban schools. We must take account of the schools that need temporary accommodation immediately, which is as important as any class size. For the school that needs permanent accommodation, that need is as important as any class size. There are schools with other needs, which have their own priorities and it is important that the Minister recognises those priorities in the context of the limited resources available.
We can drive on forward, together, ensuring balance between rural and urban, between adequate accommodation and optimal class sizes, as well as meeting the needs of our special needs children, in which this Government has a very proud record in recent years. More must be done, of course. I accept that fully, but the points I have just made are relevant. We must have balance in what we do. I fully support the Minister and am confident that he will deliver on class sizes, accommodation and the other aspects, when the necessary resources are available.
I wish to share time with Deputies Ciarán Lynch, Martin Ferris and Ruairí Quinn.
I am absolutely flabbergasted at the nerve on the Government side of the House, that Deputies can stand up here and go back on a very clear promise that was made in the programme for Government. That promise does not refer to what the Government "might" do, but to what it "will" do and reads: "The staffing schedule will be reduced from a general rule of at least one teacher for every 27 pupils in 2007/08, by one point a year, to one for every 24 children by 2010/11." That is a definite commitment to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio this year by one point but the Government Deputies stand up and tell us they are not doing it.
I was in this House on many occasions when the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, defended the fact that the Government did not fulfil the previous commitment in the programme for Government either. That commitment was that all children under the age of nine would be in classes of 20:1 or less. She said she could not do it then, in times of plenty. Now we are being told that it cannot be done because the money is not available. These are two broken promises by the Government to the children of this country.
I note the Public Gallery is full and I presume most of those listening to this debate are involved in schools in some capacity, whether as teachers or parents. I am sure they must be as flabbergasted as I am at the nerve of the Government. I do not blame the current Minister but the Government as a whole. It is unbelievable that they would come in here and say what they have said. I include the Green Party Deputies in my criticisms.
The Green Party claimed that it was prioritising education. I listened to Deputy Paul Gogarty more than 100 times claiming that his party was prioritising education but there is no Green Party Deputy here tonight. It is disgraceful to renege on these promises and to tell the children of this country that they should tell the truth while Government Deputies come into this Chamber, in good times and not so good times, and renege on a specific promise to them. It is disgraceful.
In the limited time available I wish to refer to the school in my constituency that is listed in the motion, namely, the JFK Memorial School, which I visited this morning and on a number of previous occasions. The school was one child short at the cut-off date at the end of September. The school now has that additional child, who moved from the north west of the country. If the promise had not been made by the Government, that child could have moved to the school a week earlier to ensure that the school would retain its teacher. The school believed the promise and had the numbers that it thought it would need to keep the teacher at the time.
A number of other schools listed here are in the same situation. Those schools, at least, should be allowed to retain their teacher. In all good faith, they thought they had the numbers to do so. They believed the Government of this country and those that were elected to govern and understood they could keep their teacher. It was the Government which broke its word; the schools did nothing wrong.
I know the negative effect this will have on the school in my constituency. Indeed, all Deputies know the effect it will have. We have the second highest average class size in a long list of European Union countries. The only country that is worse than us is the United Kingdom and we do not want to take example from it. Let us imagine what it is like, for example, to be a child with special needs, most of whom are being mainstreamed now, a quiet child sitting at the back of the class trying to get attention or to be a teacher trying to cope with all of the different needs in a classroom with the size of the classes we have in this country. We still have a very large number of children in classes of more than 30 and some in classes of more than 35. That small children, who so need to get a good start, should be subjected to that, is appalling. The Government claims it is committed to education but reneges on a promise to children at the very time when they need individual attention — in the early years of their school lives. The Government Deputies blithely pronounce that they have priorities. What could be more of a priority than the small children in primary schools in this country?
Many Deputies attended meetings in schools before the general election. I attended numerous such meetings because I was my party's education spokesperson at the time. There were three Private Members' motions in the House on class sizes in the space of a couple of years. We all know how important an issue it is. We heard the promises and saw rooms packed full. Parents, because they know how important it is, made the effort to attend the meetings. Our party gave commitments on reducing class sizes and on the need for 4,000 more teachers and we did the sums. We stood by our promise and intended to implement it if we were in Government. I cannot understand how people can vote for the parties in Government after two broken promises on one of the most important issues, namely, the chance we give our young people in our schools. Once again, I find it absolutely mind boggling.
I commend Deputy Brian Hayes for tabling this motion and share his concerns about the entire primary sector. Many of those involved in that sector are listening to the debate in the House tonight.
Prior to last year's general election, I attended a meeting in Cork, which the current Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe also attended. More than 1,600 parents turned up to that meeting which was on classroom sizes. One of the things that stuck in my mind that night was how badly Ireland rates in comparison to other countries in the OECD and the EU. Our pupil-teacher ratios, despite having one of the best GDPs and GNPs in Europe, place us as the bottom of the list. Even the 27:1 ratio referred to in the programme for Government reflects an absence of ambition on the issue of classroom size.
The Minister spoke about how this decision will allow him to transfer funds from one area of primary school education to others, such as special needs. This is nothing short of robbing Peter to pay Paul in what is the Cinderella of the education sector. The Minister knows that primary school education, when compared to second and third level, has the least amount of investment per head.
The three schools in my constituency that are affected by this decision are Christ King Mon in Turners Cross, SN Barra Naofa Buachaillí in Beaumont and St. Columba's Boys NS in Douglas. I spoke to the three principals of those schools about the four teachers they will lose as a result of the Department's announcement. They provided the solution to the problem themselves. They suggested that we should return to the situation where the retention figure and the appointment figure had balance and flexibility built in that allowed for a sustainable and measurable approach. What we have now is a guillotine that comes into effect and removes a teacher immediately but the enrolment shortfall may be rectified by the following year's enrolments. That is a very blunt instrument to use but the problem is correctable. Even if one was only to stick to the Minister's ratio aspirations, if we had flexibility built in the problems caused by this blunt instrument could be resolved.
A number of the schools affected have been providing an educational service for decades, with an expertise and experience that has come from working in their communities over a protracted period. Some of those communities are going through a process of regeneration. The last thing we should be doing is sending a signal from this House that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a school loses a teacher, the word on the street is that this school is in decline. Parents will stop sending their children to that school. One of the reasons young people return to communities such as Turner's Cross and other such communities, which have been in existence for 40 or 50 years, is the existence of a successful school. I remind the House that the boys' school in Turner's Cross, one of the schools that will suffer the loss of a teacher, was once attended by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, a former Minister for Education and Science. That makes a statement in this respect.
There is no strategic sense to what is being proposed by the Minister. It will create greater class sizes or has the potential to create combined classes. Do we want to return to the practice of fourth and fifth classes being taught side by side, given that teachers find it difficult enough to teach one big class without having to teach two different curriculums at the same time?
The Minister will save €2 million by this measure. When one considers the size of his Department's budget, one must ask why he is creating such a major difficulty over €2 million. The cost of overcrowded classes is not measured in terms of €2 million or even in terms of bricks and mortar. I worked as an adult literacy organiser for 20 years. During that time I saw the cost involved for people later in life if primary education is not properly delivered. The true cost is far greater than the figure of €2 million. The cost involved when children are deprived of all types of opportunities and educational attainment, which the rest of us take for granted, is far greater than any sum of money.
Despite Government commitments to reduce class sizes, more than a quarter of all pupils in primary schools are still in classes where the number of pupils exceeds 30. That accounts for more than 100,000 children. This State has the second largest class size at primary level in the EU. The corresponding figure for Kerry in 2007 was 21%. When one compares this economy, which has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth and wealth during the past 15 years, to that of a Third World economy such as Cuba, one must note that its target class size of 15 pupils is almost met in most cases. The benefits of such a class size to a child in terms of education cannot be more striking than in Cuba. The fact that we cannot reach that target or even a class size of under 30 pupils is an indictment of how money is being spent in this economy.
Funding for primary education here also lags behind other member states of the EU, being only 70% of the EU average. According to recent surveys, eight out of ten schools fundraise to meet their daily running costs. Many schools find that Government funding covers only 50% of the school's basic costs. I doubt if there is a Deputy in this House who is not involved in helping boards of management or parents to raise funds for their respective primary schools. That is not right. Given economic growth, it is shameful that parents, pupils and teachers must collect money to meet the running costs of schools. It is an indictment on the system.
Because of these problems and parents' concerns regarding primary schooling, we witness parents queuing up with their infants to secure places in a school which they believe will cater for them. However, even that is no insurance, as we witnessed last year where demographic changes meant that schools in certain areas were unable to cope with the demands placed upon them. This is especially the case in growing urban centres coping with the pressure of development where there is a lack of proper infrastructure to provide schools and allocate teachers. In recent years this pressure has been added to by the increase in the number of non-nationals or immigrants — the new Irish, as we call them.
With primary school pupil figures expected to climb to 500,000 by the end of 2009, the Government needs to treat as a matter of urgency the issue of class sizes. The current scenario of pupils being taught permanently in prefabs, which occupy school yard space, in class rooms that are run down, in converted toilets and PE halls — or having to travel miles to a school with adequate space — is completely unacceptable. According to a recent reply to a parliamentary question by the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, she was not even aware of the number of schools currently using prefabs. I urge the Minister to make such statistics available.
A number of years ago the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, published a list of all school buildings which included priority ratings and indicative dates for construction. This allowed schools to track the progress of their applications, but now no indication is given in this respect. Many of us are all too familiar with that, given the number of questions tabled to the Minister requesting such information.
We are also aware that the issue in this motion is addressed daily. Two of the schools listed in the motion, Scoil Eoin in Tralee and Scoil Mhuire in Killorglin, are in my county, the former being in the constituency of Kerry North. Unfortunately, they are not the only primary schools facing this and other problems. I recall debates prior to the 2002 general election when all sorts of promises were made. Prior to the general election last year, in debates on school facilities, allocation of teachers and calls for a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio, all sorts of promises were again made, but they have been reneged upon.
Scoil Eoin was referred to in the north Kerry area plan drawn up last year by the Commission on School Accommodation. It was noted that while the school was very carefully maintained, 54% of pupils were accommodated in prefabricated buildings that were 20 years old, while 24% of pupils were accommodated in a building constructed 46 years ago which had not been modernised. A further 22% of pupils were accommodated in a building that was 86 years old, and part of it was 116 years old, which had not been modernised.
With the projected steady increase in the number of pupils seeking places in this school, something needs to be done urgently to address the situation. Scoil Eoin has the largest number of primary pupils in the County Kerry. The loss of a teacher in any school causes great difficulties on many levels and in large towns these challenges are multiplied. The system of judging class sizes based on enrolment on 30 September is grossly misrepresentative of the true picture. Scoil Eoin had 567 pupils enrolled on 30 September 2007, but by November 2007, only six weeks later, the number of pupils had increased to 578. Such increases in enrolments are replicated throughout the country, with more pupils being enrolled after 30 September. The cut-off date of 30 September has a major impact on schools, because the number enrolled can drastically increase in a short period following that date.
A similar urgency attaches to the addressing of accommodation needs in Scoil Mhuire, Tralee Educate Together and other schools in Ballybunion, Listowel, Tarbert, Ballylongford and elsewhere in the north of the county. Many of the problems relate to the perceived lack of future capacity of schools to cope with increased numbers. Adequate staffing levels are a crucial element. One of the schools referred to in the report, the O'Brennan national School in Ballymacelligott, found itself in the ridiculous position last year of paying €1,200 per month to hire prefabs because of the delay in initiating renovation and reconstruction of the school. Such expenditure is replicated in many other schools. School authorities pay out such dead money when it should be invested in putting a proper structure in place which would resolve the problem.
There are ongoing problems with the building of a national school in Blennerville, which is a disgrace. Prior to the general election last year the headlines in the local newspapers read "Fianna Fáil deliver", "Money allocated to build new school in Blennerville", "Site located" and so forth. Elected representatives were invited to a meeting a number of weeks ago, attended by the parents, teachers and everybody else in the area with an interest in the issue. At the meeting, the audience was told quite categorically that the issue was not on the immediate agenda. People were hugely disappointed as a result. Three Fianna Fáil county councillors at the meeting said they were both embarrassed and ashamed by the Government's actions with regard to building the school.
I urge the Minister to revisit all the promises made before the election and to live up to the responsibility to provide proper facilities and an adequate number of teachers to provide education to our children. Money could not be better spent than on education. The lower the pupil-teacher ratio, the better the attention for both teacher and pupils. Proper facilities should be a given. We should not have to stand here begging the Government to invest in our children's future. With money in the coffers of the Exchequer, there is no excuse for the failure of this and previous Governments to meet this need. It is a disgrace. I hope this Minister will take a hands-on approach, unlike the previous Minister, on the issues I have raised.