Dáil debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Adjournment Debate

School Staffing.

8:00 pm

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. Woodford Mercy College has developed a high standard in education at second level. However, the cutbacks introduced in the budget will have a severe impact on the delivery of its educational programmes. For the past several years, this school has had disadvantaged status but, as a consequence of the cutbacks, it will lose 3.81 teachers. That represents a severe blow to a school with a staff of 24 teachers. The cuts to the school's funding will total more than €20,000 per annum. As the school's intake dipped slightly for the academic year 2007-08, it faces the loss of an additional 1.8 teachers. In total, the school will lose 5.4 teachers.

Despite building up a strong reputation, the school experienced problems last year in retaining its home-school liaison teacher. The Department ultimately agreed to fund this teacher but the money is now gone. Some 30 of the school's 230 students receive individual support for special needs of one kind or another. When the Minister for Education and Science recently addressed the Joint Committee on Education and Science, he agreed to give special attention to schools which are experiencing serious hardships as a result of the cutbacks. The school will lose a book grant worth €5,140, a transition year grant of €3,500, an LCA grant worth €1,431, an enhanced capitation grant of €8,493, a special subjects grant worth €1,417 and a home economics grant worth €4,119, for a total of more than €20,000. This school has developed various fundraising activities in order to maintain its quality of education but this is a step too far. The Minister should give his attention to the serious crisis the school will face from September 2009.

Like other schools, substitute teaching will become a serious problem for this school from January. The school's teachers have gone to tremendous efforts to develop debating and dramatic activities. Despite coming from a small rural school, the students and teachers have excelled in these areas.

The school is located in a CLÁR area. I cannot express the serious consequences the loss of 5.4 teachers would bring. The school will not be able to perform at the levels it achieved in the past nor will it be able to give a fair chance to students who want to attend third level education. In view of this I repeat my plea to request the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to re-examine this case because the school has lost its disadvantaged status. There is a blip in the numbers this year and the school will suffer severely as a consequence. No Minister or Government should allow this to take effect from January and leading to the academic year beginning in September 2009.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on the school referred to by the Deputy. Notwithstanding the increase of €302 million in the education budget for 2009, which is a real achievement in the current economic climate, a number of tough and difficult decisions had to be taken. The 2009 budget required difficult choices to be made across all areas of public expenditure and decisions were made in order to control expenditure and ensure sustainability in the long term. In this respect, education, while protected to a much greater extent than most other areas of public expenditure, could not be entirely spared, and the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, acknowledges the impact of funding restrictions in a number of areas, including at school level. However, these are the inevitable result of the challenging economic environment and the need to manage Exchequer resources prudently.

DEIS, the action plan for educational inclusion, provides for a standardised system for identifying levels of disadvantage and an integrated school support programme. DEIS brings together and builds upon a number of existing interventions in schools with concentrated levels of disadvantage. The process of identifying schools for participation in DEIS was managed by the educational research centre on behalf of the Department of Education and Science and supported by quality assurance work co-ordinated through the Department's regional offices and the inspectorate.

Mercy College is among the schools that were judged by an independent identification process in 2005 not to have a sufficient level of disadvantage among their pupils to warrant their inclusion in DEIS. A review mechanism was put in place to address the concerns of schools that did not qualify for inclusion in DEIS but regarded themselves as having a level of disadvantage which was of a scale sufficient to warrant their inclusion in the programme.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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There are 30 students requiring special needs support out of 230.

9:00 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The review process operated under the direction of an independent person, charged with ensuring that all relevant identification processes and procedures were properly followed in the case of schools applying for a review. Mercy College applied for review but was not successful.

The main focus of social inclusion measures will be to retain resources in DEIS schools. There is a need to target resources on those schools that are most need and this approach is in line with the broad thrust of the recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which are set out in his report on primary disadvantage 2006, which recommended that the Department should focus its educational disadvantage measures on those schools serving the most disadvantaged communities.

Over 70 post-primary schools that were not identified for inclusion in DEIS retained resources, both teaching posts and financial, under pre-existing schemes and programmes for addressing educational disadvantage. When DEIS was introduced, it was intended that as a concessionary measure to these schools, they would retain a level of support for the duration of the current DEIS initiative up until the end of the 2009 and 2010 school year.

While it is appreciated that the discontinuation of these resources will impact on these schools, including Mercy College, given the current challenging economic climate, difficult decisions had to be made in order to contain public sector spending. One of these decisions was to advance the withdrawal of such supports from non-DEIS schools to the beginning of the next school year. Other decisions included increasing the pupil-teacher ratio across all second-level schools from 18:1 to 19:1. In the case of fee-charging post-primary schools, there will be an additional one-point adjustment to 20:1.

Taken in combination, the impact of the staffing schedule changes, withdrawal of historic DEIS posts and language support weighed off against increases expected in the numbers of teachers for demographics and resource teachers for special needs will mean an overall net reduction of 200 posts at second level. This is less than 1% of the overall number of teaching posts in second level schools currently. Measured against the overall payroll target reduction across the public sector it demonstrates the Government's desire to protect front-line staff in schools to the greatest extent possible.

As the processing of the September 2008 enrolment returns for post-primary schools are not yet finalised, it is not possible at this time to outline to the House the impact these changes will have on the allocation of mainstream teaching posts for the 2009 and 2010 school year for the school in question. The staffing schedule for that school year will issue to all schools as soon as possible, and at that time, a more accurate indication of the mainstream staffing levels will be available.

The allocation processes include appellate mechanisms under which schools can appeal against the allocation due to them under the staffing schedules. This is particularly relevant at post-primary level where the appellate process considers in particular any specific curricular needs of the school concerned. At post-primary there is no effective system-wide redeployment scheme at present and this can mean that schools retain teachers, although over quota. In addition, discrete allocations are made to post-primary schools — for example, to cater for pupils with special educational needs and those with language difficulties — and these allocations can also alter the ultimate position of the school with regard to any over-quota position.

The Department of Education and Science is aware of funding pressures on schools. However, progress has been made in recent years that has seen the post-primary school capitation grant increased by €15 per pupil, and it now amounts to €331 per pupil. In addition, voluntary secondary schools have benefited by the increase of €15 per pupil in 2008 in the support services grant, bringing that grant to €204 per pupil. The cumulative increase of €30 per pupil in a voluntary secondary school brings the aggregate grant to €535 per pupil. These grants are in addition to the per capita funding of up to €40,000 per school that is also provided by the Department to secondary schools towards secretarial and caretaking services.

Budget allocations for schools in the community and comprehensive school sector, along with those in the VEC sector, are increased on a pro rata basis with increases in the per capita grant. All schools are eligible for recurrent per capita grants towards special classes and curricular support grants.

The funding mechanisms in place afford schools considerable flexibility in the use of their resources to cater for the needs of their pupils. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, appreciates that the abolition of a number of grants for some schools will impact on funding levels in 2009 but it is also the case that enhanced levels of funding announced in the budget for the capitation and ancillary services grants will help to alleviate the impact of this.

I thank the Deputy for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on this matter and to outline the current position.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister re-examine the matter?

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter — the plight of Craggagh, Killawalla and Tooreen national schools — for discussion. This is a representation of the small rural primary schools in my constituency that will be dramatically affected if the class sizes are increased, as stated in the recent budget. I could mention others, such as Bonniconlon, Attymass, Lahardaun, Carn, Murrisk, Breaffy and Ballina Rehins, but I want to concentrate on Craggagh, Killawalla and Tooreen for now.

Craggagh and Killawalla national schools provide a wonderful education in their rural community, where the children are being taught in classes of a manageable size. They had 48 children on the rolls in September 2008, which would allow them to keep their third teacher in 2009. The projected numbers will increase to over 50 in September 2009. As the staffing levels for September 2009 are based on the September 2008 figures, they will lose their third teacher, although they had the required number of students for three teachers on both dates. The problem arises because staffing levels for September 2009 are based on the figures for 2008. Surely some flexibility can be shown in these schools because of the dramatic effects involved. I am talking about the fact that one third of the staff will lose their jobs and, in addition, there will be four classes in each classroom. The public may think that the pupil-teacher ratio is being increased by one, but in these schools the class size will increase in each case by ten pupils.

If a teacher is absent due to the removal of substitution at short notice, one teacher would teach more than 50 students in a classroom. One can imagine the effect of a 12-teacher school losing four teachers or a nine-teacher school losing three teachers — it would cause mayhem. In the cases I have cited, however, only one teacher is being lost, but people forget that represents one third of the staffing levels.

St. Brigid's national school in Tooreen, County Mayo, will have increased numbers in 2009 as well. The school will be unable to appoint a fourth mainstream teacher because staffing levels are based on 2008 figures. The situation is exactly the same as the other schools, except that in this case it concerns a fourth teacher. The net result on the ground in Tooreen is that 32 children will be in one classroom and 28 in another. This will make it impossible to cater for the individual needs of all children in the classroom, or to implement the new curriculum effectively.

To give an example, I was contacted by a parent in Tooreen school whose six-year-old son has been diagnosed with special needs. From September 2009, he will be in a class of 32 children if something is not done. At the moment he is making good progress in the smaller class, but one can imagine how his progress will suffer with the bigger numbers. A little flexibility would make a huge difference in Craggagh, Killawalla and Tooreen schools.

On "Questions and Answers" last night, the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, said that no school in DEIS areas will lose a teacher. Was he talking about DEIS schools in urban areas, because rural DEIS schools get no staffing concessions? I would like the Minister of State to clarify that point in his reply. Even if it were true for rural areas, which I doubt, it would not provide the flexibility for non-DEIS schools, some of which are also affected.

I appeal to the Minister to re-examine the special situation pertaining to small rural primary schools. I ask him to find out how many schools and teaching positions it would affect. I think it would only be a small number across the country. If the Minister could examine those numbers nationwide the solution would not amount to a major investment, but it would make an enormous difference to the delivery of a quality education system in small rural schools.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it provides me with an opportunity to outline the position to the House. The priority this Government and previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments attach to providing for quality education is evident in the budget allocations to my Department since 1997. This year alone, the Government allocated more than €9.3 billion. The continued prioritisation of education over the past 11 years has reversed the historic under-investment in areas such as school facilities, services for children with special needs and those in disadvantaged areas.

The 2009 budget required difficult choices to be made across all areas of public expenditure. These decisions were made to control public expenditure and ensure sustainability in the long run. In this respect education could not be totally spared, while it is protected to a much greater extent than most other areas of public expenditure. The various impacts at school level were included in the budget day announcements. Even with the budget measures in place, there will still be a significantly increased borrowing requirement in 2009.

When the country was able to afford it, the Government reduced the basis on which primary teachers were allocated to schools, based on an average number of pupils per teacher, from 35 to 27 pupils. The change to a new average of 28 pupils per teacher must be viewed in that context. Significant additional support went into schools, particularly in the area of special education.

The Government also reduced class sizes for the most disadvantaged in our DEIS schools to an average of one teacher for every 20 pupils in junior classes and an average of one teacher for every 24 pupils in senior classes. These will not change in 2009. When one adds up all the teachers in the system, there is one teacher for every 16 pupils in our primary schools.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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That is no good to these schools.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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It will be necessary in the more testing economic climate ahead for us to continue to target and prioritise our resources to maximum effect for everyone. While teacher numbers are important, numerous influential reports have highlighted the fact that teacher quality is the single most important factor — far above anything else — in improving educational outcomes for children. Ensuring high quality teaching and learning is a challenge. Dealing with factors that inhibit it, represents a challenge for the Government, the Department, school management and the teacher unions.

The Department of Education and Science will advise individual schools in the normal way on their staffing allocation. The preparatory work for this has commenced with the processing of enrolment data that have been received from schools. The staffing allocation processes, including notification to schools, will commence early in the new year. The allocation process includes appellate mechanisms under which schools can appeal against the allocation due to them under the staffing schedules.

In addition to mainstream classroom teachers, the Department also allocates teaching resources to schools for special needs and language support. The final allocation to a school is also a function of the operation of the redeployment panels, which provides for the retention of a teacher in an existing school if a new post is not available within the agreed terms of the scheme.

The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has no difficulty in setting out for this House or for the public generally the overall changes on aggregate teacher numbers in schools for the 2009-10 school year. The Minister will do this when the allocation processes have been completed. Furthermore, the staffing schedule will be published and it is a transparent way of ensuring that schools are treated consistently and fairly, and know where they stand.

At this time, the priority for the Department, within the resources available to it, is to carry out those processes in a timely manner. Diverting resources to create staffing profiles for the individual schools requested by the Deputy, information which at this time would only be speculative, could not be justified and would impede the process.

The Minister is confident that as the global economy improves it will be possible to build again on the significant achievements of recent years and do so in a manner consistent with overall prudent management of the economy. As the full extent of the global crisis seeps into public consciousness, the Minister believes there will be general acceptance that taking difficult decisions now to secure future economic prosperity and secure employment is the first imperative for the Government.

Once again, I thank the Deputy for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on this matter and to outline the current position in these cases.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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That is no good for these children.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 December 2008.