Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

School Accommodation

10:25 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills her views on whether expanded classrooms or additional prefabs will be required to be erected to facilitate appropriate distancing of pupils; if there will be initiatives to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, particularly in circumstances in which it relates to schools over 30; and the funding her Department will provide to facilitate same. [19311/20]

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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On Tuesday evening a Private Members' motion highlighted the fact that we have found it so hard to reopen schools because we have overcrowded classrooms and buildings that are not fit for purpose. The point was not really addressed by either Minister during the debate. What is the Department doing about this, beyond the minor works and adjustment grant? Has it carried out an audit of schools with a disproportionate lack of space for which additional classrooms will need to be built or hired?

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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As the Deputy is aware, yesterday I announced the roadmap for the full return to school, along with more than €370 million in funding to support primary and post-primary schools as they prepare for reopening. It is recognised that in preparing for full reopening schools may require some reconfiguration works to ensure that all available space, including class space, is used to maximise physical distancing safely.

Adaption works may include, but are not limited to, reconfiguration of classroom space, repurposing rooms to provide additional space, adapting storage facilities, purchasing furniture, altering desk layouts and adapting toilet areas. As each school setting is different, a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. Individual schools are best placed to decide on the appropriate reconfiguration works.

As part of the package of supports, additional teachers are being provided to support the reopening of primary schools in order to provide enhanced substitution and eliminate the need to mix classes when a teacher is absent. Supply panels are being established nationwide. These will be monitored in terms of the number of teachers and the location of each panel.

Primary schools are currently provided with class teachers on the basis of one teacher for every 26 pupils, which is at its historically lowest level. In terms of operating in this school year, schools will be required to look at maximising all available physical space, particularly to accommodate larger classes. Examples of class layouts have been provided to support schools. The minor works grant is being provided to assist schools if they need to reconfigure classrooms or undertake other work. Schools will also be required to look at how classes are organised in terms of sizes, and this may require some reorganisation of class groupings.

My Department absolutely will work with any school that needs extra support when other options are not feasible, and this may involve additional teachers or extra accommodation in some cases.

10:35 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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As a brief aside, I was just outside with the parents, staff and board of management of Firhouse Educate Together. An illustration of the situation we have found ourselves in over many years is the fact that there has been demographic growth but the Department has been too slow in planning for a new school building. Consequently, that school is being forced to move all the way to Citywest, a choice that is not sustainable for many parents. People are concerned about the sustainability of the school. I ask the Minister to examine the position of that particular school.

I take note of the final part of the Minister's answer that additional teachers and space will be provided. I would like her to tell me more about that. There is scope for reconfiguration within many schools. Cabinets can be moved and rooms being used for different purposes can be reconfigured but other schools cannot do the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The space simply is not available. In Christian Brothers schools from the 1950s and 1960s, the corridors are extremely narrow and the buildings are tight. They are nowhere near 60 sq. m or even 80 sq. m. It is clear that additional physical space will be required in some schools. Is there an audit or will there be an audit to establish the schools that urgently need not just reconfiguring but additional space?

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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Again, I confirm that substantial resources are going into schools to facilitate schools doing what needs to be done on the ground. I include in that, as we have already outlined, the €75 million that has been made available through the minor works grant. That funding is significant and substantial. In the first instance, it is a doubling of the minor works grant funding to primary schools and it is a similar but new strand of funding for second-level schools. There is great potential for schools to reconfigure and re-examine. For example, there are opportunities to declutter within the classroom. There are opportunities to look at additional space within the campus of the school and to look outside of that, where necessary. I accept that where there are exceptional cases all schools are invited to engage with the Department. There is a helpline for schools to allow them to flag individual needs within their schools. The resources and the supports are available. Everything that needs to be done will be done to ensure that schools can maximise their space and that there is every opportunity and expectation, which I know can be realised, that there will be a full and safe reopening of schools at the end of August or in early September.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the increase in the minor works grant but that will not do it for every school. Not every school can convert a room or make extra space within a classroom. The grant will deal with issues such as hot water also, and that is welcome, but it will not satisfy every need. I believe the Minister knows that. For schools in that position, the undertaking they will have to make in the next few weeks is so enormous that we cannot simply refer to local solutions and so on. There is a need for local solutions but far too often the issue is the response of the Department of Education and Skills. There is an element of throw the ball in and leave the board of management and the school at it. Space will need to be found. Buildings will need to be found. Temporary accommodation will need to be put in and it does not appear that the Department knows the location of that. An audit needs to be done very quickly. I will give the Minister an example of a school in my constituency, which was built in 1961. Two thirds of the classrooms are under 50 m and approximately one third of them are under 40 m. Some of them are only 18 m, 20 m and 25 m. Schools like that do not have a clue how they will manage this requirement.

My final point is that there is a programme for Government commitment to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. We put down a motion on that on Tuesday night and the Minister has hardly commented on it. We are in the middle of a pandemic that has underlined the danger in having oversized classrooms. Does the Minister intend to tackle pupil-teacher ratios in this budget? Does she intend to reduce oversized classes? That needs to happen for social distancing and safety but for educational reasons also.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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On that point, prior to 2016, teachers were allocated to primary schools at a general average of one teacher for every 28 pupils, but budget 2016 improved that ratio by one point to 27:1. Budget 2018 provided for a further point improvement to the staffing schedule so that teachers are allocated on a general average of one teacher for every 26 pupils, with effect since September 2018. This is the lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever at primary school. I am very conscious of the staffing schedule and the need to prioritise teacher allocations in primary schools given their vital role in communities across the country. I am looking at how best to make further progress in reducing the primary school teacher-pupil ratio in the context of the programme for Government implementation. I will continue to look at that in the context of the budget as we move forward.