Wednesday, 9 April 2008
I raise the need for the Minister for Education and Science to implement the programme for Government relating to class sizes in both primary and secondary schools, reducing pupil-teacher ratio to the appropriate level of 24 pupils per teacher.
I salute the teachers of Ireland for their recent concentration on the pupil-teacher ratio. It was refreshing to witness the union conferences at Easter and to see that the teachers of Ireland have put pupils first. The pupil is, thanks to these teachers, centre stage. There was a time when people might have been forgiven for thinking the unions did not put the pupil before their interests. It is time to acknowledge this has been done by all the teachers' unions, and let us salute and applaud them.
As the Minister is well aware, the problem is that the Government has broken its agreement in the programme for Government to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 20 or below. This a very serious matter for the future of the nation. The Minister is aware that former Minister, Mr. Donnacha O'Malley, is rightly credited with being the creator of the Celtic tiger. That is not because he spent an enormous amount of money on business but because he went on the plinth out there one day in 1967 and announced that secondary education would be free. If the Government does not regard education and the need to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to an acceptable level of 20 or below as imperative, the economy and the pupils will suffer in years to come. It is short sighted of the Government not to take the measures it has promised. It is a betrayal of the teachers and future generations.
Every survey I have seen in the UK and US has found that the higher achievement of pupils is directly related to reduced numbers in classes. This is particularly important at primary level. Every survey I have seen has found that if one does not educate people at primary level with a low pupil-teacher ratio it is very difficult to compensate later by reducing class sizes at secondary level. It must permeate throughout all classes and all parts of the educational system. We must start young and continue it. The Government's failure to do this is a betrayal of future generations and teachers.
There are great practical problems with overcrowded classrooms and the Minister is well aware of that. Our reputation in Europe is falling fast. The Minister may correct me, but I think we have the second worst pupil-teacher ratio in Europe, second to the UK, which compensates to some extent by putting assistant teachers in some classes. This leads to overcrowding and a bad reputation for the Irish educational system. We are under-funded not just in primary and secondary education but these are the crucial areas about which the Government has made promises on which it is reneging. If classrooms are overcrowded, education will suffer and the environment in which pupils are educated will suffer. There will be fewer offices for teachers. As a result we have many schools being established or extended into Portakabins where facilities are less than optimal. Education and health suffer and safety issues raise their heads. We are running into a situation which is indefensible in terms of the long-term care of children and teachers.
Above all, if the Minister damages or destroys the morale of the teaching profession, this will be reflected on the pupils. This is happening. We have a noble teaching profession which has decided the pupil must come first. The Minister and the Government are saying they have decided otherwise and pupils are not a priority. This kicks in the face of people who have a vocation and who are prepared to practice that vocation for the good of the pupils of Ireland. Motivation will suffer, stress will accelerate and the quality of education will deteriorate. I plead with the Minister to listen to what the teachers say and acknowledge it as a bona fide attempt to improve the education of this country and the lot of our pupils and to immediately take measures to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 20 or below.
I thank Senator Ross for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to outline to the House the improvements that have been made in this area in recent years. In the primary sector alone there are approximately 6,000 more teachers on the Department's payroll than there were in 2002. Extra teachers have been provided in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years specifically to reduce class sizes. The latest figures available on average primary class sizes relate to the 2006-07 school year. At that time, the average class size was 24 and the pupil-teacher ratio, including resource teachers etc., was 16.4:1 compared to 22.2:1 in the 1996-97 school year.
In the 2006-07 year schools were staffed on the basis of a general rule of at least one classroom teacher for every 28 children. Given that the national average was 24, many schools benefited from much more favourable staffing ratios than this. For the current school year, extra teachers were provided to staff schools on the basis of a general rule of at least one classroom teacher for every 27 children.
Under the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme, substantially lower class sizes apply in the case of urban primary schools with the highest concentration of disadvantage. The programme for Government contains a commitment to provide 4,000 additional primary teachers between 2007 and 2012. With the extra teachers already put in place this year and those provided for in the budget we are ahead of target with about 2,000 extra primary teachers to be delivered within just two years.
Significant improvements have been also made in the staffing of our second level schools in recent years. By the 2006-07 school year, there were in excess of 2,000 more second level teachers than in 1997 and the pupil-teacher ratio had been reduced from 16.1: 1 to 13.1:1. Post-primary schools are accorded a considerable local discretion in the way in which they organise matters of subject choice, teacher allocation and class size. Some second level classes can be very small, where few students choose that subject. A student who is in a class of 25 in English, could be in a class of ten in physics or a modern language subject. Similarly, the same teacher may have a large class at honours level and a small class at pass level. Both primary and post-primary schools can avail of an independent appeals process on the adequacy of their teacher allocation.
The most recent edition of the OECD report Education at a Glance found that the average class size at lower secondary in Ireland was considerably lower than the OECD average. During the lifetime of this Government, we are committed to prioritising reductions in the size of Irish, English and Maths classes at second level. The timing of these improvements will depend on the resources available in future budgets.
The Senator will be aware that budget 2008 provided €4.6 billion or €380 million extra for teacher pay and pensions. This is a very substantial level of additional investment in the current economic environment and reflects the huge improvements that have been made in school staffing in recent years. The Minister for Education and Science has made it clear that while she would have liked to have been able to reduce primary class sizes further for the next school year that was not possible in the present economic circumstances.
Teacher numbers at both levels have increased significantly in recent years. We are committed to further improvements over the lifetime of the Government. We will also 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. I thank the Senator for raising this matter in the House.
I note the most important sentence in the Minister of State's reply, namely, "The Minister for Education and Science has made it clear that while she would have liked to have been able to reduce primary class sizes further for the next school year that simply was not possible in the present economic circumstances". That indicates to me that the pupils of Ireland are the first casualties of the cutbacks by this Government. Can the Minister of State give me a commitment that the commitment made in the programme for Government on pupil-teacher ratios will be held to before the lifetime of this Government is over?