Seanad debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

9:00 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thought I was second.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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No, the Senator is number one. He got a promotion.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I wish to raise the situation of Scoil Barra Naofa Cailíní, Beaumont in Cork and paint a picture for the Minister of State regarding staffing and pupil numbers. I hope the Minister of State will have good news because this is a progressive and modern school which has tried to get the right balance between class sizes and teachers. It has a difficulty with allocations.

In the school year 2009-10, there were three teachers for the 70 children in fifth and sixth classes. Children in those classes require individual attention, a specific lesson plan and a teacher who is proactive with them. Can the Minister of State imagine having three teachers for 70 children, mixing fifth and sixth classes? The school must make two junior infants classes for 2010-11 which will leave only one teacher for 39 children in sixth class.

The Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, spoke about the importance of education when replying to the previous debate, as did the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, when introducing the debate. I have heard the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, also speak of the importance of it. The Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, mentioned the smart economy. Having 39 pupils in sixth class, is 14 above the recommended size of 25 for a mixed class. The recommended size for an unmixed class is 30. Therefore, a class of 39 is above both those recommended maximum sizes.

I am not sure when the Minister of State was last in a classroom but I taught in a classroom a few years ago. Connecting with children of that young age is not about being a babysitter or placating them, rather it is about education, integration and having a child-centred approach, about which Piaget spoke so eloquently. To combine children in different age bands in a big class is not educationally sound or workable.

I hope this school will be able to reappoint and retain its tenth teacher for the next school year. If we are serious about the importance of education, we must consider what the school principals are doing now. As they approach the end of this school year, they are juggling numbers, assigning teachers to classes and planning ahead. They require flexibility. There needs to be willingness in the Department to be a little flexible in allowing what is best for children, not for the mandarins in Department of Finance nor for the bureaucrats, but for the children for the sake of education and for what is important for young people at second level.

I have been in classrooms where students through no fault of theirs or of their teacher have fallen behind in reading, writing and mathematics because of the class size, the lack of individual attention and the failure to have an individual lesson plan because the primary school class was too big.

I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure that Scoil Barra Naofa Cailiní in Beaumont is able to maintain its teaching cohort of ten teachers and that it will have adequate resources to retain its tenth teacher to provide for what is best for the children, which is what we are seeking to achieve. If our last debate meant anything, the answer to this matter should be positive. I thank the Cathaoireach for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan.

The staffing schedule impacts on individual schools in different ways depending on whether enrolment is rising or declining. In terms of the position at individual school level the key factor for determining the level of resources provided by the Department is the pupil enrolment at 30 September. The enrolment is applied to a staffing schedule which issues annually from the Department. While the staffing schedule at primary level allocates on the basis of an average number of pupils, each school decides on how to arrange its classes. Combined classes are a feature of the majority of primary schools and this arrangement has no adverse implications for the quality of the education children receive.

From an educational perspective it is important to note that numerous influential reports have highlighted the fact that teacher quality is the single most important factor - far and above anything else - in improving educational outcomes for children.

The Senator will be aware that the renewed programme for Government commits the Government to no further increase in the pupil-teacher ratio in primary and second level schools for the lifetime of the Government. It also provides for 500 teaching posts to be provided between primary and second levels over the next three years over and above additional posts that will arise due to demographic increases. Following consultation with the education partners clear and transparent criteria have been agreed for the allocation of these posts in both sectors.

One hundred of these posts have been allocated to each sector, primary and post-primary in the current school year. At primary level the posts have been allocated to schools that had increased enrolment in the current school year and which, as a result of last year's pupil-teacher ratio change, lost out on a teaching post in this year by either one, two or three pupils.

For the coming school year the additional posts have also enabled some improvement to be made to the staffing schedule at primary level. These improvements are targeted at medium-to-larger schools which are typically under the greatest pressure in class sizes.

The level of teaching resources allocated to individual schools for special needs and language support will be determined following completion of the allocation processes for these posts during the spring and summer period. It is only when all the various allocation processes, including the appeals mechanisms, are fully completed that the final staffing position for individual schools will be fully determined. It is important for all schools to ensure that whatever teaching resources the Government can afford in these unprecedented economic times are used to maximum effect to achieve the best possible outcome for children.

It is open to any board of management to submit an appeal under certain criteria to an independent appeal board. Details of the criteria for appeal are contained in the staffing schedule, Circular 0021/2010 and Circular 0015/2009 - Meeting the needs of pupils learning English as an Additional Language. Both circulars are available on the Department's website.

The school referred to by the Senator submitted an appeal to the Primary Staffing Appeal Board which was considered by the board at its meeting on 21 June 2010. The board decided that a departure from the staffing schedule was not warranted in this case and the school has been notified in this regard. The appeal board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. I thank the Senator again for raising this matter.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply, the last paragraph of which was disappointing. It illustrates that the Department does not show flexibility or willingness to allow students to flourish and to let their light shine. I know this area is not the Minister of State's remit but I am disappointed with the reply.