Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

7:00 pm

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter of Gaelscoil Chnoc na Ré, Ballydoogan, Sligo. I should be able to debate the matter in Irish but I cannot and that may be part of the reason this motion should be listened to and acted upon by the Government. It relates to a decision taken by the Department of Education and Skills whereby this school will lose two permanent teachers at the end of the month and the principal will return to the classroom. Staffing at the school will be reduced from seven classroom teachers and an administrative principal to six teachers, including the principal. As a result, class sizes and the number of mixed classes will increase, despite the number of pupils in the school increasing from 166 to 177 in the past year. The school has been in existence since 1996 and is in temporary accommodation. A health and safety study in 2009 found the school's accommodation to be inadequate despite the high level of educational standards maintained by the teaching staff. The school had a large catchment area as there is no gaelscoil from south Donegal to south Leitrim. A great number of people are serviced by the institution and its growth from an initial 22 students in its founding year has been consistent over the years.

The decision taken by the Department, towards the end of the last Administration, means that the school is to lose two teachers. The favourable pupil-teacher ratio in small and developing gaelscoileanna was to be abandoned with effect from September. Reasonable and proven educational and linguistic reasons support this favourable ratio and we should examine the matter again. The amount of money is small in the greater scheme of things and there are a small number of gaelscoileanna. The Minister has resource issues in the context of scarcity and our changed economic environment but that is the challenge of government, to redeploy resources where they can have the maximum impact. Education is clearly one of those cases.

Next month, €700 million will be paid on unsecured bonds, presumably to one of the great European banks, and a further €1.2 billion will be paid at the beginning of next year. I realise there is a European angle to this but it is incumbent on the Government to look for a reduction on some of the bond terms. That would give adequate resources to deal with smaller issues like the gaelscoileanna, which will have such an impact on the community in Sligo.

An appeal is possible and will be lodged this week. I hope that common sense will prevail rather than a literal interpretation of the rules. This is an independent appeals board but I asked the Minister to provide additional terms of reference to the independent appeals board to use common sense when considering the grounds put forward by gaelscoileanna such as Gaelscoil Chnoc na Ré, when they lose out marginally on the basis of the criteria. It is a double blow in the context of increased number of students. The school will lose not one teacher but two, including the administrative principal.

If it was up to the Minister of State, this would be done as a personal favour to me but I know that central government cannot operate like this. A small number of gaelscoileanna are affected in this way. Immersion education requires to be treated differently, where additional effort and resources are required to deal with an entire curriculum through the medium of Irish. That contributes to the renewal of our language, to which all parties are committed. I hope the Minister of State can be helpful.

8:00 pm

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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Despite Senator MacSharry's lack of Irish, his enthusiasm and passion for the issue is evident. I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank the Senator for raising this issue as it affords me the opportunity to outline the position with regard to the staffing schedule for gaelscoileanna for the 2011-12 school year.

The standardisation of the staffing schedule for gaelscoileanna, so that it is the same as that which applies to primary schools generally, is one of a number of measures introduced in budget 2011 to control and reduce teacher numbers. These changes became effective on 1 September 2011. The school referred to by the Senator now has the same pupil thresholds as ordinary national schools for the appointment and retention of mainstream classroom teachers. Given the financial constraints in which this country now finds itself, it is not possible to reverse these changes. The gaelscoileanna movement is well established and I do not believe that the growth of gaelscoileanna will be impeded by way of this measure.

This change in the staffing schedule has resulted in an overall reduction of the order of 50 posts in gaelscoileanna. There are currently more than 1,500 teaching posts in these schools.

The Government will endeavour to protect front-line education services as far as possible. However, this must be done within the context of bringing overall public expenditure into line with what we can afford as a country. All areas of expenditure, including funding for gaelscoileanna, must be managed on a reduced level of resources. The challenge will be to ensure the resources provided are used to maximum effect in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for pupils.

Under the revised staffing schedule for gaelscoileanna, Gaelscoil Chnoc na Ré, Ballydoogan, County Sligo, was allocated a staffing of a principal and five mainstream classroom teachers, based on its reduced enrolment of 166 on 30 September 2011. While mainstream staffing for any school year is based on the previous September's enrolment, there is a provision whereby schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional mainstream posts on developing grounds, using projected enrolment. The school in question was allocated two additional mainstream posts on developing grounds, based on a projected increased enrolment for 30 September 2011. The school has now informed the Department that it has not achieved its projected increased enrolment and the posts have therefore been suppressed with effect from 4 November 2011.

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 0019/2011, which is available on the Department's website. The appeal board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final.

On the issue of accommodation, Gaelscoil Chnoc na Ré is currently located in rented accommodation at St. Mary's GAA club, at a cost of €131,922.54 per annum, which is grant aided by the Department at a rate of 100%. A reconfiguration of the temporary accommodation was approved in 2009, providing a purpose-built two-storey, modular and temporary unit in addition to the clubhouse accommodation at St. Mary's GAA club.

An application for a new school building was received from the school authorities in March 1999 and assigned a band rating of 2.2, in accordance with the Department's published criteria for prioritising large-scale capital projects, which are available on the Department's website. The progression of all large-scale building projects, including this project, from initial design stage through to construction phase will be considered. Their progression is contingent on the availability of funding within the Department's multi-annual school building and modernisation programme and the competing demands for this funding. However, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the progression of the particular project at this time.

I understand fully the frustration of boards of management, teachers and parents when a school is given an allocation which is subsequently withdrawn through no fault of the school. Unfortunately, in the current circumstances, in which we are relying on the generosity of others, resources are limited.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I am disappointed with the Minister of State's response, although I appreciate it is one of those set-piece documents the Department doles out on this issue. The reality is that one size does not fit all when it comes to gaelscoileanna. I appreciate that we must get by with fewer resources, but I remind the Minister of State that we are about to pay back very large amounts of money to unsecured bondholders. Even a slight reduction in that repayment would facilitate the issue of immersion education and the needs of Gaelscoil Chnoc na Ré and others like it throughout the State.

I also remind the Minister of State that at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education, there was cross-party agreement, including from Labour Party Members, that we should lobby heavily on this issue. I ask the Minister of State to urge her colleague, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, to direct that common sense prevail in the appeal process in regard to this school.