Seanad debates

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

6:00 am

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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As Senator Healy Eames has a pressing engagement, she wishes to raise her matter first.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, my county colleague. I am grateful to Senator Whelan for allowing me to go first, as the timing clashes with my motion at a parliamentary party meeting.

On behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, will the Minister of State review the Government's position on small rural schools in light of the impact on education and communities? The Government is seeking to find 100 teaching posts this year by increasing teacher retention numbers based on last September's enrolment figures. This will pose a problem, as the proposed changes to rural schools will have far-reaching consequences for the economy - the children are our future - for the quality of education and for rural life.

For example, last September scoil náisiúnta an Tuairín in Beal an Daingin was required to have 76 pupils to hold its four teachers from next September. It had 78. In the budget, the requirement was increased to 81. A few days ago, I was shown birth certificates to prove that there were three more children in the community - there used to be four - but they were advised by their teachers to stay at home so that they might mature. Now the school is in line to lose a teacher and it is unfair that 80 pupils will have a pupil-teacher ratio of approximately 27:1, which is higher than the national average.

Moving the goal posts in this way does not make allowance for the complexity of multi-class teaching, including the teaching of children with special educational needs and of foreign languages. Even in Gaeltacht schools, Irish is a foreign language when it is not the language spoken in the home. Gaeltacht schools are a special case. No account is taken of the fact that they do three standardised tests in English, Irish and mathematics versus the two, English and mathematics, done in all other schools.

I have great difficulty with the Minister's argument for low-end numbers. While I agree with him that 12 children per two-teacher school is overly generous, he is moving the goal posts by requiring 20 children to retain two teachers by 2014. Therefore, 19 children across eight years from ages four to 12 will have one teacher despite the evidence that parents pass one-teacher schools by.

This change has angered communities, teachers and parents. It is viewed as an erosion of the community as well as education and will have a greater effect on rural communities. In a three-teacher school like Carna national school, 49 into 11 were required, but the goal posts are being moved by one or two pupils and the school will drop to a two-teacher school. Changes like this are significant for small schools. The Minister must change the date by which the new retention numbers will apply. Instead of being retrospective, they should be based on next September's figures or even later.

I wish to make a special case for rural DEIS schools with legacy posts. There are only 15 such schools, one of which is in Carraroe. The community has an 80% unemployment rate and the school has been conducting early interventions and reading recovery, but when it loses a teacher, it will no longer be able to do so. We are talking to the wall. The pupils' scores for reading and writing have been increasing. The school is making a difference. We will compromise the quality of education. The Minister has stated strongly that he is for better literacy and numeracy standards, yet we are pulling away the very resource that improves them.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator has gone way over time.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I will summarise my recommendations, as making them is important. I could keep going.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator had four minutes and I must be fair to everyone.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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My apologies. I believed it was five. I have made the education argument, but the community argument is even more important. The Minister should not be seen to be forcing amalgamations. He should ask schools to consider amalgamating and allow communities to plan their own futures. Let us not have Government policy engineering a solution that will erode rural life. The recession is already doing that. The Government should not be offering assistance.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. I thank Senator Fidelma Healy Eames for raising this issue as it affords me the opportunity to explain to the House the reasoning behind the changes to the staffing schedule. The need to effect savings in my Department's budget has required very difficult decisions to be made, especially at a time when the school-going population is increasing. We will need to find places for 70,000 additional students in the system over the next four to five years. Our objective is to be as fair as possible in making the decisions that are necessary.

One third of all public sector employees in the State work in the education sector. As such, it is simply not possible to exempt staffing levels in education from the requirement to reduce expenditure. There was no increase in the budget in the general average of 28:1 used to allocate teachers to primary schools, a safeguard which had been called for by many interested parties. However, the budget included a phased increase in the pupil threshold for the allocation of classroom teachers in small primary schools. The only change this will mean for such schools is that their average class sizes will no longer be as advantageous as they were in the past due to the phased increases in the pupil thresholds in the staffing schedule.

Where schools are claiming to have more pupils next September than they had last September, as referred to specifically by the Senator, they are asking that some allowance be made. The existing staffing appeals process can be accessed by schools which are projecting increased enrolments sufficient to allow them to retain their existing classroom posts in the longer term. The details on how this will operate will be made clear as part of my Department's forthcoming circular, which will issue shortly to all schools, on the staffing arrangements for the 2012-13 school year.

Even when all of the phased increases are implemented, the threshold for a second teacher, at 20 pupils, will be significantly lower than the minimum of 28 that was required for the appointment of a second teacher in rural schools prior to the late 1990s. Rural communities have no reason to fear a forced closure of their local school. Such communities represent a cornerstone of Irish heritage, and their schools are in turn the cornerstone of the communities. The Government remains committed to sustaining those communities. This debate affords me an opportunity to state categorically that this measure is not about closing schools which play such an important part in our communities.

For some schools, amalgamation with a neighbouring school may be a sound option for sustaining school provision in a locality where enrolments are falling. It is for schools themselves to decide whether they want to go that route, however, and the Department will work with them in regard to any such move. The Minister expects the report of the value for money review of small primary schools to be presented to him in the next eight weeks. After he has considered its outcomes and proposals, it will be published and laid before the Oireachtas. This will afford an opportunity to Deputies and Senators to have a wide-ranging debate on its proposals.

I have trust and confidence in the capacity of school principals and teachers to play their part in making the best use of available resources to achieve the best possible educational outcomes for their pupils.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply, although it did not provide any additional enlightenment. Many questions remain - too many of them to address in this debate. I ask only that the Minister of State and his senior colleague would meet the people who may have solutions to this problem. There are solutions that have not yet been put forward and which should be discussed. I thank my colleagues, Senators John Whelan and Darragh O'Brien, for facilitating me in raising this matter.