Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Cuirim fáilte arís roimh an Aire Stáit. I raise this matter on the Adjournment because of a situation in County Clare in Labasheeda national school. The Minister of State may or may not be familiar with the location, which is in west Clare.
I did not doubt that he knew about it, considering his knowledge of County Clare. He will also know that Labasheeda is a good community. Unfortunately, due to a whole host of circumstances, the school finds itself temporarily in a situation in which its student number is under 20. As we know, 20 students seems to be the cut-off for retaining a second teacher. The school has appealed the decision not to facilitate a second teacher but the appeal was unsuccessful, even though the school clearly demonstrated in its appeal the reasons for the loss of pupils and the projection - in fact, the concrete fact - of an increase in student numbers in 2015 to 2016. The school will have more than 20 pupils next year.
I have always maintained that deciding a school's fate on a specific date without taking other mitigating circumstances into consideration is unfair. We need a multi-annual holistic approach to decision-making. Plus, 16 or 17 additional students next year will not benefit from the suite of opportunities that are currently available with two teachers. Areas such as arts and crafts, music, sport, drama and other extra-curricular activities could be facilitated by two teachers, and are at present being facilitated by two teachers. With the best will in the world, one teacher would find it very difficult to accommodate all of the activities in spite of their best efforts. Therefore, it is better for a school to have two teachers.
I have looked at the appeal submitted by Labasheeda national school and have seen that its whole-school evaluations and records were extremely positive, so I believe the decision is unfair. The Minister should intervene and reverse his decision. He should give some reassurance and clarity ahead of the Easter period and the summer holidays, for the sake of the teachers, parents, pupils and community of Labasheeda, that they will not lose a teacher for the 2014-2015 academic year. As I have said, it has been clearly documented in the appeal submitted to the Department that the school will have 20-plus students the following year. We need to be fair about the matter and adopt a holistic view.
The school has made a big contribution to the area over the years, and given the fact that there is a very good preschool associated with Labasheeda national school, the decision does not make sense. That is why I have taken the step of raising the matter on the Adjournment tonight.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the position regarding staffing arrangements in primary schools.
The staffing schedule is the mechanism used for allocating mainstream teaching posts to all schools. It operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of school equally, irrespective of location. It currently operates on the basis of a general average of one classroom teacher for every 28 pupils, with lower thresholds for DEIS band 1 schools.
As part of the budget 2012 decisions, there was a phased increase in the number of pupils required to gain and retain a classroom teaching post in small primary schools with four teachers or fewer. The first phase of the budget measure took effect from September 2012 and the final phase of the budget measure will take effect from September 2014. An appeals process is available to small schools that have had their staff numbers reduced as a result of the budget measure. A school with four classroom teachers or fewer which is losing a teacher or has failed to gain an additional teacher as a result of the budget 2012 measure can submit an appeal to the Primary Staffing Appeals Board. Details of the appeals process are published annually as part of the staffing arrangements for primary schools which are set out in Circular 7/2014 and available on the Department's website.
Labasheeda national school has two classroom teachers in the current school year based on an enrolment of 21 pupils at 30 September 2012. The enrolment at 30 September 2013 was 17 pupils, which entitled the school to one classroom teacher for the coming school year. The school is projecting an enrolment of 16 pupils for 30 September 2014. The school submitted an appeal to the February 2014 meeting of the Primary Staffing Appeals Board under the small school criterion. It sought the retention of its second classroom post for the 2014-2015 school year based on the projected enrolment of 16 pupils at 30 September 2014. A projected enrolment of at least 20 pupils at 30 September 2014 would be required for the school to remain as a two-teacher school. Given that it projected just 16 pupils, the appeal was deemed ineligible for consideration by the board on the basis that the grounds of the appeal did not meet with the appeal criteria. The board of management of the school has been notified of this decision. The appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. If other pupils decide to enrol in the school and its projected enrolment in September 2014 increases to the required 20 pupils, it can submit a new appeal to the appeals board.
The Government recognises that small schools are an important part of the social fabric of rural communities. They will continue to be a feature of our education landscape. In these extremely challenging times, all public servants are being asked to deliver public services on a reduced level of resources, and teachers in small schools cannot be immune from this requirement.
How best to sustain provision for widely dispersed and small local communities does present as a particular challenge, especially in any locality where enrolment is declining to single figures. The Government is intent on fostering pluralism in school provision. Supporting small communities, including minorities, in maintaining their schools is part of that policy.
The Minister is mindful of the concerns of smaller schools and rural schools. Our overall primary school enrolment has grown rapidly in recent years, and this is set to continue. In managing the resource consequences of this situation, it is important that decisions on school provision and organisation are based on a rigorous evaluation of requirements and needs not just at a local level but also at regional and national levels.
Our current configuration of small primary schools has been examined by the Department in a value for money review. The review took account of the ethos of schools and the locations of small schools relative to other schools of a similar type. The Minister is currently considering the report of the value for money review of small primary schools. He is doing so in consultation with his Government colleagues. His intention is to publish the report on completion of this consideration process. I am not in a position to give a precise publication date at this time.
I thank the Minister of State for his candid and frank reply on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. I appreciate that the Minister of State is only delivering the bad news on behalf of somebody else.
We need to become mature when we look at these types of scenario, because every scenario is unique and different. It is most regrettable that the school became ineligible even for the appeal, given that the school clearly demonstrated that its numbers will increase to more than 20 pupils beyond next year. It is extremely difficult for one teacher, with the best will in the world, to provide a suite of educational services to classes that span baby infants to sixth class, a matter which should have been taken cognisance of. However, it is not too late. I appeal to the Minister of State to convey to the Minister the concerns that I have expressed here today and ask him to identify a mechanism to resolve this impasse.
I thank the Senator again. I come from a similar type of rural background to that of the Senator and represent the rural constituency of Donegal south west, which has many small schools. I also taught in a relatively small school that comprised 250 pupils and four or five teachers when I left, but things have changed a lot since then. I certainly will convey the Senator's sentiments and views to the Minister on his return.