Thursday, 26 March 2015
In 1968 John Healy wrote a book called "No-one Shouted Stop: Death of an Irish Town" about his home town of Charlestown, County Mayo. He was lamenting the fact that rural Ireland was dying on its feet. In recent years we have seen 100 banks, around 214 post offices and 1,290 pubs in rural Ireland close. However, what affects rural Ireland more than any of that is the loss of schools and the loss of teachers in rural schools. The previous Minister for Education and Skills stated quite clearly that two-teacher and three-teacher schools should consider their future and consider amalgamation. If a community or parish loses its school, no more houses are built and no more families move into the area. Then one sees the fruition of what John Healy wrote about in 1968, namely, the death of Irish parishes, towns and communities.
The case I raise today is that of a school in west Kerry in a Gaeltacht area. The loss of a teacher and the subsequent loss of resources will mean that schools in the area will be forced to amalgamate. As a result, we will see the very embodiment of what John Healy wrote about in 1968, namely, schools amalgamating and communities dying.
I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills would review the case of the school in west Kerry which is due to lose a teacher and to consider the impact that will have on both the school and the wider community. I ask if there is any possibility that this decision will be reversed.
I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy O'Sullivan. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to respond to the issue he has raised, although I am not too sure why I am responding. The Senator's contribution on Ireland and Kerry was very poetic ---
I know Kerry very well and go there on a regular basis. It is a very beautiful and scenic part of the country and is doing exceptionally well from a tourism perspective. Its employment figures are going in the right direction, as per recent announcements.
To deal with the matter in hand, the Senator will know that the Minister for Education and Skills has outlined the new pupil teacher ratios for small schools. That information is available on the Department's website and I will not rehearse it in the House now. The school to which Senator Daly refers went to the primary staffing appeals board and outlined that its future enrolment would be approximately 93 pupils in September. If the school achieves and maintains an enrolment of 83, it will retain the teacher. The school board has been notified of the decision. The entire process is independent of the Minister and the issue should not have been raised as a Commencement matter because a decision was made some time ago. In that context, I am not too sure why I am here this morning.
The school is not entirely happy. I am asking for a review of this case, on the basis of the criteria that was sent out to the school. The previous Minister for Education and Skills was implementing a system which would have ensured that small rural schools would be closed. The particular school to which I refer would have been affected but this is not just an issue for that school. This is about rural schools not just in Kerry but also in the Taoiseach's home county of Mayo.Almost 50 years ago, John Healy spoke about the loss of services. Over the past number of years, we have seen the loss of services, such as post offices and banks, and of social facilities, such as pubs, but in particular schools. The Minister's stated policy is for the amalgamation of schools in rural areas. By implementing the requirement in regard to the pupil teacher ratio, the Minister was effectively closing schools by stealth over time.
Handing over this decision to an independent body, as was done by previous Governments, is washing one's hands of the process in a Pontius Pilate fashion. The Minister is in charge of education but she is saying she has nothing to do this, the board has been informed and the decision is independent. Many of the decisions in regard to how this country is run have been taken away from Members of this House and of the other one. Education is the most important factor in improving our society. Decisions in regard to schools in rural areas cannot be abdicated to third parties and must rest with the Minister.
I certainly do. I was asked to respond to a particular matter, which I did. I would be quite happy to come back for a Commencement matter to discuss rural Ireland, as would the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Ann Phelan. When the Minister changed the criteria for two, three and four teacher schools, it was widely welcomed. A positive decision has been made and it has been communicated to the school but it is of no use to anybody to generate fear among people about the possible loss of a teacher. The school meets the criteria. It has a projected enrolment of approximately 93 pupils but the criteria is 83.
The Minister sets out policy, as she or he should, and an independent body should decide on appeals. For far too long things were done in a backhanded way in this country and we should not go down that route. The criteria should be laid down by the Government and there should be an independent appeals body. Whether one gets a school, a classroom or an extra teacher should not be because one knows the local Senator, Deputy or councillor. It is the role of the Government to lay down the policy and the criteria and there should be an independent appeals body. That was not always the case but it is under this Government. I am happy that an independent body adjudicates on any appeals, as it should.