Monday, 26 April 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming to the House to discuss this issue. Clooney National School is a small school in a rural setting outside Ennis, in the greater east Clare area. It is currently a four-teacher school. As a result of a drop in student numbers to 73 this year, there is a threat to its four-teacher status. As the Minister of State knows, the retention number is 79. I appeal to the Minister and the Department to give special consideration in this particular year for a number of reasons. First, an effort is being made to rejuvenate rural Ireland and if we do anything that reduces the level of teaching in smaller rural schools it impacts on that policy. Second, if this school is reduced to a three-teacher school effectively it will be teaching 73 pupils in three rooms rather than four. At a time when we are trying to keep children apart we are cramming them into three rooms as opposed to four, which does not make sense. It is a small school. The rooms are small. It has been built for a very considerable period and therefore it does not lend itself well to cram that number of students into three rooms when it was formally four. From a public health point of view, it would make sense to keep it a four-teacher school and retain that fourth teacher.
Across the board, children have suffered so much in the past year and half. They were out of education settings for a prolong period. While I am making a particular request on behalf of Clooney National School, the Department should look wider. The retention figure of 79 should be completely cast aside this year. Teachers should be kept in place because of the issues that have arisen with children effectively being out of school for the past year and a half. We should leave teachers in place for one more year and examine it again next year. In the context of Clooney National School, the numbers will be back up next year on the basis of what is expected in terms of young students coming to the school. In other words, it will be back to that retention level next year. I suspect other schools would benefit from the same consideration.In the light of everything that this happened with Covid-19 and of trying to ensure children remain apart in school insofar as they can, and recognising their education has been truncated and disrupted very significantly and that we are only placing a greater burden on schools that will lose a teacher where the class size and pupil-teacher teacher ratio will increase at a time when the children concerned can least afford this, on this occasion I appeal to the Minister of State to look favourably on Clooney National School and wider afield to schools throughout the country. There is a recognition that because of everything that kids have suffered, we should try to ensure there is some kind of a stable environment now for the next 12 months to help them to catch up on what is an important part of their formation in education.
I thank Senator Dooley for asking this question pertaining to Clooney National School. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and indeed the pupil enrolment on the previous 30 September. The previous budgets of 2016 and 2018 improved the staffing schedule by one point on both occasions to its historically lowest level ever of one teacher to 26 pupils. Budget 2021 has implemented a further one point reduction for the 2021-2022 school year, so that primary schools will be allocated teaching posts on an average basis of one classroom for every 25 pupils. In addition, there has been a three point reduction in the retention schedule which will assist schools which would otherwise be at risk of losing teaching posts. This measure will help ensure better teacher retention in primary schools while also ensuring fewer pupils are required to retain or recruit a teacher.
As to staffing in small schools, while budget 2012 increased the appointment and retention ratios for small schools, that is, schools with up to four classroom teachers, improvements to the staffing of these school has been made in recent years. Improved retention thresholds for the second, third and fourth classroom teacher and the improved appointment and retention thresholds for two-teacher schools situated 8 km or more from the nearest school of the same type of patronage and-or language of instruction were introduced for the 2015-2016 school year. Budget 2017 announced two adjustments to one-teacher schools. Where the school is the sole primary school on an island, the school will be able to appoint a second teacher. An additional appeal option was introduced for single teacher schools with pupils across six or more class groups allowing them to apply for appointment or retention of a second teacher on reduced enrolment thresholds. Small schools have also benefited from the improvements to the staffing schedule introduced in 2016, 2018 and again in 2021, which has brought the teacher allocation ratio in all primary schools to the most favourable ever seen at primary level.
As to the Senator's specific question around Clooney National School, this school, as the Senator has mentioned, currently has four classroom teachers. The enrolment required to retain the fourth teacher, as the Senator is correctly pointed out, is 79 pupils. As the school’s enrolment fell from 81 in September 2019 to 73 in September 2020, the school is due to have its teaching staff reduced by one in September. I understand it is six pupils short of the requisite eligibility criteria. The staffing process includes an appeals mechanism for schools to submit a staffing appeal under certain published criteria. The primary staffing appeals board will consider staffing appeals in respect of staffing for the 2021-2022 school year from schools later this month. The board will meet again in June and in October. The staffing schedule operates in a very clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. A blanket freeze on the normal arrangements for allocations for one cohort of schools would introduce a significant difficulty. The rationale of the Department is that all schools are treated the same. It would be of value to Clooney National School, based on the comments the Senator has made that the school is only six pupils short, to note that next year there will be sufficient numbers to bring it up to the 79-pupil level.I hear the Senator's concerns about the rooms being small and that there might be public health issues. I will bring those concerns to the Minister for Education.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate her being here and, hopefully, taking those comments back to the Minister. In addition to the general appeals system, I ask that special consideration be given this year, in a blanket way, to all schools. Clouna National School, close to Ennistymon, is going from three teachers to two under the staffing schedule. The children in Clouna and many other schools dotted around the country have suffered so much. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Government to give serious attention to the retention of the status quowith regard to number of teachers, notwithstanding the fact that some schools have dropped below the retention level, as a special measure in response to the Covid crisis and due to the fact children have been out of school for so long. They need every possible intervention to catch up and that is more difficult in smaller rural schools. I thank the Minister of State for her consideration and I hope that is something the Government can consider in time.
One of the difficulties is that all schools have to be treated the same, otherwise there would be inequity in the system and it would disadvantage all other schools of a similar size which have lost teachers in recent years. It is an important feature of the staffing schedule that all schools are treated equally and fairly. The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. I will raise the Senator's concerns with the Minister, Deputy Foley. This school is only short six staff and will revert next year to the requisite retention number of 79. I understand the concerns the Senator has in relation to the school. The school can appeal, like any school. The appeals process is the only mechanism open and available to it at the moment.