As recently as Tuesday, I met the Taoiseach privately about small schools, as I have done on numerous occasions. I also tabled a debate in the Dail with Minister Jan O’Sullivan on Tuesday afternoon, as I have done on numerous occasions (below). The Dail records show that my work on this problem has been robust and consistent since it became an issue in 2012 and I won’t give up until the matter is resolved.
Brendan Griffin TD
Deputy Brendan Griffin:
Tuesday, February 10th 2015
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Ceann Comhairle as ucht an deis an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a phlé anseo inniu. Tá daoine i mo dháilcheantair buartha agus tá eagla orthu i dtaobh an ábhair seo. Tá muintir Chiarraí ag lorg athraithe ar an bpolasaí seo.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this matter and the Minister for being present in the Chamber to discuss it with me. As someone who is in her first year in the job, I acknowledge that this is an issue she has inherited and is not a problem of her doing, but it is to be hoped it is something she will be able to address. The issue to which I refer is the threshold changes for small two, three and four-teacher schools, primarily in rural parts of the country. It was introduced in the 2012 budget at the end of 2011 and has seen the thresholds for two, three and four-teacher schools increase from 12 to 20, 49 to 56 and 81 to 86, respectively. In Gaeltacht areas the threshold has increased from 76 to 86, which is a very large jump. The problems being created as a result are causing major difficulties for children throughout the country who find themselves in much larger classes, sometimes in rooms with three, four or even five streams of 27, 28, 29 or 30 children.
I acknowledge that we have a problem with class sizes in Ireland in general. In urban areas it is not uncommon to have class sizes of more than 30 children with one teacher. That is now happening in rural areas, but to compound the problem there are three, four or five streams in many classrooms. Having spent a brief amount of time in the classroom, I would rather teach 35 children in one stream than 30 children across four or five streams. It is giving children, predominantly those in rural areas, a poorer start in life.
The real tragedy is that the changes have not resulted in a significant cash saving. The figures involved are quite low. According to a response to a parliamentary question I tabled, the amounts involved were about ■2 million in 2012-2013 and ■2 million or ■2.5 million in 2013-2014. There may be a cumulative figure of more than ■10 million over a number of years, but that does not take into account the long-term impact or the cost of keeping on the dole someone who would otherwise be in employment. This needs to be a priority for the Government. I appreciate this is an issue the Minister has inherited, but she has an opportunity to try to find a solution.
I have raised this matter consistently. I find myself in the Dáil again today and have spoken about this on the Topical Issues debate numerous times. I have raised the matter at committee level. Behind closed doors I have raised the matter at parliamentary party level. I have raised the matter directly, individually and privately with Minister and the Taoiseach.
Rural communities are suffering as a result of this. There may have been a case to be made in the past for clusters of small two-teacher schools, all of which were close to each other, with 12 or 13 pupils. There is a big difference between that and the situation I outlined, where there may be 55 children in a school which is isolated and amalgamation is not an option. Such schools may have two teachers with 25 or 30 pupils across multiple streams in two classrooms. With an improving economy and increased revenue coming in, this must be a priority we can address. It is something we need to tackle. We need to put our children first.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan):
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which he has raised, as he said, on a number of occasions. I am aware that a large public meeting on this topic took place in south Kerry last night, which was addressed by the president of the INTO and others. The Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, has given me copies of the petition which was presented.
The Government recognises that small schools are an important part of the social fabric of rural communities. As someone who attended a small primary school, I am particularly aware of their significance to rural communities. Small schools will continue to be a feature of our education landscape. Somehow, we have to find a way to have an open conversation about how small schools, as well as other important social infrastructure, can be preserved and sustained in rural communities, in particular in isolated rural areas.
As part of the budget 2012 decisions, the number of pupils required to gain and retain a classroom teaching post in small primary schools was gradually increased between September 2012 and September 2014. The final phase of the budget measure took effect from September 2014, and no further changes were made as a result of the previous budget. That measure reflected the reality that small primary schools generally had better average class sizes than medium to large schools, and it has certainly put the staffing arrangements for small schools on a more sustainable basis when considered purely from the perspective of public finances.
For example, it was arguably never affordable to allocate a second teacher to a school with just 12 pupils, giving an average class size of just six pupils. That budget measure was applied to all small schools equally, irrespective of their location, ethos or language of instruction. An appeals process was put in place for small schools losing a teacher or that failed to gain an additional teacher as a result of the budget measures. I know that this appeal process was put in place after significant contacts between members of the House and my predecessor. This allowed small schools which were projecting increased enrolments in the coming September that would be sufficient to allow them to retain or gain a classroom post to submit an appeal to the Primary Staffing Appeals Board.
The staffing arrangements for the 2015-2016 school year, including the appeals process, will be published shortly. As I have mentioned, the budget which was passed by this House three months ago did not provide for any change to the staffing of small schools. My focus in budget 2015 was on obtaining the additional funding that was necessary to provide for demographic growth. For the first time in recent years, I was able to deliver an increased budget for education this year. That budget will allow us to recruit the 1,700 additional teachers, resource teachers and SNAs which our children need and deserve.
I was also able to secure the funding necessary to begin education inspections of early years settings, to reform the junior cycle and to continue funding the literacy and numeracy strategy which has delivered such great results for children throughout Ireland, but I could not secure the funding necessary for everything that Members of this House might have liked. That means I do not have additional funding to change the staffing of small schools or class sizes generally.
I also do not have additional funding to increase school capitation, restore guidance counsellors, invest more in higher education or any number of other pressing needs, but in the previous budget I did secure the first increase in recent years. I am determined to build on that again as part of budget 2016 and to see meaningful additional investments made to education spending. Of course, educational quality for pupils has to be the main criterion in any consideration of primary school size.
It is also necessary to consider the needs of local communities, along with wider social and cultural factors. How best to sustain provision for widely dispersed and small communities does present as a particular challenge.
In particular, we must look again at areas where school enrolment is declining but amalgamation cannot even be considered because there are no other similar schools nearby. That is of particular concern to Deputy Griffin.
A value for money review of small primary school provision has been conducted and I strongly believe it must be published to inform a reasonable and sensible discussion about how we can better support rural school communities. The review takes a comprehensive look at the many aspects of small schools, with the aim of providing useful evidence with which to inform future policy. I thank Deputy Griffin for raising the issue as I know he has a very strong concern in the area.
Deputy Brendan Griffin:
I thank the Minister for her response and anything she can do would be much appreciated. There were 600 people at a meeting last night in Cahersiveen. As the Minister acknowledged, I have worked relentlessly on this issue for the past three years. It is ironic that some of the very same public representatives who aided and abetted in the complete destruction of this economy over the past decade are the same people who are now criticising Government Deputies like me for staying with the issue, working on it and being consistent in trying to find a change that will help rural communities. It is incredible and those people should have a good look in the mirror, consider their past and acknowledge what they are responsible for. They should bear some responsibility now and grow up. I want to keep working on this.
Parents and children are very worried. Every parent wants the very best start in life and opportunities for their child. There are large geographical areas throughout south Kerry where amalgamation will never be an option. There are schools fluctuating both above and below current thresholds which in many cases were comfortably above the thresholds. For a relatively small amount of money, the future of those communities and their schools can be safeguarded. I implore the Minister to do what she can into the future.
In counties like Kerry there are Gaeltacht schools that may be close to non-Gaeltacht schools, so such circumstances must be taken into account. The threshold changes were a very blunt instrument, as I pointed out many times. A one cap fits all approach does not work with small schools. We must put our heads together and find a fairer system that gives every child an opportunity and does not punish children for living in rural communities. I thank the Minister and ask her again to do everything possible with the issue.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan:
I acknowledge Deputy Griffin’s particular concern. He has raised the matter many times and I am conscious there is a particular issue with widely dispersed small communities. We obtained a limited increase in last year’s budget, which creates difficulties for us with the various issues being proposed within education. I am certainly conscious of the issues involved in this, particularly the difficulties of isolated schools. We will also take note of the Gaeltacht school matter.