Staffing Levels at Labasheeda N.S. – Topical Issues Debate

March 26th, 2014 - Pat Breen

Wednesday, 26 March 2014
Topical Issues
Deputy Pat Breen T.D.

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter this afternoon.

The current criteria being applied for the allocation of teachers in rural schools is causing a lot uncertainty and concern in rural communities, and I believe a more flexible approach must be taken by the Department of Education and Skills. I have raised this issue on a number of occasions by way of parliamentary questions, because the current system is casting a cloud over many thriving rural communities which fear the devastating effect that a loss of a teacher would have on them. We cannot compare rural and urban schools either in geographical terms or in terms of their importance in underpinning the social and economic fabric of communities. The fact is that if the local school closes in a rural area, parents have to transport their children up to ten miles to attend an alternative school, and that rips the heart out of the community. We could avoid this disruption for schools and communities if the pupil-teacher ratio for rural schools were less punitive and if the system took account of specific circumstances and fluctuations in population.

Such a unique circumstance has arisen at Labasheeda national school, which is located in a rural parish in west Clare in my own constituency. The two-teacher school is to lose one of its teachers from September 2014. It has been through the appeals process but its appeal has been unsuccessful. The decrease in the school’s enrolment is not based on demographics. It is a unique situation, which I have outlined separately to the Minister, in which extraordinary circumstances led to the reduction in numbers currently attending the school. However, while enrolment figures fell during the turmoil, the future is far more positive. The school has signed pre-enrolment forms from parents for the next five years, which shows their commitment to the school and confirms that the school can reverse the decline. The whole-school evaluation, WSE, report from 2012 indicates high standards and a parental survey shows there is overwhelming support for the work being done at the school. If Labasheeda national school is reduced to a one-teacher school, it will mean the remaining teacher will be expected to deliver the full curriculum to eight different grades. Similar problems arise in other rural one-teacher schools. As well at the issue of the curriculum, the question arises as to how the teacher is going to manage the school alone. Recently, another rural school that is losing a teacher was in touch with me and I have put the case to the Department for providing a classroom assistant in the interests of health and safety.

This week, by way of parliamentary question, I also raised the issue of small rural schools, and I thank the Minister for this response. I understand from the reply that the configuration of small primary schools has been examined by the Department in a value for money review and that this review will inform future policy direction in this area. In my view, future policy direction for small rural schools cannot be based solely on pounds, shillings and pence. It must take into consideration the social and economic value of these schools and their importance to their communities.
It is clear from reports I read in an article in the Irish Examiner this week that while the number of primary school mergers doubled last year, most did not involve small rural schools. Merging is simply not an option for small rural schools, as they are geographically isolated with no access to public transport.

I ask that the Minister publish the aforementioned review as a priority so that we can have a debate on this very important issue. In the meantime, I ask him to give Labasheeda national school a break. It needs the breathing space to allow it recover from what has been a very difficult time in its history. What is the point in taking away one of the mainstream teachers from September when 12 months down the line it will have the numbers to re-engage that teacher? That makes no sense and it will only cause unnecessary disruption for the school and for the community of Labasheeda. I ask the Minister to relax the policy criteria to take account of such special cases. Labasheeda national school will recover provided it is given the opportunity to do so, and I ask the Minister to take account of this unique situation.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Sean Sherlock): I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.
The staffing schedule is the mechanism used for allocating mainstream teaching posts to all schools. It operates in a clear and transparent manner, treating all similar types of schools equally irrespective of location, and on the basis of a general average of one classroom teacher for every 28 pupils with lower thresholds for DEIS band one schools. As part of the 2012 budget decisions, there is 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 while the final phase will take effect from September 2014.
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 entitles 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, seeking 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 on 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, then 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 feature on our education landscape.

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Looking around at the many Members in the Chamber, the people of Labasheeda would have never thought they would have such an interested audience in their school. I did not realise so many Ministers were interested in the school either.
Deputy Finian McGrath: Deputy Breen is showing leadership and courage.
Deputy Pat Breen: I am sure the Minister might now consider keeping the two teachers in the schools, given the number of Ministers, backbenchers and media here. I hope it will put pressure on the Minister to rethink the position on small schools.

Small schools in the country are having problems.
Deputy Finian McGrath: The Deputy should throw in the small schools of Donnycarney too.
Deputy Pat Breen: Deputy Finian McGrath would not understand the situation in rural communities and the effect the closure of a small school can have on its community. Not only have rural communities been devastated by recent storms, but they have been hit by unemployment and other problems.
The value for money report into small schools needs to be published as soon as possible, as it will be critical for small schools continuing. They have an important role to play. Once a small school goes from a rural village, the village dies. Will the Minister give due consideration to having an exception for these types of schools in communities where the population has temporarily decreased but there is evidence that enrolments will increase in the next four to five years? As I said earlier, keeping such schools open would be only for 12 months until enrolments pick up. It would not cost the Department too much to keep an extra teacher on even as an assistant for health and safety reasons.
Deputy Sean Sherlock: The good Clareman that the Deputy is, he hurled the ball very well on that one.
Deputy Pat Breen: The Minister is a good Corkman so he would know.
Deputy Sean Sherlock: I sympathise with the Deputy as I too represent a rural constituency, Cork East, where our schools face similar challenges. The Government has set out criteria which are open to the rigours of an independent appeals review. If an enrolment could be increased in September 2014, there is a mechanism for the school and community to come back in.
Deputy Finian McGrath: The Government is still closing small schools.

Uimhir:282,

Ceist Pharlaiminte

Chun an Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíoctha
To the Minister for Education and Science

To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he will review the
pupil/teacher criteria for small schools to allow for population fluctuations
year on year in the interests of restoring certainty for the schools and
communities involved (details supplied)..
– Pat Breen.

the current situation is causing a lot of uncertainty for schools and teachers
in view of thefact that the disruption which is being caused for schools who
may not have sufficient enrolment figures for 2014 for example but who will
have sufficient enrolment figures for 2015.

* For WRITTEN answer on Tuesday, 25th March, 2014
Reference Number: 12888/14, 14075/14

Freagra

Minister Ruairí Quinn

The allocation of teaching posts to schools is done in a transparent manner
using published criteria. Unlike most other areas of the public service
teaching vacancies are being filled in accordance with the published criteria.
Normally, the staffing of schools is determined by the enrolments of the
previous September. However, the staffing arrangements also include provision
for schools that are projecting significant increases in their enrolments for
the start of the school year to be allocated additional classroom teachers. The
staffing arrangements for the 2014/15 school year (Circular 0007/2014) were
published in January, 2014.

As part of the Budget 2012 decisions, there is 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 less. The first phase of the budget
measure took effect from September 2012. The final phase of the budget measure
takes effect from September 2014.

An appeals process is available to small schools which have had their staff
number reduced as a result of the budget measure. A school with four classroom
teachers or less which is losing a teacher or failed to gain an additional
teacher as a result of the Budget 2012 measure can submit an appeal to the
Primary Staffing Appeals Board. In this regard small schools will not lose
their classroom post if they are projecting sustainable increased enrolments in
September 2014 that would be sufficient to allow them to retain their existing
classroom posts over the longer term.

The Primary Staffing Appeals Board operates independently of the Department and
its decision is final.

Educational quality for the pupils has to be one of the main criteria in any
consideration of primary school size. It is also necessary to consider the
needs of local communities and of course there are wider social and cultural
factors that need to be considered. Given our population growth, we have
increasing enrolment at all levels of education which is expected to continue
in the medium term. Many pupil places are required in areas that currently have
no school provision at all and we have schools in areas of stable or declining
population with relatively low pupil numbers.

Our current configuration of small primary schools has been examined by my
Department in a value for money review which I am considering in consultation
with my Government colleagues. My intention is to publish the report of the
review on completion of this consideration process. It is expected that the
report of the review process will provide a valuable evidence base which will
help inform future policy direction in the area of small primary schools.