Tuesday, 8 March 1994
Dáil Éireann Debate
For more than 150 years the Patrician Brothers and their teachers have provided an outstanding educational service to generations of young Galwegians who attended St. Patrick's National School in the city. An essential element of the broad education of life given at the Patrician Brothers' school was having a seventh class to prepare the boys well for entry into the secondary school system. Numerous testimonials exist from grateful parents expressing appreciation of the value of attendance at the seventh class in that school. Time permitting I will refer to some of those testimonials later.
There are 579 pupils attending the school, 18 teachers, two special teachers and a principal. There are four sixth classes in the school with a total of 140 pupils and approximately 70 stay on each year for a further year to attend seventh class and approximately 44 pupils are taken on at the special request of parents of children attending mostly rural schools around the city. At present there are 114 pupils in seventh class made up of three classes of 38 pupils.
The provision of seventh class has existed in that school for the past 150 years. That class has traditionally catered for three distinct categories of pupils: children who have failed to achieve an adequate level of literacy and numeracy which is critical to their further education; children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds who have greater than usual difficulty  progressing through the primary school cycle and children who are too young and emotionally ill-prepared to progress and integrate successfully at second level.
Four years ago, the Department of Education informed the board of management that the provision of seventh class should end in June 1990. After discussions with the Department a phasing out period of four years was granted. In the intervening period, because of parental demand, Brother Robert Ruane, the principal, reluctantly agreed to increase the number of seventh classes in the school from two to three to accommodate increased numbers demanding placements in those classes. Despite repeated appeals and representations from parents and teachers to rescind the decision arrived at in 1990 and allow the seventh classes to continue, the Department of Education refused to alter its decision. The chairperson of the board of management, Brother Marcus, was informed on 1 March last that the seventh classes should cease at the end of the current school year.
I consider that to be an educationally regressive decision by the Coalition Government. The Minister, who is a teacher, should know the transition between the child-centred primary education system and the more academically orientated secondary system can be difficult and traumatic for children with learning difficulties. The new curriculum purports to allow children to progress at their own pace. Automatic and compulsory progress to second level makes nonsense of this ideology when it is evident that children are not ready.
While one can agree in theory with the Department's policy that all children should progress to second level after eight years in the primary cycle, this only holds true in ideal circumstances. The reality is that not all children are ready to advance to second level for a multiplicity of educational, psychological and social reasons. One of the most trenchant arguments for a seventh class year is that it allows flexibility in the system and gives a vital chance to those children who do  not have an adequate basis in literacy and numeracy and children who are young or immature and provides a much needed opportunity to make transition to secondary cycle easier. Unsought testimonials from parents over the years reinforces that point strongly.
The Department of Education argued that with the introduction of a six year cycle at secondary level that the need for a seventh class is eliminated. However, the proposed transition year is not available in all schools at present and is in most cases a post-junior or leaving certificate year. This is too late for children who for one reason or another are struggling in the first and subsequent years of the secondary school cycle.
Historically, there has always been a demand for a seventh class and at least one seventh class has been in operation in that school for 150 years. Since the population boom of the 1970s, and probably also due to increased pressure on children to achieve high grades at second level, St. Patrick's school has under pressure, provided a second seventh class. Since 1991, again due entirely to demand from parents outside the schools normal catchment areas the principal, Brother Robert Ruane, has provided a third seventh class.
St. Patrick's Brothers National School, since the closure of St. Brendan's, is the only city centre school in Galway. It caters for the school-going populations of the vast sprawls of local authority housing estates on the west and east sides of the city. A significant number of students from those disadvantaged areas do not achieve potential in literacy and numeracy by the end of their primary schooling. Seventh class has been an ideal opportunity to redress that.
Article 42.1 of the Constitution states that parents have the inalienable right and duty to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children. Parents, as the primary educators, should have the option of allowing their children to do a further year at primary level should they deem it necessary for their child's education.
 It is a retrograde step to abandon a system that has worked so well and proved educationally successful down through the years. In view of my cogent arguments I ask the Minister to reconsider her decision.
Minister for Education (Ms Bhreathnach): I am pleased to have the opportunity to outline to the Deputy the position in relation to the promotion of pupils to a seventh class and the related matter of retaining pupils in sixth class. In 1967 my Department issued a circular to the management authorities of all primary schools. This circular clearly outlined my Department's policy in the matter of the promotion of pupils in national schools. The circular stated:
...the normal procedure (for the promotion of pupils in national schools) should be that a pupil is promoted to a higher standard at the end of each school year. There may be cases where the principal teacher feels that a pupil would benefit educationally by being held back for second year in a class. In regard to such cases it is felt that by reference to educational principles they should be minimal: that no pupil should be held back for longer than one year throughout his national school career.
Having regard to Government policy that all children should have the opportunity of having three years post primary education before reaching the minimum school leaving age, Boards of Management are reminded of the terms of Circular 10/67 in the matter of the promotion of pupils in national schools. School authorities should ensure that the promotion and retention of pupils in their schools will have regard to the principles set down in that Circular.
In regard to pupils who have completed sixth standard in a national  school, it would be in accordance with accepted practice that they transfer to post primary school. Accordingly, consideration can be given to their inclusion as eligible pupils for staffing and other purposes for a further period in a national school only in exceptional circumstances.
Turning to the specific case of St. Patrick's national school, the position which developed there is that over the years my Department's policy and guidelines concerning the promotion of pupils have not been implemented. As a result, from staffing and provision of resources perspectives, the school has enjoyed considerable advantage vis-à-vis schools which implemented my Department's policy. I am anxious to ensure that all schools are treated in the fairest possible way. Accordingly, I will not permit schools perpetrate inequalities by disregarding my Department's policies.
I would also point out to the Deputy that the management authorities of St. Patrick's school were granted a concession in 1990 whereby the school was allowed to retain a seventh class for an additional four year period. That decision was not taken by this Government, but it allowed for a phasing out period. The basis for that concession was to allow the school to take the steps necessary to phase out the practices of promoting pupils to a seventh class or allowing pupils to repeat sixth class. In the circumstances, requests for additional time to phase out the practices cannot be considered.
I would make one additional point. The national school curriculum is designed as an eight year programme with provision for an infant's programme of approximately two years duration followed by six years in standards I to VI. Accordingly, there is no approved course of study for a seventh class.
Perhaps the Deputy believes that as a teacher I am not aware of the educational arguments in favour of seventh class. While the practice has been going on for  a long time, perhaps for the 150 years the school has been in existence, matters are quite different now in that there is in place the junior certificate programme, the offer of a transition year and three options in the leaving certificate. It would be much more beneficial for the student to avail of at least three years of a junior certificate programme before reaching the mandatory school leaving age. For those reasons and the fact that two circulars have been issued to this school giving notice of the phasing out period, I cannot agree——
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Molloy knows full well that the Minister's reply ends the debate. A matter of which Deputy Theresa Ahearn gave notice was selected for the Adjournment. However, I understand that the Deputy is unavoidably absent and wishes to extend her apologies to the House, the Minister and the Department.
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