Wednesday, 10 December 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Connolly: My concern is staffing levels in primary schools, specifically Knocknagrave school in north Monaghan, an area well known to the Ceann Comhairle. Like most rural schools, it serves as a focal point in the community. My problem is that the staffing arrangements for the school year are determined by the enrolment number on 30 September of the previous year. In this case, the enrolment number on 30 September 2003 will count.
Knocknagrave national school had ten pupils on 30 September 2003 and there were a further three admissions in October. If the rule is to be interpreted strictly, the school will lose a teacher in September 2004. This would send out a negative signal and might be a mortal blow to the school. It would be devastating in that the principal would have to shoulder the entire responsibility for pupil enrolment from September next, almost reducing her to a nanny teaching eight classes.
Primary principals are already severely overworked with administrative responsibilities. Many principals are purely administrative in the bigger schools which have what are known as walking principals. Teaching principals in schools such as Knocknagrave have the additional burden of teaching classes as well as managing day-to-day administrative affairs and other duties. They have no secretaries and also have extra burdens such as caretaking, light repair work and maintaining school records and returns to the Department.
There are normally four classes in a two-teacher school and each teacher takes two classes, with a separate teaching programme for each. However, in a one-teacher school, eight classes would have to be taught simultaneously by the principal, which is not good practice, to say the least.
On 1 September next year Knocknagrave school will have 17 pupils. This is significant in itself. The school experienced a small dip in numbers but it now seems as if there will be two or three admissions per year. This will increase the number of pupils above 17. One unique feature of the school is that it has a pre-school facility or playschool.
In 2001 a €200,000 refurbishment programme was completed at the school. On the 9 o'clock news this evening I heard a representative from the national school in Gortahork speak of the closure of that school because of its state of repair and a problem with rats. One also hears of ceilings caving in. However, Knocknagrave is a fantastic school in a brilliant state of repair. It would be a pity to waste its resources.
The Department's strict interpretation of the rules leaves little room for flexibility and makes little or no provision for borderline cases. In fact, the appeals procedure in the Department has a poor success rate of only 4%. I am trying to persuade the Minister to address the issue instead of having to go through the appeals procedure.
The school has a fantastic community spirit in terms of erecting fences, painting, etc. When I visited it, a teacher was teaching French. The pupils tried to address me in French and I suppose I was in the fortunate position of having to reply in French. This is a pilot project in a rural school and to remove its teacher would rip its heart out. We should seriously consider revising the rigid rules so the school will continue in good working order.
The school, like any other, has pupils with remedial difficulties, and some of the children need one-to-one tuition. The school is also considering night classes, which would be of major assistance to the surrounding community.
If a larger school with six teachers were to lose one teacher it would not have the same impact as a similar loss on a two-teacher school. Knocknagrave school is facing a loss of 50% of its teaching capability, which would knock the heart out of the school.
Éamon Ó Cuív: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta as ucht na ceiste a ardú. In 1997 one needed double the amount of children now required to keep two teachers in a school. Amazing progress has been made on this issue, as I know from having been very involved with it with the then Minister, Deputy Martin. If Deputy Connolly believes there is a problem today, he should have seen what the problem was like in 1997.
The mainstream staffing of a primary school is determined by reference to the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous year. This process works to the benefit of the majority of primary schools and there are no plans to change the process. The number of mainstream posts is determined by reference to a staffing schedule which is finalised for a particular school year following discussions with the education partners. The staffing schedule is set out in a circular which issues from the Department of Education and Science to all primary school boards of management. Accordingly, all boards are aware of the staffing position for their schools in a school year. The staffing schedule for the 2003-04 school year is outlined in the Department's circular 9/03, which issued to all primary schools in February 2003 and which is available on the Department's website.
The agreement referred to above can only be deviated from when a school – referred to as a developing school – experiences rapid growth in its enrolment. Rapid growth is defined as an increase in enrolment in one year relative to the previous year of 25 pupils. The increase is 30 pupils for schools with an enrolment of 299 pupils or more, but this is not relevant in this case. In addition to the enrolment there is a stipulated excess of five pupils – ten pupils for larger schools – on the appointment figure.
An independent appeals board on the mainstream staffing of primary schools was established in August, 2002 and commenced operation at the beginning of the 2002-03 school year. The purpose of the board is to allow for the independent consideration of appeals, under certain criteria, against the mainstream staffing schedule as issued to schools. One of the main criteria for appeal states that where the board is satisfied on verifiable evidence that the required pupil numbers were enrolled in September or October but, due to circumstances outside the control of the school, were not enrolled on 30 September. However, for staffing purposes, a pupil can be included in the enrolment of only one school in any school year. The appeal board allows for equitable and transparent treatment of all primary schools and its decision is final. It is not open to the Minister for Education and Science or his Department to interfere in this process.
The allocation of additional teaching posts in recent years for improvements in the staffing schedule and for children with special needs, together with a decline in enrolments, has helped to ensure that the overall pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools has improved substantially. This includes a decrease in the overall maximum class size in primary schools by reference to the staffing schedule from 35 in the 1995-96 school year to 29 in the 2002-03 school year.
The school referred to by the Deputy had an enrolment on 30 September 2002 of 12 pupils, which warranted a staffing for the 2003-04 school year of a principal and one mainstream class teacher. The school also has the service of a learning support teacher and a resource teacher. I understand that the enrolment at the school on 30 September last was ten pupils, which under the present staffing schedule would warrant the appointment of one teacher to the school.
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