Thursday, 4 November 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Neville: I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter on the Adjournment. Martinstown national school in County Limerick was a two-teacher school until last September, but it is now a one-teacher school. The quality of the school’s implementation of its child-centred curriculum has been seriously affected by the loss of 50% of its staff and its pupils are now faced with a disadvantage. I pay tribute to the remaining teacher because the school’s problems have been ameliorated as a result of her efforts and commitment, as well as that of the teacher who was obliged to leave the school.
A previous Minister decided some years ago that the number of teachers in a school should not be reduced to one. That made sense because schools need to have a minimum of two teachers, for very good reasons. Teachers in one-teacher schools face enormous difficulties because they need to be aware of the full range of the curriculum for all primary school classes. It can happen that infants do not achieve their potential because they are denied an even break in one-teacher schools. Senior pupils making the transition from primary to secondary school may also be denied an even break, which could be detrimental to their future careers, although I accept that is not happening at present.
I ask the Department to examine carefully the number of pupils currently in Martinstown national school because it will increase in September 2005. I ask for an early commitment to the restoration of the school to a two-teacher school. It is fine to say the school’s problems could have deteriorated further, but it should be borne in mind that it has been affected by the loss of a teacher. The commitment I have mentioned should be made at an early stage so that the confidence in the school which may have been lost can be restored, thereby maximising the school’s ability to attract additional pupils. It is difficult for the school community to participate in inter-school games and sports because the presence of a teacher is rightly required by sporting authorities when schoolchildren are participating in sports during school hours.
It is obvious that the reduction of teacher numbers in the school has health and safety implications. If the only teacher in the school leaves the classroom for any reason, it is obvious that there will be nobody to fill in for her. It is clear that teachers have to absent themselves from schools from time to time. If the teacher cannot be with her pupils for teaching or supervisory purposes, it is a cause of great concern for the teacher and the board of management. Anything can happen causing a teacher to leave in the short or medium term, and the Minister will understand my point. Regarding health and safety, if a child needs any attention, all other pupils must be ignored to allow the teacher to concentrate on the difficulties being experienced, which might be in the school yard or elsewhere.
The school is part of the local community and has been there for 150 years. It is an extremely important aspect of community life, and any suggestion that the school should be discontinued, as has been made by the Department, is totally unacceptable since that community is surviving and we can see it expanding in future, and it is situated in a parish where the population will grow. If anything were to happen to the school, within ten years people might demand it back. It is vitally important that the school continue as part of the community. The school will survive if the second teacher is restored. We ask the Department for a commitment to do that during this school year.
The mainstream staffing of a primary school is determined by reference to the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous year. The number of mainstream posts is determined by reference to a staffing schedule which is finalised for a particular school year following discussions between Department officials and the education partners. The staffing schedule is set out in a circular which issues from the Department to the board of management of all primary schools. Accordingly, all boards are aware of the staffing position for their school in any school year. The staffing schedule for the 2004-05 school year is outlined in the Department’s primary Circular 03/04, which issued to all primary schools in April 2004 and is available on the Department’s website.
Under new arrangements introduced in August 2002, all appeals on the mainstream staffing of primary schools are considered by an independent staffing appeal board. The criteria for appeal are set out in Department of Education and Science primary Circular 19/02. 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 her Department to interfere in this process. The school referred to by the Deputy, Martinstown national school, had an enrolment on the 30 September 2003 of seven pupils, which warranted staffing for the current school year, 2004-05, of a principal teacher. I understand that the enrolment at the school on 30 September 2004 was 12 pupils, which under the present staffing schedule will warrant the appointment of a mainstream class teacher in addition to the principal teacher for the 2005-06 school year.
The staffing appeal board considered an appeal from the school in question having regard to the criteria outlined the Department primary Circular 19/02 and was satisfied that a departure from the staffing schedule was not warranted in this case. The board of management of the school was notified of the decision of the staffing appeal board on 5 June. The decision of the appeal board is final. I am sure that the Deputy will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for the Minister for Education and Science to intervene in the operation of the independent appeal board.
Once the discussions on the staffing schedule for the school year 2005-06 have been concluded, the schedule will be set out in a circular to be issued to all primary school boards of management in 2005. I would like to thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter in the House. There may be no short-term solution to his difficulty, but it should come right next September. However, I am not aware of any other way around the problem as outlined. I will report back to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin.
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