Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
Cahergal national school, County Galway, has over the years been treated shabbily by the Department and the Minister’s predecessors. Accommodation in the school is totally inadequate and the Department and previous Ministers have ignored the pleas of staff and parents to have proper accommodation provided. All requests have fallen on deaf ears and I request the Minister and the Department to review the situation as a matter of urgency. I specifically request the Minister to bring to finality the purchase of a site. If the option being pursued at present is not successful, another option, which is known locally, should be moved on. I ask the Minister of State to bring that to the Minister’s attention.
I set out the case of the specific issue before us, the urgent need for the appointment of an extra teacher to Cahergal national school. At present the school has four class teachers for 105 pupils. This means the average class size in the school is 26.25 pupils. These figures are particularly intolerable as all these students are in split classes. For example, there is one teacher for 11 junior infants and 13 senior infants, a class size of 24 four and five year olds. In addition, the school has the services of a shared learning support teacher three mornings per week to provide extra support to 13 pupils and the services of one shared and one part-time resource teacher with a combined time of 21.5 per week to provide support for nine children with special educational needs. These additional supports for the school must be maintained for the benefit of the most vulnerable children.
Class sizes in the school and resources for children with special needs are issues of urgent concern for this community. It is unfair that children in Cahergal national school should be taught in classes of these sizes which belong to a bygone age. This is happening at a time when our country is experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity. The demands for increased staff in Cahergal national school are set out in the context of a commitment in the 2002 programme for Government which states:
What has happened in respect of that commitment in the programme for Government? I do not have to wait for the answer because, unfortunately, absolutely nothing has happened. The Minister of State might tell us when something will happen. The reality is that three years later not one single step has been taken towards achieving the Government’s target, notwithstanding the fact that for the first time in many years, there are qualified primary teachers available for work and a further 1,600 teachers set to graduate in 2005.
The most immediate need for Cahergal national school in regard to staffing is the appointment of one extra class teacher to the school from next September. It would bring Cahergal national school closer to achieving the class sizes of other developed countries. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State’s reply and urge him to take the issues concerning Cahergal national school seriously.
Mr. T. O’Malley: I am glad to have the opportunity to outline to the House the position of the Department of Education and Science concerning staffing in primary schools, including in Cahergal national school. The mainstream staffing of a primary school is determined by reference to the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous year, with schools staffed on the basis of having a maximum average class size of 29 in the school. As the Deputy pointed out, the average class size in Cahergal national school is 26 pupils. Based on its enrolment on 30 September 2003 of 103 pupils, the school was allocated staffing for the 2004-05 school year of a principal and three mainstream teachers.
The school also has the service of a resource teacher and a shared learning support teacher. According to data submitted to the Department by the board of management, the enrolment of the school on 30 September 2004 was 105 pupils. The staffing for the 2005-06 school year will be determined on the basis of this figure in accordance with the agreed staffing schedule for the next school year which is expected to be notified to boards of management shortly.
If a school believes its staffing allocation is wrong, it can make an appeal to the independent appeal board on mainstream staffing which was established in August 2002 and commenced operation at the beginning of the 2002-03 school year. The purpose of the appeal board is to allow for the independent consideration of appeals, under certain criteria, against the mainstream staffing schedule as issued to schools. 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.
I take this opportunity to outline the significant improvements made in the area of class sizes in our primary schools in recent years. The average class size at primary level nationally is now 23.9, down from 26.6 in 1996-97. The pupil teacher ratio, which includes all the teachers in the school including resource teachers, has fallen from 22.2:1 in the 1996-97 school year to 17.44:1 in 2003-04. These benefits are the result of the employment of more than 4,000 additional teachers in our primary schools since 1997.
In line with the Government’s determination to tackle social exclusion, significantly smaller class sizes have been introduced in disadvantaged schools, with approximately 47,700 pupils in 243 disadvantaged schools availing of reduced class sizes of 15 to 20 pupils per class. In line with Government policy, the Department of Education and Science will continue to provide further reductions in the pupil teacher ratio within available resources and subject to spending priorities within the education sector. Priority will be given to pupils with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and those in junior classes.
Mr. F. McGrath: I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise on the Adjournment the important issue of class size. Let me first declare an interest. I was a teacher for more than 20 years and am still a member of the INTO. I am always honoured and privileged to represent the INTO view in the Dáil and I will continue to push the case for Irish education and the importance of teachers in Irish society and their valuable role in the community.
It is essential that this House should note that Irish primary schools have the second highest class sizes in the EU, that no improvements in mainstream class size have been made in the past three years, that additional teachers are also urgently required to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs and the needs of pupils from disadvantaged communities. I call on all Deputies to support the campaign led by the INTO with the support of local communities to secure improved staffing levels in primary schools so that primary classes are reduced to European norms in accordance with best practice as promised in An Agreed Programme for Government 2002-2007. I also demand increased resources for primary education, including specifically a reduction in primary class size as a matter of national importance that warrants immediate action.
I am sick to the teeth of all the teacher bashing that has gone on in the media in recent days, especially on radio programmes such as the Pat Kenny Show. My experience of teachers, as a teacher for 20 years, is as follows: teachers assisting pupils outside school hours; teachers training and bringing pupils to matches after hours; teachers putting their lives at risk on child abuse cases; teachers bringing children abroad or around the country at weekends; teachers assisting children with disability beyond the call of duty — I know many teachers who have done this on numerous occasions and I commend them in this debate; teachers taking on racism head on while some of our politicians stoke the fires of fear; and teachers doing extra voluntary work in their local communities. These teachers are not looking for gold medals for their work. They enjoy their job and derive great satisfaction from it. However, they deserve balanced reporting and fair play. I urge all Deputies in this House to defend teachers.
On the issue of staffing in schools, it is essential that we understand that class size is a major issue for parents and teachers throughout the State. Parents are concerned that their children are in large classes. We want action from the Government and we want it now. Teachers want to get on with their work in the classroom. They can do their job more effectively if there are smaller classes. This has been proved educationally and internationally. There can be a number of groups in a small class comprising children with different reading ages and different reading ability. I have seen this work in projects that have been very successful. I refer to the Breaking the Cycle programme in the 34 poorest schools in the country where extra educational resources were put in to help the most needy. I commend the people involved in these projects and the teachers working on the ground. They have proved that such examples of good practice work.
Mr. T. O’Malley: I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I am glad to have this opportunity to outline to the House the improvements that have been made in primary class sizes by the Government. Since 1997, the Government has dramatically increased the number of teachers in our primary schools. In that time more then 4,000 additional teachers, including nearly 2,500 resource teachers, have been employed. These additional teaching posts have been used to reduce class sizes, to tackle educational disadvantage and to provide additional resources for children with special needs. Average class size has been reduced from 26.6 in 1996-97 to 23.9 in 2003-04. The pupil-teacher ratio, which includes all the teachers in the school including resource and learning support teachers, has fallen from 22.2:1 in the 1996-97 school year to 17.4:1 in 2003-04. Significantly smaller class sizes have been introduced in disadvantaged schools involved in the Giving Children an Even Break — Breaking the Cycle programme, with approximately 47,700 pupils in 243 participating schools availing of reduced class sizes of either 15 or 20 pupils per class.
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 staffing allocation system is based on ensuring an overall maximum class of 29 in each school. Where some classes in a school have class sizes of more than 29, it is generally because a decision has been taken at local level to use their teaching resources to have smaller numbers in other classes in the school. As a result of the decrease in the overall maximum class size by reference to the staffing schedule from 35 in the 1995-96 school year to 29 at present, the number of children in classes of 30 or more has decreased substantially. In that regard, the average class size in the 30 to 39 category in 2003-04 was 31.7.
Other improvements in staffing for primary schools in recent years include a reduction in the appointment and retention figure for the first mainstream class teacher to 12 pupils, the appointment of administrative principals to ordinary schools with nine or more teachers including ex-quota posts, a reduction in the enrolment figures required for the appointment of administrative principals to ordinary schools and Gaelscoileanna, the allocation of teaching posts to schools where 14 or more pupils with significant English language deficits are identified and the allocation of additional learning support teachers. In line with Government policy, the Department of Education and Science will continue to provide further reductions in the pupil-teacher ratio within available resources and subject to spending priorities within the education sector. Priority will be given to pupils with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and those in junior classes. I again thank the Deputy for raising this matter.
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