Tuesday, 26 April 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
—the Government has reneged on the commitment contained in An Agreed Programme for Government that the average size of classes for children under nine would be brought below the international best-practice guideline of 20:1;
—set out a timetable for meeting the commitment on class sizes given in An Agreed Programme for Government within the lifetime of this administration and to put in place the steps needed to ensure the recruitment of the additional teachers required and the provision of the extra classrooms required;
Ms O’Sullivan: We have tabled this motion for debate because class size is important. It is important to the many children who leave school unable to read. It is important to the quiet child in a class of 30 who falls behind because the teacher does not notice that she is having problems among the many demands of the 29 others in the room. It is important to the trouble maker who hides his learning difficulties by playing the class stand-up comic. It is important to the child who wants to learn and is held back because there are so many others who need the teacher’s attention.
Class size is not just an abstract numbers game that teachers’ unions and Opposition parties play against the Government. It is a vital issue for hundreds of thousands of young people who are losing opportunities right now and for their future and it is about the kind of society we are building. The school system is failing many children, giving them a negative experience, a negative self-image and a negative attitude to the world.
Research has shown consistently that outcomes for young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged or have learning difficulties, are much better if they are in small classes. For example, the Sage Programme in the US, where certain classes were reduced to 15:1 or less, reports:
Parents know this and they want it addressed. I have a large file of letters from parents around the country, as have my colleagues. I shall quote from three sample letters, the first from a parent in Dublin which reads:
Anyone who walked into an Irish classroom or an accident and emergency department or many of our local authority estates, might be forgiven for thinking we are one of the poorer states of Europe and that we are not addressing our problems because we cannot afford to. We know that is not the case. We are one of the richest states in Europe, yet our public services are among the poorest. The amount of money invested in education as a percentage of GNP or GDP puts us near the bottom of the league in Europe and in the OECD. Spending on education in Ireland as a percentage of GDP has fallen from 5.4% in 1994 to 4.6% this year, having dipped to 4.1% in 2000.
There is a strong commitment to education among the people. There would be massive public support for using our new found wealth to give learning opportunities to all our people. It is a matter of priority and the Government is out of step with the people in this regard. The need to invest in education became one of the biggest issues in the recent by-elections. Like most Members I was knocking on doors in Kildare North and Meath recently. It was one of the strongest issues that came to my attention and the media and others here will agree. There was a feeling of frustration. The most important issue in their people’s lives was their children but they were not being heard. That children were in large classes was one of the major educational issues brought to my attention in the by-elections.
People care enormously about giving their children the best possible chance to be the best they can be and we can be quite sure that if a family increased its wealth, as this country has done, spending more on opportunities for the children would be a top priority but that is not so with the Fianna Fáil-PD Government.
What is even more scandalous is that specific commitments were made in the programme for Government. I do not have much in common with Michael O’Leary but, like him, I made the mistake of thinking that An Agreed Programme for Government was in the non-fiction category. However, the chapter entitled “Building a Caring Society” could be eligible for the Booker prize. Under the heading of health it reads:
Despite this latter commitment the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, in one of her first interviews after she was appointed as Minister for Education and Science said she did not believe it could be implemented in the lifetime of the Government. Of course it could be implemented if the political will was there. Why do we continually get this “no can do” approach in so many areas of public service from the Government? Why was there no attempt to reduce the size of classes during the past three years, despite what was in An Agreed Programme for Government? Why has nothing been done about educational disadvantage? The Minister informed me today that her proposals are now with the translators and printers so I hope for proposals in this area soon. We have been hearing about this for the past eight years and nothing has been done.
Smaller classes are particularly important in areas of disadvantage. This is the reason the Labour Party calls for a maximum class size of 20:1 in these schools and 15:1 where disadvantage is chronic. This is crucial if the cycle of inter-generational poverty and lack of opportunity is to be broken.
Public representatives are very conscious of the problems. There are sad stories of little children coming to school with bright eyes and full of enthusiasm. A few years later the same children are not happy in school, cannot cope and have not received the attention they required. They often become early drop outs from school and probably will not make any significant contribution to society. Early intervention, small classes and other proposals my party made would make a significant difference to these young children. We have not seen the action we were led to expect if one believed what the former Minister for Education and Science said about educational disadvantage.
A recent study, Literacy and Numeracy in Disadvantaged Schools, carried out in 12 primary schools in our three largest cities, is most alarming in its findings. On average, 25% of students in the schools assessed suffered severe literacy difficulties and up to 50% of pupils in some of the schools had severe literacy problems. How can a Government with a current budget surplus of €7 billion last year stand idly by?
Smaller classes will not, in themselves, address these urgent issues for the weakest of our children, but they will be of help as part of a broader strategy. However, there is no strategy, no action plan and no extra investment to address educational disadvantage, just seven and a half years of lip service from the former Minister and nothing on the table from the current Minister, Deputy Hanafin. I look forward to considering her proposals.
Smaller classes in disadvantaged schools will give teachers the opportunity to help children with individual problems and in groups with similar needs. Such classes give teachers the opportunity to change their teaching methods, which is a point many experts made. A teacher with a large number of children in a class must adopt a “whole class” approach even though there may be children with many different needs within that class. A smaller class allows the teacher to subdivide the group into smaller units and give individual attention where needed. The teacher can deal with the children and the varying needs more effectively. This is particularly difficult in the case of split classes, for instance, third and fourth classes together under one teacher. There will be a wide variation of needs in this situation and unfortunately this is a fact in many disadvantaged schools.
Children with special learning needs are being accommodated more often in mainstream schools. The early years in particular are vital. It has been common for specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia to remain undetected. Smaller classes would make it much easier for the teacher to develop a relationship with each child that would enable him or her to spot the early signs. If the weighted system is to be introduced there is a concern that children with special needs will not have the resources they previously enjoyed. The Minister will be aware of the concern particularly in rural schools about the introduction of the weighted system.
Large classes and lack of places for local children are a significant problem for the growing suburbs around our cities, particularly Dublin. My colleagues will elaborate on this problem from their own experience. School principals are put in the catch 22 position of having to either expand their classes to beyond capacity and good educational guidelines or turn away local children from their schools. This has reached crisis point for many communities around Dublin.
Health and safety issues have arisen when many children are in cramped classrooms. It is a major concern at second level for the more practical subjects such as science, art, technological subjects, home economics and PE. The new junior science course is of concern to the teachers’ unions. They are of the view that this course cannot be properly taught unless the teacher-pupil ratio is at 20:1. The children are required to conduct experiments in pairs. A class of 24 children will make 12 pairs of children. This is impossible to achieve due to the size of some second level classrooms.
This is not an insoluble problem. It needs more teachers and more classrooms. New primary school teachers will amount to 1694 graduates this year and teachers from other EU countries are applying for work. Despite an assertion that there are not enough teachers to help reduce class size a recent survey showed that more than one fifth of those who completed the postgraduate primary teaching course in TCD and more than 10% of the Mary Immaculate College cohort could not secure full-time jobs. There is a need for forward planning and resources to provide the classrooms. Schools and communities needing schools invariably go through years of under-provision and inadequate buildings before permission to build is granted.
Government statistics indicate that by 2020, there will be 70,000 extra post-primary students and 150,000 extra primary students. This is an issue to be addressed. In many rural schools, classes are smaller than average but there are also very large class sizes. A reply to a parliamentary question I asked showed that last year, five classes in the country had more than 40 children and one class had 44 children. More than 100,000 classes have more than 30 children in the class. These large numbers create great difficulties for teachers in dealing with disruptive children. A task force on school discipline and behaviour has been promised. Smaller classes are the norm in other European countries. In France the system decrees that if a class goes above a certain size, it must be divided in two. I suggest this proposal should be considered otherwise large classes will be created in the areas of expanding population. This is neither fair to the children nor to the teachers and parents. This is an ongoing problem that can be addressed through proper planning.
This Private Members’ motion is tabled to move this agenda forward and inject some urgency into the Government’s non-response to its An Agreed Programme for Government. A number of items were agreed but now appear to be no longer agreed and are a subject of dispute between Fianna Fáil and the PDs. The issue of class size has been shamelessly neglected. I acknowledge the work of the teachers and parents groups represented in the Public Gallery. I look forward to a positive debate and positive action.
Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin: I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I commend my colleague, Deputy O’Sullivan, for the significant amount of work and energy she has committed to this issue over a long period. This is one of the greatest policy failures of the Government and the Labour Party motion deserves the support of all sides of the House. Members receive continuous representations on this issue at their clinics from parents and teachers. Time and again the Government parties trumpeted their commitment at the last general election to dramatically reduce class sizes. It was made clear in the programme for Government that they would be reduced, with a specific commitment that children under nine years would be taught in classrooms with 20 pupils or less in accordance with international best practice.
Almost three years on, class sizes in Ireland have continued to increase and are now the second highest in the European Union. The Government’s pledge to reach a 20:1 pupil-teacher ratio for children under nine years was cynically and callously torn up by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, during a radio interview some months ago. We have learned all too often that the election promises of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats are easily made and easily broken.
The statistics in this area are alarming, as illustrated by the situation my constituency. Recent replies to parliamentary questions indicate there are 2,789 primary school pupils in classes of 30 or more in County Kerry. A further 9,063 pupils in the county are in classes of between 20 and 29. One must consider whether the 2,789 pupils in classes of 30 or more are getting the level of attention and education they deserve. This is not to question the dedication and abilities of teachers who are doing the best they can with limited resources in a restricted physical environment.
The Minister and her colleagues also trumpet what they claim is a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio in recent years. I received a reply to a parliamentary question several weeks ago which stated that the pupil-teacher ratio had fallen from 22:1 in the school year 1996-97 to 17: 1 in 2003-04.
Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin: However, a reduced pupil-teacher ratio does not mean a reduction in class sizes. In calculating the pupil-teacher ratio in a school the Department divides the number of pupils in the school by the total number of teachers. What this calculation does not indicate is the number of pupils in each classroom or the number of pupils taught by each teacher. We must have access to information which properly reflects the reality in our schools.
One of the major contributors to large class sizes in hundreds of schools is under-investment in school buildings. Where there is such under-investment, large class sizes are usually inevitable, especially in rural schools. We cannot reduce class sizes without additional accommodation, including classrooms and school buildings. I could instance numerous examples of County Kerry schools in dire need of investment to expand or upgrade existing facilities to cope with increased pupil numbers. Many primary and secondary schools have waited year upon year for investment to allow them extend or upgrade their facilities. In many schools I have visited staff and principals are at their wits’ end in trying to progress their case for funding with the Department. In the meantime they must try to cope with teaching pupils in small and unsuitable classrooms and prefabs.
We must consider the effects of large class sizes on teachers and pupils. For pupils, they often mean inadequate levels of individual attention. In such situations weaker pupils may not get the extra attention and support they need. In this environment teachers are under increased pressure to meet the educational needs of every child. A large class makes it more difficult for a teacher to maintain control and discipline. We are all aware of the problems teachers are experiencing in terms of discipline. Whatever hope a teacher has of maintaining order in a small class, he or she has a far more difficult job in a large class.
Reducing class sizes means teachers have more flexibility to use different teaching techniques by adapting their teaching methods to meet the needs of each individual child. Teachers can more easily monitor the needs of each of their pupils in such an environment. Smaller class sizes make for a completely different and much better teaching environment.
In terms of educational disadvantage, it is vital that class sizes are controlled in areas of significant socio-economic deprivation. However, it must not and cannot be assumed that educational disadvantage is confined to large urban centres. There are undoubtedly pockets of educational disadvantage in many urban areas which demand greater resources and reduced class sizes to increase levels of educational attainment. However, there is educational disadvantage and a corresponding need for smaller class sizes to increase educational attainment in all schools and all communities to one degree or another.
In the area of child care the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is attempting to refocus staffing grant investment to areas where there is social, economic and educational disadvantage. However, the criteria in child care, education and every other area should be concerned with meeting the demands of the individual child. There are children with particular needs in every classroom, even in the most affluent communities. What the Labour Party calls for is clear. The Government must set out a timetable for meeting the commitment on class sizes made in the programme for Government within the lifetime of this Administration. It must put in place the steps needed to ensure the recruitment of the additional teachers required and the provision of extra classrooms.
Ireland is rightly proud of its record in the area of education which has been a key factor in our economic success and in attracting international investment. However, we will suffer economically if we allow a situation to continue where our children are taught in large classes and, in many cases, substandard and crumbling school buildings. This is a damning indictment of the Government parties after seven years in office and despite increased investment in education. That investment is not being used to reduce class sizes or recruit more teachers for the schools that need them most. This must change immediately if educational standards are to be maintained and if our children and teachers are to be enabled to work in the optimum teaching environment.
I support my colleague, Deputy O’Sullivan, in her comments on the weighted system which the Minister proposes for the allocation of special educational needs and learning support teaching resources. It will be disastrous and entirely detrimental to rural Ireland. In County Kerry, for instance, 72 schools will lose 38 learning support teaching posts. This is an issue that deserves much debate in this House. I urge the Minister to rethink before those in most need suffer.
Mr. O’Shea: Tááthas orm labhairt sa díospóireacht tábhachtach seo agus molaim mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Jan O’Sullivan, urlabhraí an Lucht Oibre ar chúrsaí oideachais agus eolaíochta, as ucht an rúin seo a chur os comhair na Dála. Níl aon rud níos tábhachtaí don pháiste ná an t-oideachas a oireann go pearsanta don pháiste sin a chur ar fáil i dtreo is go mbainfidh an páiste an tairbhe is fearr as an éirim aigne agus as an gcumas atá aige nó aici.
Dár ndóigh, tiocfaidh an torthaí is fearr don pháiste as scolaíocht i rang ina bhfuil líon na bpáistí sa rang ar aon dul le treorlíntí idirnáisiúnta den chéad scoth, sé sin meán de 20:1 faoi naoi mbliana d’aois. Ní mar sin atá sé sa tír seo. Bhí gealltanas déanta ag an Rialtas ach níor comhlíonadh é. Tá an dealramh sin ar an scéal ar aon chuma. Beidh mé ag siúl le rud éigin maith a chloisint ón Aire anocht, ach nílim ródhóchasach. Níl sé sin inglachta i dtír ina bhfuil neart saibhris innti. Caithfidh an Rialtas tabhairt faoin bhfadhb seo láithreach agus an gealltanas a chomhlíonadh le linn saol an Rialtais.
Many clichés are trotted out by Ministers and others, such as “Educate that you may be free”, “Education is the best means of escaping the poverty trap” and “Education is the key to economic success”, when they are eulogising our highly educated young workforce. There is no doubt that education has been a huge factor in developing the Celtic tiger economy. Unfortunately, there remain many problems, and many people have not benefited in any real way from our period of economic growth.
Ireland has the second highest class size in the EU. That makes it all the more remarkable that we have reached the standards that we have, and it speaks volumes for the professional skills and commitment of teachers, the supportive role of parents and the application of students that this is so. What having the second highest class size in the EU means was brought home to me at a meeting on 21 March, which was called by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation in Ballymacarbry, County Waterford, for the purpose of a briefing on a major INTO survey on class size in Waterford. I spent from 1966 to 1987 serving as a national teacher. Many of my teaching colleagues have told me that the change in the classroom situation since 1987 has been enormous. They tell me that I would not recognise the job of teaching that I left in 1987 to become a Member of the Oireachtas. For a short period in my early years teaching at Tramore CBS in County Waterford, I had a second standard class of 49 boys. Those were different times. The Ceann Comhairle will remember those times.
Teaching has become more difficult. By its nature, it has become more challenging and demanding. The INTO survey received responses from 75% of schools in Waterford, and the picture that emerges is grim. Thousands of children in Waterford constituency primary schools are taught in classes well above the national average size. Four primary schools have 35 or more pupils; 60 primary classes have 30 to 34 pupils; 148 pupils are in classes of 35 or more; and 1,964 pupils are in classes of 30 to 34. Two hundred children in classes of 30 or over are in multiple classes, with up to four classes involved. Of Waterford primary school children, 22% are in classes of 30 or over. There are 133 primary classes of 25 to 29 in Waterford, which accounts for 3,600 pupils, 1,350 of whom are in multiple classes of two to four different classes. There are three learning support remedial teachers in Waterford, catering for in excess of 40 pupils. The Department of Education and Science recommends a case load of 30 pupils. There are five learning support remedial teachers with case loads of 34 to 39 pupils, while nine of them have case loads of 30 to 34 pupils.
In many cases, learning support teachers have excessive case loads and must travel between three, four or even five schools. This sorry story was the subject of that meeting at Ballymacarbry, which was also attended by Oireachtas Members for the Waterford constituency, principals of neighbouring schools, representatives of boards of management and representatives of parents. The crisis in Waterford primary education is clearly illustrated in the statistics I have mentioned. Waterford should have five educational psychologists, but has only four to serve the primary and post-primary sectors.
The situation in second level class sizes is no less critical. The second level sector, according to an independent report from 2001 on staff levels in second level schools, which was commissioned by the Department of Education and Science, recommends the appointment of more than 1,200 additional classroom teachers. An ASTI survey carried out in late 2003 showed that 78% of part-time or non-permanent teachers in second level schools are seeking permanent teaching positions. There are talented teachers at second level who are unable to find stability in their lives or in their careers because of the shortage of permanent jobs.
Further issues include the serious criminal damage that is done to schools and equipment, which is becoming all too prevalent. We are still awaiting the implementation of a pension scheme for primary school caretakers. This has been promised for some time, but it is taking a long time to deliver. A further 2,500 additional primary teachers are needed nationally to bring the pupil-teacher ratio to an average of 20:1, to provide the required additional learning support resource and to train substitute teachers. Deputy O’Sullivan calls for a maximum mainstream pupil-teacher ratio of 25:1, 20:1 in disadvantaged schools or 15:1 where there is chronic disadvantage. She further calls on the Government to sanction the appointment of additional special needs teachers.
The Minister for Education and Science recently informed me, in a written reply, that the system for allocating primary school teachers is based on ensuring an overall maximum class size of 29 in each school. The INTO estimates that 2,500 additional teachers are needed to bring levels up to the standard of the best international guidelines and to bring them in line with current trends. The intake at colleges of education for 2004-05 is 1,280. Graduates of a new primary teacher training course, which has been accredited by the Higher Education and Training Awards Council and which is delivered on-line by Hibernia College, will be recognised as primary school teachers. I have some difficulty understanding how primary school teachers can be trained on-line. Teaching is about class and pupil contact and the teacher’s oral communication skills. How can those skills be developed adequately on-line?
I eagerly await the Minister’s response. However, like many other promises that have been made by this Government, the ones in this area have been consigned to the dustbin, and the Government has absolutely no intention of doing anything about the situation. The shambles that is developing now in the special education sector is a black mark on the record of the Government. There are conditions such as attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and dyslexia. There is no comprehensive scheme available that involves health boards, schools or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. That is because, if trends continue, a number of children who have ADHD are unfortunately likely to end up in prison. The arrangements are totally disjointed. The weighted system is causing chaos and concern for parents. As Deputy Moynihan-Cronin said, the school system is worse than previously. It has achieved much for this country through the years, but is not being looked after at a time when money is spent on many other activities which are frivolous. The Government must commit resources to the education system for it to be brought in line in terms of class size, support and back up. In this way, we can give the very best to children with special needs and those whose background puts them at a disadvantage.
“—commends the Government on the significant additional resources provided since 1997 for the educational system generally and for the education of disadvantaged pupils and those with special needs in particular;
—acknowledges the significant increase in the number of teacher training places provided in the colleges of education and the resultant drop in the numbers of unqualified teachers in our primary schools; and
I am glad to have the opportunity to outline again to the House the major increase in the number of teachers in our schools, the extra support for children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas and the major investment in school buildings that this Government has provided.
This Government has prioritised education. The priority we attach to providing quality education at all levels is evident from the fact that my Department’s budget has doubled since 1997. Historic under-investment in school staffing, facilities and services for children with special needs has been reversed. Under this Government, schools have benefited from the largest increase in teacher numbers since the expansion of free education and the largest fall in class sizes in the history of the State. Class sizes are now at their lowest level in Irish history. Deputy O’Shea reminded us that not so many years ago he taught a class of 49 pupils. Today the average class size is 24.
We are investing in the largest school building programme in the history of the State and have greatly improved the services provided for children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas.
With regard to primary class sizes, there have been major improvements in recent years with the hiring of 4,000 additional teachers. In the 1996-97 school year, the average class size was 27 pupils but is now 24. However, most significantly, the number of primary school children taught in classes of more than 30 has almost halved since 1997. While class sizes could be further reduced, we should acknowledge the progress made in recent years.
Our record in this area is one of action. This record stands in stark contrast to that of the rainbow Government, which in its January 1997 budget proposed to cut teacher numbers. Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte were both at the Cabinet table when that very regressive decision was made and many of the Deputies on the Opposition benches today walked through the Tá lobby of this House to support the measure. Unlike Fine Gael and Labour, who say one thing in Opposition and do quite another in Government, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have put significant staffing resources in place and dramatically improved the supports available to our school children.
The Opposition conveniently likes to gloss over the fact that 190,000 children were in classes of more than 30 when it left office. There is more work to be done in this area and this Government is determined to reduce the average class size for the under-nines to 20. However, it is indisputable that major progress has been made in recent years.
The level of teaching support provided in schools is not restricted to classroom teachers. Resource, learning support and language support teachers play an invaluable role in providing extra help for children who need it. In the 1996-97 school year, there was one teacher for every 22 pupils in our primary schools. By the 2003-04 school year, the ratio was one teacher for every 17 pupils. The pupil teacher ratio at post-primary level also fell from 16 pupils to one teacher to less than 14 pupils in the same period. Students with extra learning needs are getting more individual help than ever before.
Since 1997, more than 4,000 additional teaching posts have been created in primary schools. The annual estimated value of the additional expenditure on these posts is more than €200 million. These posts have been used to provide additional resources for disadvantaged pupils and children with special needs, reduce the pupil teacher ratio and reduce class sizes.
Other initiatives in the period include the reduction in enrolment figures required for the appointment and retention of teachers; the appointment of administrative principals to ordinary schools where there are nine or more teachers including ex-quota posts; the reduction in the enrolment figures required for the appointment of administrative principals to ordinary schools and Gaelscoileanna; the allocation of resource teacher posts to either individual schools or to a cluster of schools where a need has been identified; and the allocation of teaching posts to schools where 14 or more pupils with significant English language deficits are identified.
Over the course of this debate, Deputies will give examples of primary schools in their constituency that have large classes in particular grades and try to claim that these are typical of the situation in our school system as a whole. However, this is not the case. The average class size at national level is now 24 and all schools are staffed on the basis of a maximum class size of 29.
There are a number of different reasons a particular school may have a large class in a given year. These include significant fluctuation in enrolments from one year to the next and-or a decision by the school principal not to have multi-grade classes.
Regardless of the reason there is a large class in a particular school one year, it should be noted that in the majority of cases this is not the situation in the following year. In the main, the same schools do not have large classes year after year and therefore the same children are not in large classes year after year. There is a particular problem in developing areas where enrolment patterns can be very unpredictable and schools may experience a dramatic increase every year. There are areas in some of the counties surrounding Dublin where a school that only had three or four teachers a few years ago now has 16.
Areas such as Counties Meath and Kildare and west Dublin do not just attract young couples whose children will need school places in a few years’ time. There is also an influx of families with children of school-going age who need to be immediately accommodated in local schools. This places pressure on schools in areas with rapidly growing populations and I have asked my officials to consider any additional measures the Department can take to assist them.
It is particularly important to prioritise the provision of additional accommodation for these areas to ensure that extra staffing resources are matched by appropriate facilities in which to teach. The Government has made major investment in school buildings in developing areas in recent years to accommodate the increasing number of children going to school there. Some €85 million has been provided for major school building and modernisation projects in County Kildare between 1998 and 2004 and more than €65 million was invested in school buildings in Meath in the same period. We are investing in the largest school building and modernisation programme in the history of the State and I will ensure that developing areas get the priority they deserve in this process.
With regard to the number of large classes in our schools, Deputies should be aware that all schools are staffed on the basis of having a maximum class size of 29 pupils. Where some classes in a school have class sizes of greater than 29, it is often because a decision has been taken at local level to use teaching resources to have smaller numbers in other classes. I often find that when I look into why a particular school has a class of 35 in a particular grade, the answer is that there is another class in the same school with approximately 15 pupils.
Splitting classes may not always be an option for a school, because, for example, there might be a large group in junior infants and a small group in sixth class. However, where possible, principals should consider the benefits of smaller multi-grade classes rather than large differences in class sizes at different levels in the school.
Multi-grade classes are the norm in the majority of our primary schools, namely small schools with four teachers or less. There is no evidence that being taught in a multi-grade setting is detrimental to the child. In fact, the opposite is true. More principals should consider multi-grade classes where they are in the best interests of pupils who might otherwise find themselves in large classes.
There are a number of reasons a particular school might have a large class group in a given year. The number of children in classes of more than 30 pupils has halved under this Government but there is undoubtedly more work to be done in this area.
While the average class size nationally has been reduced to 24 pupils, in line with Government policy, I am committed to delivering further reductions in class sizes for the under-nines. The Government accepts that smaller class sizes at junior level can make a difference. However, there is no evidence to show that smaller class sizes further up the line can make a real difference to educational achievement. There is considerable evidence that reductions in class size must be accompanied by a change in teaching styles to achieve all of the benefits. Teacher quality and the work the teacher is doing in the classroom are even more significant than the size of the class.
Ms Hanafin: The two go hand in hand. Before Christmas I launched the numeracy and literacy report on disadvantaged schools which looked at many of the schools with class sizes of 15 or 20 and which found that the literacy levels there had not improved because of other factors that impinged on the literacy levels of a child, mainly related to the literacy level of the family, whether the home had books, whether the children had been read to and whether they knew nursery rhymes.
Ms Hanafin: A number of factors feed into literacy levels. We accept that class size can make a difference at junior level. The INTO has also accepted that changes in teaching styles need to go hand in hand with class size reduction.
Ms Hanafin: In achieving the Government target on smaller class sizes priority must, in the first instance, be given to children with special needs and those in disadvantaged areas. As I told the teacher conferences last month, it is in this area that I will be making significant progress initially, with extra staffing for disadvantaged schools in the next school year.
Ms Hanafin: In recent years we have placed a particular focus on reducing class size in schools in disadvantaged areas. The 32 schools in the Breaking the Cycle programme operate to a maximum class size of 15 for junior classes. When the Giving Children an Even Break programme was launched in January 2001, it subsumed the previous process of designation of schools that served areas of educational disadvantage. The programme has separate urban and rural dimensions. Urban schools with the highest concentration of at-risk pupils are supported where necessary through staff allocations to implement a maximum class size of 20 in junior classes. Rural schools with the highest concentration of at-risk pupils have been allocated the services of a teacher/co-ordinator who works in clusters of four or five schools. Rural schools that could not be clustered with other similar schools receive financial supports as an alternative to teacher/co-ordinator support.
With a view to addressing the needs of children in disadvantaged areas into the future, my Department has completed a full review of the measures put in place to support pupils from disadvantaged areas in the past two decades. Arising from this review process, a new policy framework for tackling disadvantage in education will shortly be published.
Ms Hanafin: Under the new plan, children from areas of socio-economic disadvantage will receive more support than ever before to help them reach their full potential. Every child deserves the opportunity to reach his or her potential and it is my aim, as Minister for Education and Science, to create the environment where that can be achieved. In the case of children with special needs, a particular targeted response is needed to enable such children develop their particular abilities, enhance their educational level and prepare them for participation in society. The record of the State over decades in providing for children with special needs has been poor.
Ms Hanafin: Without doubt, we are playing catch-up. In any area of historical under-provision it takes time to improve services to an appropriate level. Significant advances have been made in this area in the past six years which have made a real difference to the lives of many children with special needs and their families. It is appropriate to outline these advances to the House. We now have more than 2,600 resource teachers in our schools compared with 104 in 1998. We have 1,500 learning support teachers. We have more than 1,000 teachers in special schools and more than 600 in special classes. We have nearly 6,000 special needs assistants in our schools compared with just 300 in 1998. This year more than €30 million will be spent on school transport for special needs students while more than €3 million will be spent on specialised equipment and materials compared with €800,000 in 1998.
The scale of resource allocation I have outlined has facilitated the provision of education for children with special needs in mainly mainstream national schools. However, education for children with special educational needs is provided in a variety of settings. In addition to supported provision in mainstream classes, placement may also be made in special classes and units and in special schools. Pending such a placement, arrangements have also been made for tuition to be delivered in the child’s home. Where appropriate for the individual child, integrated provision with necessary supports is the desired choice of most parents. For children for whom mainstream provision is not appropriate, placement may be made in one of the 108 special schools and 654 special classes and units located throughout the country. I want to recognise, in particular, the role these schools and classes play in providing educational services for children with special needs. In this regard, I have asked my Department in consultation with the National Council for Special Education and other partners to consider how we can optimise the role and potential of special schools.
In the light of the reality that pupils in the high incidence disability categories of mild and borderline mild general learning disability and dyslexia are distributed throughout the education system, my Department in consultation with educational interests has developed a model of general teacher allocation for these disability categories. The original model was designed to put in place a permanent resource in primary schools to cater for pupils in these categories. The model was constructed in order that allocations would be based on pupil numbers, taking into account the differing needs of the most disadvantaged schools and the evidence that boys have greater difficulties than girls in this regard. Using a general allocation model has a number of advantages: it will reduce the need for individual applications and supporting psychological assessments; it will ensure children can be given help at a much earlier stage as the resource will already be in the school; it will give schools more certainty about their resource levels; and it will make the posts more attractive to qualified teachers.
It is important that resources continue to be allocated on the basis of individual applications for children in the lower incidence disability categories. The involvement of the National Council for Special Education and the local special educational needs organisers should greatly enhance the speed of response to such applications. I am conscious of the need to inform schools as soon as possible as to the procedures that will apply for the allocation of resource teachers for the next school year and will shortly be in touch with them. In recent months I have spent considerable time meeting parents, teachers and the various bodies to discuss the impact of this matter and consider the children with a verified need. I look forward to being in contact with the schools very shortly.
My Department allocates resource teacher support and special needs assistant support to second level and VEC schools to cater for students with special educational needs. The nature and level of support provided in each case are based on the professionally assessed needs of the individual student. The level of resources being made available to support students with special educational needs in the second level system has grown significantly in recent years. In the current school year provision is being made for 1,259 whole-time equivalent resource teachers and 628 special needs assistants. This represents an increase of approximately 209 resource teacher posts and 178 special needs assistant posts on the previous school year.
The precise model of provision made available will depend on the assessed needs of the pupils involved. Some students are capable of attending ordinary classes on an integrated basis with resource teacher and/or special needs assistant support. In other cases placement in special dedicated classes or units attached to the school may be the more appropriate response. Such special classes operate at significantly reduced pupil-teacher ratios. For example, a special class catering for children with a mild general learning disability would have a support rate equating with a maximum pupil-teacher ratio of 11:1. A class catering for children on the autistic spectrum would be supported at pupil-teacher ratio of 6:1. My Department also supports arrangements whereby students attached to these special classes are facilitated in attending ordinary subject classes on an integrated basis wherever possible.
My Department’s teacher education section has developed a strategy designed to meet the continuing professional development needs of personnel working with children with special educational needs. This involves a major expansion of the range of postgraduate professional training programmes available to teachers in the special needs area. As I have outlined, major improvements have been made in the provision for children with special educational needs in recent years. However, we are not there yet and I will not pretend that we are. While I will record achievement, I know there are problems that still need to be addressed. I am confident, however, that the recent establishment of the National Council for Special Education and the transfer of functions to it will resolve many of the difficulties encountered in the past.
The Opposition motion talks about school accommodation. I am delighted to point out the massive investment in school buildings being made by the Government. Between 1998 and the end of 2004 almost €2 billion was invested in school buildings and in the region of 7,500 large and small-scale projects were completed in schools, including 130 brand new schools and 510 large-scale refurbishments and extensions. Funding for school building and renovation projects has increased fivefold since 1997.
Ms Hanafin: As I stated, funding for school building and renovation projects has increased fivefold since 1997. In 2005, €493 million will be spent on school building projects, compared to just €92 million in 1997. Nearly 1,200 schools will benefit from the announcements I have made so far this year with regard to the school buildings and modernisation programme. The list of projects approved to date includes 122 large-scale projects approved to go to tender and construction over the next 12 to 15 months, of which 89 are primary school projects and 33 are post-primary school projects; a total of 97 primary schools approved for devolved funding under the small schools initiative; a total of 43 major projects authorised to enter design phase; a total of 590 schools which will have renovation and other works carried out this summer under the summer works scheme; a total of 124 schools which have been given the go-ahead to move through architectural planning; a total of 74 schools which have been approved for devolved funding to enable them to deliver additional classroom accommodation; another 20 schools which will be provided with prefabricated accommodation; and 120 which have been authorised to rent premises.
Ms Hanafin: The overall priorities over the next five year period are: to provide appropriate school facilities as quickly as possible in areas with expanding populations; to move as many projects as possible from design to construction stage; to further develop the potential of schemes for devolving funding and responsibility to local level and to enable projects to proceed at a faster pace.
Ms Hanafin: The 14% increase in funding in 2005 is clear proof of my commitment to tackling and ensuring the completion of the school building programme and to ensuring the facilities teachers and children deserve are provided.
The recruitment and appointment of teachers to fill vacancies in an individual school are matters for the board of management of the school concerned. Untrained personnel should only be employed in exceptional circumstances and when all avenues for recruiting qualified personnel have been exhausted. The primary sector has experienced a shortage of trained teachers in recent years mainly as a result of the creation of the large number of posts outlined. The difficulties being experienced were aggravated by the number of teachers availing of career breaks, taking pensions and availing of job-sharing schemes. As a result of initiatives taken by my Department, the number of unqualified teachers at primary level has reduced in recent years. There have been a number of initiatives to tackle the problem. This year approximately 1,280 new teachers are expected to graduate from the colleges of education and approximately 400 from the Hibernia course. I am committed to ensuring the shortage of qualified teachers will be eliminated as speedily as possible.
Ms Hanafin: In line with Government policy and commitments, I will continue, through my Department, to provide for 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. We will continue to build on the tremendous work we have been doing since 1997.
Mr. Carey: It is also important to look at the educational landscape in the mid-1990s. Many Members present will remember when the teaching unions asked for innovative schemes to enable teachers to take an extended career break or job-share because classes and schools were emptying rapidly as the demographic figures moved in the wrong direction. Thankfully, we are now benefitting from a resurgence.
One of the things done by the Government and its predecessor, of which I am most proud, is that it has underpinned the legislative landscape for education after years of neglect. For years we had been governed by circular letters from the Department of Education and Science and by that famous book known to some Members present, the Rules and Regulations for National Schools. There was no system of governance in the education system. Primary education and, to a lesser extent, post-primary education were the Cinderella of the system. The last innovative move in education had been made when Donogh O’Malley introduced free post-primary education for all.
Mr. Carey: When the Government took office, it was incumbent on it to introduce what had been long sought. I remember union congress after congress looking for an education Act. Such a step was necessary to underpin educational governance, to give rights to parents and ensure they were equal partners in education and to ensure students had rights. Without that legislative underpinning, it was pointless to do much. The building of the legislative structure, including the Education Act, the Education (Welfare) Act and the Education for Persons with Disabilities Act, has been critically important.
A measure for which many of us called when we were more active in our trade unions was the Teacher Council, to provide teachers with the same rights, recognition and esteem as other professionals. We could then move to the massive expenditure we have seen in education. I happened to pick up the answer to a parliamentary question I asked last week. Capitation funding for secondary schools, for example, in 1996——
Mr. Carey: Capitation funding for secondary schools was nearly €40 million. At the primary level the figure came to €52 million. In 2004 the provisional outturn for secondary schools was almost €109 million and €102 million at primary level.
Mr. Carey: One does not need to have a degree in mathematics to see the exponential increase in education spending. To take another example, that of 1,000 special teachers in 108 schools, last year the total cost of their salaries came to €45 million. More are to be appointed but I remember when some of us were in college, including Deputy Paul McGrath, 100 male teachers were recruited per year with probably a couple of hundred female teachers. Remember the debacle closing teacher training colleges led to?
Mr. Carey: Let us look at the issue of class size. What the Minister stated was important. It was not good but I taught classes with figures in excess of 55. I also taught classes as small as 16. There is an optimum figure of approximately 25 pupils for the best possible outcomes. We can get hung up on class numbers instead of the quality of teaching and teaching methodologies.
I strongly support the Minister in what she is attempting to do in focusing resources over an extended period on areas of disadvantage. To a greater or lesser extent, all Members have been responsible for trying to stretch the boundaries of areas of disadvantage with the result that resources are stretched ever more thinly. It is important that we identify the core areas of disadvantage in both rural and urban areas. We should ensure the strategies in place continue, not just for the life of this Government or the next but become the norm for educational provision. Research carried out into Early Start shows that while there has been a measurable improvement in the area of social development, there has not been a commensurate improvement in the area of academic achievement. The reason for this is that the inputs have not continued right through up to and including sixth class.
Regarding the issue of school buildings, there is nothing more depressing than to teach and work in a rundown working environment. That is the reason the Minister is correct in investing heavily in upgrading existing buildings and providing good quality buildings in areas where new school buildings are required. My biggest concern is the capacity of the construction industry to meet the demands of the summer work scheme and the normal school building programme over the next six to 12 months. The Minister said that not everything is perfect but many things that needed to be done have been done. I have heard the expression “progressive implementation” being used with regard to legislation. It is important that we build up resources in accordance with the needs that we identify. There is a danger that we will be tempted to throw money at it although no Minister for Finance will allow that to happen. I am pleased to support this Government amendment, I compliment the Minister on the Trojan work she is doing and I think she will go down as one of the most reforming Ministers in modern Irish history.
Mr. English: I wish to share time with Deputies Deenihan, McGrath and Lynch. We in Fine Gael are delighted to support the Labour Party motion on this subject. I look forward to the day when a Government will finally agree with a motion. It is obvious that we are failing with regard to education. The Government is trying to deflect attention from it, condemn our motion and insert its amendment. This behaviour is not good enough. This is the biggest issue I encountered while campaigning in the recent by-election in Meath. Class size is one of the most important issues in education. During the by-election, principals, teachers and parents were all interested in the issue of class size. It is worth noting that parents were not as concerned about class size a few years ago but now they are aware that their children are at a disadvantage.
Both the Minister and Deputy Carey spoke of the millions of euro that have been spent on education. If we wish to go down that route, we should look at the GDP and GNP for 1990 to 2005 and then look at figures because they are lower than they were between 1994 and 1996.
Mr. English: The GDP figure is well down on that of 1996, while the GNP is level with that of 1996 and 1997. Deputies should look at the figures. If Fianna Fáil wishes to quote figures, we will match them. I have asked every Minister to compare the 1997 figures with those of today. I was in school in 1997. It is a different era now, we have moved on and our population has grown. The Minister quoted County Meath as an example.
Mr. English: They have transformed very slowly and we are failing. The school mentioned does not have a new building, on the contrary, it is falling apart. I would like to make a few quick points before I deal with the main speech by the Minister. I am surprised to hear the Minister encouraging multi-grade classes. She condemns school principals for not attempting to mix classes.
Mr. English: Mixing classes is not the solution to large class sizes. I have been in multi-grade classes and they are not the answer. I was sufficiently lucky to survive a multi-grade class. Many of the other children in my class might not have been as lucky.
Mr. English: The Minister spoke about making arrangements in developing areas and that she could not predict the figures. For four and a half years, myself and colleagues from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil campaigned for a new school in an area in Navan that we knew needed one. Four and a half years later, that school is still in temporary accommodation. We could identify the figures but the Department of Education and Science did not want to listen to us. The Department must begin listening to people who can see figures increasing and who can recognise well in advance the need for new schools. The Minister then said the Department was making amendments in developments.
Mr. English: The Minister said the Department was taking additional measures to cope with developing areas. There are schools in developing areas that cannot be told now where they are going in September. Is this an example of additional measures?
When Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats sat down to hammer out a programme for Government after the general election, they made many specific promises and commitments in a large number of important areas. As we have seen all too often in recent years, these promises and commitments were built on sand. We all know the status of promises made regarding overseas development aid, the Garda and the allocation of medical cards. This evening, we are examining the promises made to reduce average class sizes. The Government is guilty of an appalling lack of action in this regard. The programme for Government was clear on what it set out and the Government has failed on that despite all the figures quoted by the Minister.
Since these promises were made, the Government took no action to realise its commitment. Class sizes in schools throughout the country have remained excessively high and have increased in areas like Meath. Carnaross national school in Meath has an average of 27.5 children in a class and has a mixed class of 33 pupils. St. Oliver Plunkett national school in Navan is four teachers short and has an average of 29.5 pupils per class. Dunboyne senior national school is waiting for teachers. Another national school in Meath has an average class size of 29.25 and has five or six prefab blocks.
The Labour Party has outlined the benefits of reduced class sizes. We all know these benefits. I was in classes of between 40 and 46 pupils in prefabs, which is not good enough. Many of my classmates did not get the education they were entitled to. Children need to get the education they are entitled to now more than ever with a competitive European market. In November 2004, the Taoiseach said it was true that the Government had not done what it set out to do but that it was committed to reaching its target. Can I ask the Minister if the Taoiseach was misleading the Dáil again? This was after the Minister’s comment that it would only be a noble aspiration. If there is no chance of a promise being delivered, what hope is there that a noble aspiration will be delivered?
Mr. Deenihan: There is a clearcut case for smaller class sizes. Reducing class size naturally alters the classroom environment and creates a better classroom atmosphere where pupils receive more individual attention from their teacher. Teachers have more flexibility to use different teaching techniques, teachers and pupils have more classroom space in which to work, fewer students distract each other, every pupil gets more time to speak, the level of noise in the classroom is reduced and teachers know their pupils better. Class sizes in Ireland are the second highest in the EU. In the programme for Government agreed by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in 2002, a clear commitment was made to reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in schools over the next five years. The Government promised to introduce maximum class size guidelines that would ensure the average size of classes for children under the age of nine would be below the international best practice guidelines of 20:1. These developments have not taken place.
I will refer to County Kerry in particular. Figures compiled by the INTO show that more than 2,700 children are taught in classes of 30 pupils or more there. Kerry class sizes are among the largest in Europe, second only to their counterparts in the UK. In reply to a number of recent parliamentary questions, it emerged that 2,789 children in County Kerry are in class sizes of between 30 and 39. A further 9,063 pupils are in classes of between 20 and 29 children. This is unacceptable.
I visited two schools recently and have information on the class sizes from the Holy Family national school in Tralee, where the principal said: “I wish to state that our average class size is 29, and of the 16 classes we have, 11 have 29 or more pupils.” This is not acceptable.
In regard to the weighted proposal, I carried out a survey in my constituency recently and 48 schools went to the trouble of responding. The survey shows that 23 schools would lose out considerably if the Minister introduced the new system while only 13 schools would gain any hours.
Mr. P. McGrath: I compliment Deputy Jan O’Sullivan and the Labour Party on this motion. I wholeheartedly support it. I was disappointed to hear the Minister’s speech. She has put much energy into producing figures claiming the Government is better, the situation now is better than in 1997, the Government is better than this and that, and better than the time the Opposition was in Government.
Mr. P. McGrath: If the Minister wishes to go down the road of talking figures, why does she not go further back? One of her predecessors, a Fianna Fáil Minister, was the only Minister in the history of this State who worsened the pupil-teacher ratio. This business of going over the past is ridiculous.
Mr. P. McGrath: Why do some parents of children with special needs, when they submit the professional assessments of their children, receive a response from the Department that the professional assessment is not accurate and that they will receive less from the Government? The Department will not even interview the child in question or carry out its own assessment. However, if the parents threaten to go to court or apply for a court order, what happens? The Department suddenly caves in and provides the services——
It was said in the programme for Government that there would be class sizes of 20:1 on average for children under nine. The Minister has since scrapped this plan but, even were it the case or if the ratio were 25:1, how can the Minister justify that schools must take in junior infant classes of 29 pupils? Is it not ironic that, if one runs a child care centre and looks after children between four and six years of age, the Government will require the ratio of children to care workers to be 6:1 but when these children go into junior infants in primary schools, it is all right to have 29:1? How can the Minister stand over this?
On the matter of entry into schools, I wish to speak about the crisis in Mullingar. The schools are bursting and cannot accommodate what is happening. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister that was answered on 12 April 2005 but I must advise her to return to her officials and tell them that their response to my question was a load of rubbish. They are hanging her out to dry.
Mr. P. McGrath: The first part of the reply was that there are 21 primary schools in the Mullingar catchment area. This is only true if one were to travel out as far as Castlepollard or Ballinagore. How can the Minister tell a Mullingar parent with a child starting school in September that there is a place 12 miles away in Ballinagore? How will they get there? This is rubbish.
There was a comment about temporary accommodation being provided to some schools, such as in Curramore and Gainstown. I checked with these schools and they got extra accommodation but it was not for new pupils. Rather, it was for pupils already within the schools. The extra accommodation is not helping the current situation.
The Minister spoke about a school losing 50 pupils and this is where her officials are pulling the wool over her eyes. There is a school that lost 50 pupils over a period of five years, but why was this so? To include it in a response is degrading to the school. There were classes of 38 to 40 pupils but these returned to the norm of 29 in a class.
Mr. P. McGrath: The loss of 50 pupils is the reason the numbers decreased. I carried out a survey on four schools in Mullingar this morning where there are major problems with school enrolments. Of the schools I surveyed, they were able to send out 139 acceptances but how many rejection slips were issued? Exactly 140. Here we are, faced with the situation in Mullingar, and the Minister will ask me what my solution is. The principals are meeting on Friday and the Minister should have officials present to speak with them, to determine what can be done and to discover if there is duplication in the numbers they have. The Minister must work out a solution to this.
Ms Lynch: I thank the Deputy. Deputy O’Sullivan moved this motion but I will congratulate her on her work in the education area over the past two years, whether dealing with schools in desperate need of repair or with class sizes. There are times when one speaks on a subject that is not being addressed by the Government and feels there is not much more to say. However, when it comes to class sizes, education or, in connection with my constituency, education for disadvantaged children, there is always more to be said because so little has been done.
The Minister was not in the Department of Education and Science for the bulk of the past eight years. Deputy Dempsey had the greater bulk of that period but the Minister is a member of a Government that has continuously spoken about producing guidelines on disadvantage and education. We are still waiting eight years later. It worries me that we may continue to wait on this and other issues, such as health, BreastCheck or whatever. When it comes to this Government doing something concrete on a community difficulty, we seldom see results. The Ministers will stand up and tell us how bad the other crowd were, what they did not do and what they should have done, but the members of the Government never take any blame themselves.
Ms Lynch: More than 30. When one considers the advantages other people have in education, one must admit it is not right that this should happen. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard Deputy Carey speaking of his terrible worry about the construction industry not being capable of keeping up with the demand the Minister would create over the summer with the summer works scheme.
Ms Lynch: This was laughable. There is a school in my constituency from the 1950s, which most of them are. When one walks in the door there is a stench of urine that would knock one back on one’s heels. This is a primary school that deals with children from entry to first class. Work needs to be done on the electrics. There are two prefabs out the back that were intended as temporary accommodation. The porch fell off and almost killed someone. For the past eight years, the school has been told that it may be included next year. Children are desperately trying to learn in overcrowded, appalling conditions. It is not only about class sizes; it is about the awful conditions in which teachers are trying to teach and pupils are trying to learn. The Minister needs to take this on board, start to produce the guidelines on disadvantage in education and fulfil the promise made on class size. I know the Minister has not been in office for the majority of the time but her predecessor was and the same Government was in office. Where are the guidelines? What action will the Minister take?
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