Tuesday, 22 March 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Mattie McGrath: As an elected representative for south Tipperary and west Waterford and a strong advocate for the protection of rural Ireland, I have major concerns with regard to any proposal dressed up as a value for money review that will further close small rural schools. Small primary schools are at the centre of life in rural communities and it would be detrimental if these schools were to be downgraded or diminished in any way. To ensure rural communities are kept alive we must ensure families have access to primary education in their communities.
Small schools represent excellent value for money and should be encouraged and supported. They offer excellent learning conditions in which young children receive more attention. Pupils spend several years with the same teacher and it is a good deal easier to monitor progress and identify any problems that may arise, including learning difficulties. Children receive a much broader social education since they are given responsibility to look after younger children through mentoring schemes and they get involved in community projects such as Tidy Towns, art projects and many environmental schemes which lead to an enhancement of the community. The teachers encourage links with their community and promote social and extra-curricular activities within the community, such as involvement in the GAA, other sports and disciplines and competitions such as Scór and many varied, new and developing projects. Also, the students and their families have a strong sense of place and belonging, which is important in this day and age.
Distance and travel costs arise also. The closure of small primary schools will lead to increased travel costs. In the past, free transport was provided to students of amalgamated schools. However, we are all aware of inconsistencies. Schools were amalgamated, including many small schools in my parish and neighbouring parishes in the 1960s and 1970s. This had a detrimental effect on these communities. Transport was organised. We now know that the fuel costs of such transport is prohibitive for parents. They may have to drive to the larger schools themselves.
The wider community is enhanced by the presence of a small school both in terms of the employment provided and the sense of community that they instill. The school is regarded as the lifeblood of the community and is often the only meeting place or place of activity in these small rural communities. The closure of such schools would result in the lifeblood being removed from small rural communities. At a time of high unemployment and emigration on our shores, protecting the life and spirit of rural Ireland must have a high priority.
Many schools in my area are concerned about this issue and they are engaging with the review. However, this review is dressed up and those involved believe it will spell the death-knell for their schools. They remain concerned. Many schools, including Burncourt, Ballydrehid and Cullen national schools, are affected. Skeheenarinky school celebrated 150 years of teaching in 2008. Past, present and future generations gathered together for a wonderful weekend of celebrations. It is impossible to put a monetary value on the contribution that this small school has made to students, the education of the community and society at large over the past 152 years. However, small schools such as Skeheenarinky national school represent excellent value for money and should be encouraged and supported.
I appeal to the Minister to ensure this review is fair and understanding, that it will be in-depth and that all the submissions made by the schools, parents councils, boards of management and individuals families and parents will be taken note of and listened to. We have lost too much in rural Ireland. We have lost much of the intrinsic lifeblood of our rural communities. This has been seen in the past. I trust the officials and mandarins of Marlborough Street in the Department of Education and Skills are aware of this. Many problems arose when schools closed in the past. Under the Croke Park agreement teachers can be moved around with their agreement. We are rightly worried.
We hope the review will be fair and decent and that it will not be dressed up in other clothes or disguised in order to get rid of what is good and often wonderful. These schools have been at the heart of communities and have provided much valuable education to families in isolated rural areas for generations. I appeal to the Minister, Ministers of State and others across the House to listen and to cry “Halt!” before it is too late.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): I thank the Deputy for raising the matter since it affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the current position regarding the value for money review of small primary schools. Ireland has a high proportion of primary schools relative to our population and also has a high proportion of small primary schools. This review was commissioned by the former Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government to establish the value for money being achieved from State funding of small primary schools. This value for money, VFM, review is part of the review processes undertaken by Departments on an annual basis on selected areas of expenditure.
The focus of the current review is especially on the smallest category of school, that is, schools with less than 50 pupils. The terms of reference for the review are published on my Department’s website. Among other things, the review seeks to examine the scope for alternative policy or organisational approaches to improve efficiency and effectiveness of provision in terms of school size, to identify potential implications of such alternative arrangements and to make recommendations as appropriate. I expect the review will be completed by the end of this year.
The value for money review commenced in October 2010 under the direction of the then Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Ms Mary Coughlan. The views of stakeholders are important in the process of the review. Public consultations have been taking place to obtain the views of small schools, parents and communities. In addition, direct invitations were issued to interest groups such as the school patron bodies, management bodies, teacher unions, Irish language groups and other groups which operate in the area of social inclusion. A large response has been received to the consultations. I understand that Deputy McGrath has participated in the consultation process as well.
In considering any future policy or organisational changes relating to small schools, I am aware that the majority of the small schools are located in rural areas. There will be a wider dimension to be considered in addition to simply the cost of maintaining small schools. Local communities are proud of their schools and will make strong arguments to retain them. Among the many issues that will need to be taken into account are the impact of the schools on dispersed rural communities, the question of parental choice, the availability of diversity of school provision and also the cost of school transport.
Educational quality for the pupils must be one of the main criteria in any consideration of primary school size and organisation, taking into account the needs of local communities and wider social and cultural factors. Decisions on school provision and reorganisation must be widely perceived to be cost-effective, equitable and reasonable. These decisions need to be based on a rigorous evaluation of requirements and needs, not only at a local level but also at regional and national levels. I do not have a predetermined view on the outcome of the review. I plan to consider the review’s outcomes when they are finalised. My consideration will take place in the context of the resources available to the Department and the other factors I have outlined. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.
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