Wednesday, 12 October 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Morrissey: I thank my former constituency colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, for coming to the House this evening. I am grateful that this matter is being discussed on the Adjournment. As my query is quite simple, I will be brief. The Government is to be commended on its efforts to continue to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in Irish schools. I understand that maximum class size guidelines will be introduced over the next five years. I hope they will help to reduce the average class size for children under the age of nine below the international best practice guideline of 20:1. Over 4,500 additional teachers, including more than 3,000 resource teachers, have been employed in our primary schools since 1997, which is to be welcomed. I acknowledge that the average class size at primary level has been reduced from 27 in 1997 to 24 in 2004. That the pupil-teacher ratio at second level declined from 16:1 in 1997 to 13.5:1 in 2004 must also be applauded.
I am concerned about pupil-teacher ratios in areas of rapid expansion, development and population growth. The last census reported that the population of Dublin city and its suburbs has exceeded 1 million for the first time. The populations of many major suburban towns, including Swords, are included in that figure. Housing, schools, general services and facilities in north Dublin are becoming stretched and strained, meaning that the challenge of providing school infrastructure and addressing class sizes is more difficult. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to outline what the Department sees as the most appropriate and expeditious way of addressing these concerns.
Mr. B. Lenihan: I will respond to the Senator on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science. As Senator Morrissey pointed out, I was on the same ballot paper as him on three occasions. It appears that he will not join me on the ballot paper at the next general election, if both of us are preserved until then.
Mr. B. Lenihan: The Senator and I represent various parts of Fingal county. I understand that he has opted to contest the next general election in a different part of the county. It is important that he is staying in the county, which has seen spectacular economic and housing growth in recent years. That growth has been concentrated in several locations, including Swords. Senator Morrissey is no stranger to managing such growth and coping with and addressing the problems it raises. The Government has increased the number of teachers in our schools since 1997. At primary level more then 4,500 additional teachers, including almost 2,500 resource teachers, have been employed. At post-primary level approximately 1,900 additional teaching posts have been allocated since 1997. The additional teaching posts have been used to reduce class sizes, to tackle educational disadvantage and to provide additional resources for children with special needs.
The pupil-teacher ratio at primary level, 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 a projected level of 17.1:1 in 2004-05. The ratio at post-primary level decreased from 16:1 in the 1996-97 school year to 13.6:1 in the 2003-04 school year. The increase in the number of teachers since 1997 has been so substantial that it has contributed in part to the current school accommodation difficulties. The decision to reduce class sizes was taken without sufficient forward planning of the level of physical infrastructure required to accommodate it. I am sure Senator Morrissey appreciates better than most people the problems which exist in places like Swords when attempts are made to match accommodation facilities with the growing levels of need. The entire education system requires additional accommodation facilities as a consequence of the significant increase in the number of staff deployed in schools. Not only has there been an increase in the number of staff deployed in the typical classrooms with which we are familiar, but there has also been a substantial increase in the number of teachers recruited as special needs teachers. Specific classroom arrangements, including smaller rooms, are needed for the latter group of teachers.
The average class size at primary level decreased from 26.6 in 1997 to 23.9 in 2004. Significantly smaller classes have been introduced in disadvantaged schools involved in the Giving Children an Even Break and Breaking the Cycle programmes. Some 47,700 pupils in 243 participating schools are availing of reduced class sizes of either 15 or 20 pupils. Senator Morrissey is familiar with the new action plan for educational inclusion, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, which will result in a reduction in class sizes to 24:1 at senior level and 20:1 at junior level in 150 primary schools serving communities with the highest concentrations of disadvantage.
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 in which 14 or more pupils with significant English language deficits are identified and the allocation of additional learning support teachers. The staff allocation system at primary level is based on ensuring an overall maximum class of 29 in each school. If 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 the 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 to 29, the number of children in classes of 30 or more has decreased substantially.
I salute Senator Morrissey for raising this issue because there is no doubt that the substantial reduction in class sizes at national level has led to a higher concentration of large class sizes in areas of rapid growth, including parts of Fingal county. With regard to providing for children with special educational needs, there are now over 5,000 teachers in our primary schools working directly with children with special needs, including those requiring learning support. This compares to under 1,500 in 1998. Indeed, one out of every five primary school teachers is now working specifically with children with special needs.
Teacher allocations to second level schools have also improved significantly. In 1999 an ex-quota allocation was made to all second level schools in the free education scheme in respect of remedial education, and the home-school community liaison scheme was extended to all schools designated disadvantaged. In 2000 a decision was made to reduce the general pupil-teacher ratio for appointment purposes from 19:1 to 18:1 and additional posts were also provided for the leaving certificate applied, the junior certificate programmes and the guidance enhancement initiative, resulting in approximately 1,000 additional posts in the sector.
The number of teaching posts allocated to cater for pupils with special educational needs has increased from 559 whole-time equivalents in 2001 to 1,599 whole-time equivalents in the current school year. The number of teaching posts allocated to schools to cater for non-national pupils with significant English language deficits has also increased from 113 whole-time equivalents in 2001 to 242 in the current school year. In addition, the Department has provided for an additional allocation of 100 posts to guidance from September 2005.
In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, class sizes will be reduced still further. The deployment of additional posts will be decided within the context of the overall policy that priority will be given to pupils with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and junior classes.
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