Tuesday, 19 May 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mount Sion primary school was the first Christian Brothers school founded by Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice and the people of Waterford and the entire country are rightly very proud of it. It has provided education for all classes and its commitment to newcomers of ethnic origin is consistent with the work undertaken by its founder.
The school has appealed against its staffing allocation which, if implemented, will have devastating effects on staff and students alike and will result in the school having to struggle to provide the type of education which we expect and deserve today. This appeal from Mount Sion is not based on history or sentimentality but on the knowledge that the school is providing a service to a group of children and their parents and guardians that enables them to make real progress. Theirs is a worthy cause and I ask the Minister of State to make the correct decision and allow this school to continue its good work with the required number of staff. This school is a beacon for education in the heart of Waterford’s inner city and the proposed cuts to its staffing are unfair and unworkable.
It appears that because in the period 30 September 2008 to 28 November 2008 the school, with 346 pupils, was one pupil short of the prescribed number, it is now to lose a mainstream teacher even though from 1 December 2008 until the present its enrolment is in excess of the prescribed number, 347 pupils. The projected enrolment figure for September 2009 is 358. Some 30% of the school population is of newcomer status or ethnic origin. Given that the school also stands to lose two language support teachers, the increase in class sizes arising from the loss of a mainstream class teacher will reduce learning opportunities for those children whose first language is not English. Consequently, the extra burden of support placed on the class teacher will be to the detriment of the other children and the class.
My colleague, Senator Paudie Coffey, will outline other reasons the appeal from this school should be upheld. I ask the Minister to allow this school to continue to raise the attainment standards of its pupils. To do this it needs to maintain its full complement of staff. In the interests of fairness and equity, I ask that this school be afforded the same opportunities that pupils have in similar schools in Waterford city and I hope the Minister of State will provide a positive response to this appeal.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I thank the Minister of State for attending to hear this Adjournment matter which I am glad to share with my colleague, Senator Maurice Cummins. He has outlined the proud tradition of Mount Sion primary school in the heart of the inner city in Waterford which has provided an essential educational service for the boys of that area for many generations. The nub of the issue concerns the enrolment figures. From September to November 2008, as my colleague stated, there were 346 pupils enrolled, just one short of the prescribed number that would allow the school to retain its full complement of mainstream teachers. A month later, in December 2008, the school had in excess of 347. The enrolment figures that were returned to the Department contained one too few, but since then the figures have increased. The enrolment for 2009 is 358 pupils.
It defies logic that common sense cannot prevail on this occasion. This is an area in which we can restore faith in politics and politicians. The Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, is not the Minister for Education and Science but he has responsibility for children and young people and I know he has a deep understanding of the effect that this move to reduce the number of teachers in Mount Sion primary school will have across the range of classes, numbering more than 350 pupils. This is an occasion where politicians can make a difference and can step in and intervene with the bureaucrats. If the bureaucrats maintain that these children are to be treated according to the statistics, all of them will suffer because every class in Mount Sion primary school will have more than 30 pupils, and that is unacceptable. As Senator Cummins noted, a significant percentage of the pupils are non-national in origin. In addition, the school is disadvantaged and for that reason alone it has many pupils with special educational needs and learning difficulties. It is important, therefore, that the number of class teachers is kept at a viable level so that all pupils can receive the education they deserve.
I shall offer one example. The school turned away two families that wished to enrol their sons in sixth class for this school year. It did this on the basis that there were already 30 children in the class. If it had been known these new ratios were to be introduced the school would have enrolled the boys but because it was not, Mount Sion will lose the extra class teacher.
I appeal to the Minister of State to request the Minister for Education and Science to allow common sense to prevail, to let politics prevail over bureaucracy and statistics and allow Mount Sion school to maintain the number of teachers it has. They do a marvellous job — I cannot over-emphasise the job they do — in inner-city Waterford in a large area of disadvantage in education. I appeal to the Minister of State and am hopeful he will give me a positive response. If not, I hope, in his role as Minister of State with responsibility for children and young people, he will take the issue further with the Minister for Education and Science so that this school in inner-city Waterford will receive the support it deserves.
The Minister is committed to providing information on the allocation of teachers to schools and as a new feature on the Department’s website. The process has begun with the provision earlier this year of initial information on the allocation of mainstream classroom teachers to primary schools under the revised schedule for 2009-10.
In terms of the position at individual primary school level, the key factor for determining the level of resources provided by the Department is the pupil enrolment at 30 September 2008. The annual process of seeking this enrolment data from schools took place in the autumn and the data have since been received and processed in the Department, enabling the commencement of the processes by which teaching resources are allocated to schools for the school year that begins next September. The Department has written to the primary schools that are projected to have a net loss or gain in classroom teaching posts in September 2009.
As part of the Minister’s efforts to ensure relevant information is openly available to the public, detailed information on the opening position for primary schools is now published on the Department’s website. This provisional list sets out the details on individual schools that, taken collectively, are projected to gain 128 posts and to lose 382 posts, a net reduction of 254. It is the Minister’s intention to have this information updated and ultimately to set out the final position when the allocation processes are completed.
The final position for any one school will depend on a number of other factors such as additional posts for schools that are developing rapidly and posts allocated as a result of the appeals processes. The operation of redeployment arrangements also impacts on the final position as a teacher can remain in his or her existing school where a suitable redeployment position does not exist. The final staffing position for all schools will therefore not be known until the autumn. At that stage the allocation process will be fully completed for mainstream classroom teachers and appeals to the staffing appeals board will have been considered.
I understand that the school referred to by the Senators submitted an appeal to the primary staffing appeals board. The board considered the school’s submissions at its meeting on 14 May 2009 and has requested additional information before making its decision. Following this process the school will be contacted with the outcome of the appeal decision. The appeal board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final. I thank the Senators again for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on this matter and to outline the current position.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I thank the Minister for replying, but again it is a Pontius Pilate act to say the appeals board is an independent body. As Senator Coffey stated, this is bureaucracy gone mad. The figures are there to support the appeal and, while I expect that when the appeals board gets the further information it requires it will uphold this appeal, it is unfortunate the Minister could not come in and say Mount Sion is to maintain the same staffing level it had last year in view of the information that has been put before the appeals board. I am disappointed in that regard but I hope that when the appeals board gets the further information, this will be a fait accompli and Mount Sion will get back its additional teachers.
Senator Paudie Coffey: I, too, thank the Minister of State for his response. However, we see the Government every day handing over important decisions such as this to independent bodies, whether they be the HSE, the National Roads Authority or whatever. At times, it is a requirement to be independent, but I ask the Minister of State to take into account the fact that these are real children, not statistics. Bureaucracy sometimes can overcome the common sense that should prevail in our communities. I am sure Mount Sion primary school has already made a very good appeal with all the information the appeals board requires. I ask the Minister of State, however, to take notice of that appeal and watch the outcome. I am very hopeful the appeals board will make the right decision based on the information submitted and on the case Senator Cummins and I have made in the Seanad.
If this appeal outcome is negative in any way, both of us will be back in all our powers to revisit this subject because an appeals board should not be overly bureaucratic. This is where we can restore faith in politics. The real facts should mean something. We have presented some of them today, the Mount Sion board of management will present the full picture to the appeals board and I hope that, based on its merits, the school will retain its full complement of teachers. If it does not, only the pupils of that disadvantaged area will suffer. That is not something I can stand over and I shall revisit the matter if that happens.
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