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Importance of small rural schools must be recognised: Crowe

31 January, 2012 - by Seán Crowe TD


Speaking in the Dáil this evening on a private members’ motion on small rural schools Sinn Féin Education spokesperson Seán Crowe TD urged the government to look at alternatives to amalgamating and closing schools.

Deputy Crowe said budget cuts fail to take account of the importance of small schools and their relationship with communities in rural Ireland.

He said:

“The budget changes to the staffing schedules fail to take into account the importance of small schools and their relationship with communities in rural Ireland.

“In the haste to reduce budgets, the quality of our children’s education is being greatly compromised and the views of teachers and parents have been largely ignored.

“In the mid-1960s, a sustained amalgamation policy was implemented by the then Fianna Fáil Government. During a seven year period the number of one and two teacher schools was reduced by approximately 1,100. The decline of many rural communities was blamed on the policy of forced school amalgamations and closures. This government now stands on the brink of replicating this short-sighted policy.

“Sinn Féin is urging the government to take a more holistic approach to this issue and alternatives to amalgamating and closing schools should be considered. These should include examining ways of repopulating existing schools rather than constantly expanding over-crowed larger schools, where children are often taught in unsuitable temporary accommodation.

“I would urge you Minister, to recognise the importance of small schools in rural Ireland and that any viability assessment must have a greater remit than just short-term savings.

“Financial concerns, taken in isolation, are no justification for closing small schools and the government needs to examine the adverse impact on the child who is forced to travel to a different environment.

“The importance of rural schools in maintaining community cohesion and the role they play in the preservation of local history, culture, and folklore must also be considered.

“Every Euro cut from the Education Budget reduces a child’s prospects, harms their future life chances and jeopardises this country’s chance at recovery.” ENDs

Full text of Deputy Crowe’s speech follows:

It is clear that many of the budget decisions that are being forced on schools will have far reaching implications for the Irish education sector. The Government has sought to impose yet more austerity measures and in so doing they have disregarded investing in children’s future.

Minister, you and your government colleagues have made political choices that have included paying billions of Euros into zombie banks. Your Government’s Budget choices have led to the targeting of some of this State’s most vulnerable citizens.

The decision to cut resources from DEIS schools; the loss of hundreds of school guidance counsellors and changes to the staffing schedules in 1,2,3, and 4 teacher schools highlight some of your particularly choices.

Let’s be clear what is behind the changes to small schools. They are an attempt to force the closure or amalgamation of small schools throughout this State. They come at a time when rural communities are trying to absorb the loss of young people through mass immigration, the closure of community halls, post offices, and Garda stations as well as Village shops, public houses and other small businesses.

The Budget changes to the staffing schedules fail to take into account the importance of small schools and their relationship with communities in rural Ireland.

In the haste to reduce budgets, the quality of our children’s education is being greatly compromised and the views of teachers and parents have been largely ignored.

The OECD, as far back as 1991, acknowledged the importance of small schools in ensuring the sustainability and regeneration of rural Ireland. One of its key conclusions was that educational quality and not school size should be the “main criterion” for rationalisation.

In the mid-1960s, a sustained amalgamation policy was implemented by the then FF Government. During a seven year period the number of one and two teacher schools was reduced by approximately 1,100. The decline of many rural communities was blamed on the policy of forced school amalgamations and closures. This Government now stands on the brink of replicating this short-sighted policy.

The 2009 Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes made several recommendations that included the amalgamations of 659 schools with fewer than 50 pupils, eliminating 300 teaching posts. Also on the table were the amalgamations of 851 schools in the 50-100 pupil category, which would result in an estimate loss of 200 teaching posts.

The conclusions reached in the report disregarded the established criteria for amalgamation including the educational needs of the children, the rights of parents and the adverse effects on the cultural, social, demographic and economic life of small rural communities. It is a mistake that this Government seems hell-bent on repeating.

Sinn Féin is urging the Government to take a more holistic approach to this issue and alternatives to amalgamating and closing schools should be considered. These should include examining ways of repopulating existing schools rather than constantly expanding over-crowed larger schools, where children are often taught in unsuitable temporary accommodation.

Many rural schools are situated in isolated areas and are far apart. Their closure will force children to travel longer distances and hard pressed families have seen transport costs double in the past year.

The Government has handed down a decree that will force some schools to close yet what provision has been made to facilitate this change in strategy? Have plans been put in place to provide a new building and have potential sites been identified?

Clearly, there has been little or no joined-up thinking between the Departments that have the responsibility of ensuring schools have the capacity to join together. How will existing schools cope with increased classroom sizes and an influx of additional pupils?

Added to this is the budget reality that the discretionary ratio for Gaeltacht schools is gone. This will mean the minimum number of pupils required for a fourth teacher goes from 81 to 83.

In Gaelthacht areas where the minimum was previously 76 pupils, schools now need 83 pupils to qualify for a fourth teacher.

This increases to 86 by 2014 for all schools, meaning the increase in Gaeltacht areas will be 10 pupils compared to five pupils in other areas.

Another key consideration must also protect minority denominations which need to be treated with a particular sensitivity, particularly in relation to proposed amalgamations.

I would like to make clear that Sinn Féin does not oppose amalgamations, particularly if they are carried out with the expressed wish of the school community and there are examples of successful mergers that improved the school environment for pupils and enhanced their educational attainment.

Value for money cannot be the primary consideration that influences policy.
The financial costs associated with providing a network of accessible schools should be carried out in conjunction with improving existing community facilities and part of a strategy to enhance the social fabric of rural areas.

This is particularly important when we consider the amount of state resources that have already been invested in upgrading many rural schools.

Under the Department’s plan, a school which this year got a third teacher for 49 pupils will see that number rise to 56 pupils over three years. This would mean a school of 50 pupils next year will only have two teachers next year with an average class size of 25 pupils. A school which this year gets a fourth teacher for 81 pupils will see that number rise to 83 next year and 86 in two years’ time.

There are numerous international studies that show the value of small schools and their efficiency in meeting education policy and objectives.

Other options need to be considered including the clustering of small schools

Whole School Evaluation Reports (WSE) reports provide clear evidence that small schools throughout the country meet the needs of pupils, parents and teachers. They frequently refer to the family like nature of support for pupils in these schools with many being described as effective in facilitating the development of pupils’ self-confidence and self-belief.

There is a huge amount evidence stacked to support the view that small schools offer a high quality classroom atmosphere where all pupils have a sense of belonging and security.

A further vindication of small schools is the regular references to the very high standards of teaching and learning in all areas of the curriculum

Comments such as “very good quality learning experiences”, “high standards are reached in many areas of the curriculum, particularly in English and Mathematics” and “excellent use is made of ICT” are typical of the reports.

Minister the vast majority of small schools are in a very good condition because local communities take pride in their upkeep.

Other studies indicate that small schools embrace reform agendas more quickly than big schools because they are of their nature, less bureaucratic.

Recent Whole School Evaluation reports frequently praise the special education and learning support provision in small schools.
They highlighted the high standard of care and attention that is afforded to pupils with learning difficulties and special educational needs.

This could be lost If smalls are forced to close and amalgamate.

Any viability audit of schools should set out to identify those schools that are struggling to meet sustainable enrolment levels, and if they are financially viable and delivering a high standard of education.

The focus should be on identifying those schools where action will need to be taken in the short-term to protect the education of pupils. The development of a detailed area profile based on current and relevant educational information must be an essential part of the process.

The criteria should include the quality of the educational experience, stable enrolment trends, the sound financial position of the school, strong leadership and management within the school set-up, accessibility and ensuring the sustainability of strong links with the community.

This means broadening the criteria by which an assessment is made of any individual school. It must be based on robust and verifiable information and the professional judgement of teachers, Boards of management and the wider community.

I would urge you Minister, to recognise the importance of small schools in rural Ireland and that any viability assessment must have a greater remit than just short-term savings.

Financial concerns, taken in isolation, are no justification for closing small schools and the Government needs to exam the adverse impact on the child who is forced to travel to a different environment.

The importance of rural schools in maintaining community cohesion and the role they play in the preservation of local history, culture, and folklore must also be considered.

Every Euro cut from the Education Budget reduces a child’s prospects, harms their future life chances and jeopardises this country’s chance at recovery.

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