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:
After the second year, pupils performed consistently better than other pupils in mathematics, reading, language, arts and overall total scores on standardised tests.
Smith and Class state:
Smaller classes are associated with higher achievement at all grades. Major benefit of class size reduction is where numbers of pupils are less than twenty.
From his research Ferguson states, "Pupil achievement falls as the pupil teacher ratio increases for every pupil above 18".
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:
I wish to express my serious disappointment and concern about the current size of sixth class. Approximately 35 pupils per class. With classes of this size it is asking too much of teachers, no matter how conscientious, to teach any curriculum — let alone the much-vaunted new curriculum, with its emphasis on communication and participation — or to pay attention to weaker pupils, particularly in the area of numeracy and other basic skills.
A parent in Galway wrote as follows:
One teacher in our school actually has 36 children. Class size in our school, and resources for children with special needs are issues of urgent concern for this community. We believe that it is not fair or equitable that our children should be taught in classes of these sizes, which belong to a bygone age, at a time when our country is experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity.
A letter from a teacher reads:
A typical Junior Infant class in our school in September will have over 30 pupils which will include several non-nationals, some Travellers and several other children presenting with special needs. To expect any teacher to manage this situation is intolerable. Our difficulties are compounded by the fact that many of our large classes are in pre-fab rooms, where it is impossible to carry out our new action filled curriculum. How can Ireland boast of its educational system and claim to cherish the children of the country when this is the real situation on the ground?
That is just a small sample of the letters I received. Other colleagues will have received letters from their constituencies which more or less tell the same story.
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:
We will implement a full range of measures to improve accident and emergency services by significantly reducing waiting times and having senior doctors available at all times.
Under "Education" it reads:
We will implement changes to retention and support policies which will assist schools in areas of significant disadvantage to recruit and retain teachers...
We will ensure that every school building attains set modern standards.
The part which is most relevant reads:
We will continue to reduce the pupil/teacher ratio in our schools. Over the next five years, we will progressively introduce maximum class size guidelines which will ensure that the average class size of classes for children under 9 will be below the international best-practice guideline of 20:1.
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.