I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion. I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to recognise the special position of primary schools on our offshore islands by extending the qualifying date for minimum enrolment from 30 September 2012 to 30 April 2013 so that some unique factors in island communities can be taken into account fully. I am not sure if the special position of national schools on the islands off our coast has been factored into the staff allocations the Minister's announced in recent months.
As the Minister is aware the population of our islands is in decline and has also varied considerably throughout the years. Those islands have unique challenges. I ask the Minister to consider the impact enrolment assessments have on island life. By allowing a second enrolment count to take place on 30 April - which by coincidence is today - where an island school is in danger of losing a second teacher and becoming a single-teacher school the Minister would ensure that these variable factors are fully taken into account in determining the number of teachers allowed in our island schools. This refers to the recent Department of Education and Skills circular 13/2013 on staffing arrangements in primary schools, specifically section 3.5 on island schools.
I have been made aware of the drastic consequences which could negatively impact our island schools if their numbers were below eight students on 30 September last, as they would lose their second teacher forever. The numbers would have to rise above 20 before a second teacher would be reinstated. This figure would raise the barrier too high and would make maintaining a national school on most of our islands unsustainable. If we cannot continue to keep national school children living and going to school on an island we will make our islands uninhabitable for anyone with children aged younger than 12 years. Nobody here wants to see our island populations decline further. They are a resource and not a millstone and it would be great if they could be treated as such. The children of the islands are the future of the islands. I call for tolerant flexibility in considering teacher numbers in island schools. Not only would the schools close but ultimately the islands would shut down.
These schools do not have the option of a merger as schools on the mainland do. I take the point that options exist for national schools in rural and remote areas where student numbers are falling, and schools have always closed in rural Ireland because of a lack of children. It is different on the islands where the option of a merger or an amalgamation does not exist, and it is quite a serious issue. If a school was reduced to a single teacher and this teacher fell ill I do not need to explain to the Minister of State the consequences this would have in a national school in a remote area would be particularly exacerbated on an island. Getting a substitute teacher to an island is more difficult than getting one to a remote mainland area. I would like to think this would be considered in the execution of these staffing arrangements.
The circular was issued long after the day the enrolment count was taken. I ask for a recount to be taken to ensure a fair figure is arrived at so the special position of our island schools is maintained and they can be given every opportunity to continue to educate our young islanders on the islands. I have a particular example in mind of how this issue will possibly impact an island. It is appropriate to enlarge the debate and broaden it out to offshore islands. There are seven inhabited offshore islands off the coast of my constituency of Cork South-West. There are also islands off the coast of Galway, Donegal and Mayo which will be particularly hard hit by this issue.