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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Vol. 183 No. 17

School Staffing.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter and the Minister of State for replying. Kilcooley national school is a small rural school outside Loughrea, County Galway. It was classified in 2000 as being in a very bad condition, one of the worst in the country. The Minister for Education and Science has indicated that a substantial reconstruction and extension programme is to be carried out on the school. It is hoped that the new extension will be occupied by the beginning of the new academic year. The enrolment was 82 students in the 2004-05 academic year but this number has temporarily decreased in the current year. It is hoped that in September 2006 the enrolment will rise to 81 with a potential for more.

The parents and the school management are concerned that the school will lose a teacher if the Minister does not give a concession to this school to retain that teacher until the following year when the numbers will increase again. The new school extension will provide four new classrooms to allow each teacher have a classroom each if the teacher is retained. If the teacher is not retained, it will be a return to a situation of overcrowding. This is an ideal opportunity for the Minister to show her commitment to the reduction of the student-teacher ratio by allowing the carry-over for just one year.

As is the case in every other school, there is a cohort of students with special needs. The additional teacher has proved to be a clear benefit to the children. It is hoped to continue what would be regarded as sound educational practice to allow the school to retain the fourth teacher until the enrolment figures show an increase at the start of the new academic year in September. The parents, the parents association of the school and the school management are greatly concerned that if the school loses a teacher, they will face a battle to restore the complement of teachers. Furthermore, many students will lose out in terms of the benefit of an additional teacher.

I ask the Minister of State to arrange for this matter to be examined with a view to allowing this school to retain the additional teacher until the number of students are up to a level that justify the current complement of four teachers.

l am pleased to have this opportunity to outline on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin — who is currently responding to a Private Members' motion in the Dáil — the position on school staffing and particularly the staffing in Kilcooley national school. The Government has provided the largest increase in teacher numbers since the expansion of free education. The incredible progress that has been made in this area in recent years is evident from the fact that next September there will be no fewer than 4,000 extra teachers in our primary schools, compared with 2002. Not only is the average class size in our primary schools down to 24, but there is now one teacher for 17 pupils at primary level, when the thousands of extra resource and other support teachers are taken into account.

Children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas are getting more support than ever before to help them to reach their full potential at school. On top of all the progress that has been made in recent years, the Minister for Finance has committed to providing more primary classroom teachers for next September and for September 2007 through a reduction in the mainstream staffing schedule.

As the Senator may be aware, the number of classroom, as opposed to resource and other support, teachers who are allocated to a primary school is determined by reference to the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous year. A staffing schedule issues by circular to schools each year setting out the enrolment figures that will apply for each staffing post in the next school year. The 2006-07 schedule issued more than a month ago, therefore, each school is aware of its mainstream staffing arrangement for the next school year.

Under the staffing schedule for the 2005-06 school year, the general rule is that at least one classroom teacher is provided for every 29 pupils in the school. Schools with only one or two teachers have much lower staffing ratios than that — with two teachers for only 12 pupils in some cases and so on — but the general rule is that there is at least one classroom teacher for every 29 children in the school. For the 2006-07 school year this is being reduced to 28 children per classroom teacher and in 2007-08 it will be reduced to 27 children per classroom teacher.

The school referred to by the Senator had an enrolment on 30 September 2004 of 82 pupils which warranted a staffing for the 2005-06 school year of a principal and three mainstream teachers. ln addition, the school has the service of a learning support-resource teacher based in the school and shared with Scoil Aindreis Naofa. It also receives the service of a learning support teacher based in Kilimor national school.

The mainstream staffing of the school for the 2006-07 school year will consist of a principal and two mainstream class teachers. This is based on an enrolment of 76 pupils at 30 September 2005. The school will continue to have the learning support-resource post based there and additional resource hours made available in respect of any pupils with low-incidence special educational needs.

To ensure transparency and openness in the system an independent appeal board is now in place to decide on any appeals on mainstream staffing in primary schools. l understand that the board of management of the school has submitted an appeal to the staffing appeal board. The appeal will be considered by the appeal board at a meeting which is scheduled to take place on 25 May 2006. The board of management will be notified of the outcome of the appeal as soon as possible thereafter.

The independent appeal board on mainstream staffing was established in August 2002 and commenced operation at the beginning of the 2002-03 school year. The purpose of the appeal board is to allow for the independent consideration of appeals, under certain criteria, against the mainstream staffing schedule as issued to schools. The appeal board allows for equitable and transparent treatment of all primary schools and its decision is final. It is not open to the Minister for Education and Science or her Department to interfere in any way in this process.

l thank the Senator for giving me this opportunity to outline all the progress that has been made in school staffing in recent years and to clarify particularly the position on Kilcooley national school.

In the event of the appeal not being successful, can I take it the Minister for Education and Science will give official sanction to increase the pupil-teacher ratio in that school?

My understanding is that the appeal board's decision is final and there is no recourse to appeal it. Based on the enrolment figure for September 2005, it appears that the school will be entitled to one principal and two mainstream class teachers. I do not envisage that position will change unless the appeal board makes such a decision on 25 May.

The Minister of State might convey to the Minister that the number to be enrolled for the next academic year will increase to 81. While this year the number enrolled has fallen, in respect of which the criteria outlined apply, next year there will be an increase in the number of enrolments.

I will convey that to the Minister but if it is the position, the board of management will have made that case in its submission to the appeal board, and it will be a matter for the appeal board to take a decision on that basis.