Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Questions (109)

Brendan Griffin

Question:

109. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will visit County Kerry to see the logistics involved for children as young as four years old travelling to and from some isolated small schools and the potential journeys involved in the event of small school closures due to his Department's policy on teacher allocation for small schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15654/14]

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Written answers (Question to Education)

Work and diary commitments would not facilitate a visit to Co. Kerry such as outlined by the Deputy. I have already made clear to the House on a number of occasions that school communities should have no reason to feel that there will be a forced closure of their local school.

As part of the Budget 2012 decisions, there is a phased increase in the number of pupils required to gain and retain a classroom teaching post in small primary schools with four teachers or less. The first phase of the budget measure took effect from September 2012. The final phase of the budget measure takes effect from September 2014. The phasing of these measures has provided the schools concerned with time to consider the potential for amalgamation with other schools where this is feasible. If amalgamations do take place, they will be voluntary and follow decisions taken by local communities and not by the Department.

An appeals process is available to small schools which have had their staff number reduced as a result of the budget measure. A school with four classroom teachers or less which is losing a teacher or failed to gain an additional teacher as a result of the Budget 2012 measure can submit an appeal to the Primary Staffing Appeals Board. Details on the appeals process are published annually as part of the staffing arrangements for primary schools which are set out in Circular 0007/2014 and available on the Department website. The appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final.

The Government recognises that small schools are an important part of the social fabric of rural communities. They will continue to be a feature of our education landscape. In these extremely challenging times, all public servants are being asked to deliver our public services on a reduced level of resources and teachers in small schools cannot be immune from this requirement.

How best to sustain provision for widely dispersed and small local communities does present as a particular challenge, especially in any locality where enrolment is declining to single figures.

I am mindful of the concerns of smaller schools and rural schools. Our overall primary school enrolment has been growing rapidly in recent years and this is going to continue. In managing the resource consequences of this, it is important that decisions on school provision and organisation are based on a rigorous evaluation of requirements and needs, not just at a local level but also at both regional and national levels.

Educational quality for the pupils has to be one of the main criteria in any consideration of primary school size. It is also necessary to consider the needs of local communities and of course there are wider social and cultural factors that need to be considered. Given our population growth, we have increasing enrolment at all levels of education which is expected to continue in the medium term. Many pupil places are required in areas that currently have no school provision at all and we have schools in areas of stable or declining population with relatively low pupil numbers.

Our current configuration of small primary schools has been examined by the Department in a value for money (VFM) review. This review took account of the ethos of schools and the locations of small schools relative to other schools of a similar type. I am currently considering this review in consultation with my Government colleagues and I intend to publish the report on completion of this consideration process.