Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Questions (40)

Thomas Byrne

Question:

40. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on whether there is an imbalance in the pupil teacher ratio mainstream staffing schedule which means that the bigger the school the PTR progressively disimproves; and his further views on whether this contributes to a particularly large amount of supersize schools in certain parts of the country which happen to have larger schools. [45229/17]

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Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Education)

This is an interesting issue. The Minister pointed out that he was not Minister for Education and Skills when the last list regarding school buildings came in, and I accept that. I certainly was not in any position of influence when this matter first arose, which is probably some time around 2009 or 2010 so I will give the Minister leeway on that one if he gives it on this issue. I am raising this issue in good faith because the pupil-teacher ratio seemed to be larger in the commuter belt in particular and high-growth areas than in other parts of the country. Many people put that down to a preponderance of small schools but when I looked at it, it turns out that the pupil-teacher ratio is effectively worse in terms of the staffing schedule in larger schools, which are predominant in the area in which I live and my constituency and possibly the Minister's constituency. Has the Minister any thoughts on this? Can it be changed without causing huge disruption, particularly in the context of the welcome commitment to reduce the overall pupil-teacher ratio next year?

I can see what the Deputy is saying but this has a historic and justifiable basis. The staffing schedule is an allocation mechanism that uses enrolment bands to determine the number of classroom teaching posts allocated to a school. This is a long-standing arrangement for allocating teaching posts to our primary schools based on their respective enrolment and I have no plans to make changes to this practice, which is well settled in the school system.

There is a bias towards small schools in the staffing schedule in policy terms to reflect the fact that small schools have particular challenges teaching across a number of class groups. In larger schools, teachers are usually assigned to single class groups.  Budget 2017 introduced added protections for small schools, in particular, a capacity for one-teacher schools to apply to the staffing appeals board for an extra teacher where the single teacher has pupils across six or more class groups.

The staffing schedules operate in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location. For the 2017-18 school year at primary level, it operates on the basis of one classroom teacher for an average of every 27 pupils.  With the allocation ratio set at 27:1 for this school year, the classroom allocation ratio, when measured at the mid-point of the bands for schools, generally is 27:1. It is lower in smaller schools.  

Budget 2018 includes a further one point improvement in the staffing schedule in primary schools which brings the position to the most favourable ever seen at primary level. This measure will further assist all schools at the upper end of their individual respective bands. This budget measure delivers on a commitment made in the confidence and supply agreement and programme for Government to reduce primary schools class size. One can see that with small schools, it is a case of two teachers at 19 so that is nine children per teacher. That is the base. When one starts at that, it is equitably built up from that base. It provides really small schools with that higher level of staffing. It would be very difficult to go away from that principle.

I again acknowledge the change to the pupil-teacher ratio from next to the lowest ever. It was an example of mature politics. We can shout and roar across the Dáil Chamber but when we work together, put our case on the basis of what we have done in the confidence and supply agreement and work professionally, as the Minister and I have done, we can actually achieve and change something. I am not speaking against small schools in any way. We will be the first to defend them if we have to. However, there is an issue in larger schools.

We are building bigger and bigger schools all the time. Realistically, the Minister will not be establishing new schools with two or three teachers. He will be establishing new schools with at least two streams and at least 16 teachers plus principal. In many cases, the numbers will be bigger. There are anomalies on the staffing schedule for ordinary schools and indeed Gaelscoileanna. In respect of a principal plus seven-teacher school up to a principal plus 16-teacher school, an increase of 26 pupils is required to get the additional teacher. A principal plus a 17-teacher school needs 37 pupils to move up that ratio and get the extra teacher so it does press the school hard. When one sees the headlines in the newspapers that the largest class sizes are in Meath, Kildare, Dublin, particularly suburban Dublin, and suburban Cork, this is the reason for it. Could it be looked at? Obviously, it will be in the context of financial and budgetary pressures and we have already taken one significant step so I am looking ahead. Is there a way of saying that a maximum class size should be this and we would not allow it and would not give the schools discretion to have class sizes bigger than a certain size, possibly 30?

The system, which includes all parties in the House, certainly Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, has been designed to protect small schools. They have a lower retention point so the system protects smaller schools from the loss of their teacher as well as providing a better ratio in the structure. This is deliberately designed to defend the rural school which is trying to cater for multiple classes. There are some mitigating factors. For example, the walking principal comes in at the size of 177 and larger schools with five special classes get an additional post so there are compensating points.

While I am open to looking at individual initiatives that deliver better outcomes, this system is tried and tested. I took the trouble to look at what is the average school size in the Deputy's county. It is 235, which is considerably larger than other smaller counties and counties that have suffered population decline. That has been done for good policy reasons. While my county of Dublin is even worse in terms of the average size of schools being larger, the policy is reasonably founded and I am content to leave it as it is. I will listen to debate in this House if compelling points are put forward.