Thursday, 17 October 2019

Questions (5)

Thomas P. Broughan


5. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the way in which the allocation for Vote 26 in budget 2020 will impact on class size at primary level or significantly address the longstanding concerns of an organisation (details supplied) in relation to much needed additional personnel and resources for primary education. [42634/19]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

The €11.4 billion from Vote 26 and the Estimates for 2020 from last week is welcome. I welcome the improvements that have been made with SNAs and we just heard about 150 extra teachers for demographic reasons, but overall we still have the biggest class sizes in the eurozone and nearly the biggest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD. A key aim of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, and the National Principals' Forum is to reduce these. The Government has not really made progress on this in this year's budget.

We have made a little bit of progress but it is not at the level I would have liked. The budget is not reflective of where I would like to be as Minister for Education and Skills, but it is reflective of where we are at a given point in time. Since we started here today, I do not know where we are in the conversation that is ongoing across the water, but hopefully we will get into a better place.

Despite budget 2020 being prepared in the context of a possible no-deal Brexit and the Government's necessity to plan for the economic impact of such a possibility, since May 2016 we have provided for an additional 3,000 SNAs and over 7,300 new teaching posts, with a further 1,000 SNA positions and 581 teaching posts for the 2020-21 school year as a result of budget 2020. We have cut the staffing schedule at primary level twice, which brought the position to a general average of 26 pupils to every teacher, the lowest ever allocation ratio at primary level. We have to go further with that. The reduction of the pupil-teacher ratio is indicative of where I want to go and that has to be brought across the spectrum of primary school education. We have introduced a more favourable staffing schedule in small schools from September 2020. This budget 2020 measure for improved teacher staffing levels for schools with four teachers or less will see a more favourable pupil-teacher ratio in small schools. This improved schedule will apply in two, three and four teacher schools and will ensure one less pupil is required to retain or recruit a teacher. We have provided 1,300 new middle management positions at primary level and 1,300 new middle management positions at post-primary level. We have increased significantly the number of release days allowed to teaching principals, with a further additional release day to all schools in September 2020. We have increased capitation by 5% in budget 2019 and by a further 2.5% in budget 2020. We have increased the ancillary grant in primary schools by €22 per pupil.

I have taken steps in budget 2020 to build on the steps taken in recent budgets to meet the goals set out in the action plan for education. In the current school year, the numbers employed in our schools have reached their highest ever level at almost 71,000. Teacher numbers at primary level have increased by almost 3,500 when comparing the 2015-16 school year with the current school year, and this has led to a steady improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio. Substantial extra resources for primary education have been gained in the past three budgets and it is through the annual budgetary process each year and future budgets that further progress will be made.

We were promised in the confidence and supply agreement that is now three and a half years old that in each budget we would see an incremental improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio. The Department's analysis in August showed that 350,000, or 63% of our pupils at primary level, are in classes of more than 25. Examples are Scoil Naomh Colmchille in Carndonagh in the Minister's constituency, Scoil Náisiúnta Róis in Taylor's Hill in Galway and Bunscoil Phádraig Naofa in Tuam with classes of 42. I note that Scoil Mobhí in Glasnevin has 32 pupils in eight classrooms. The Government has still not made a decisive move on this in response to the commitments the Government and Fianna Fáil gave to the people back in 2016. Schools across Leinster and in Waterford are more likely to have those bigger class sizes. If the Minister looks at the OECD standings, we come in behind the USA, Russia and a plethora of about 25 countries in class sizes. It is no wonder the Irish National Teachers' Organisation and the National Principals' Forum are very unhappy with the budget outcome in many respects. Did the Minister ask for the extra €140 million or so that would have been needed to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio by one pupil?

To answer the Deputy's last question, I certainly did ask for a lot more money than I got and I battled it out. The line was clear that we were working within a threshold and that is why I wanted to ensure all the front-line services, especially special education, were protected. I am a year in the job this week and I have realised that the primary school sector and the pupil-teacher ratio is an issue that keeps coming up. One of the things I wanted to set out was that if I look at changes for the two, three and four teacher schools, I want to see that pupil-teacher ratio coming down. That is where I want to get to. I know there are legacy posts within DEIS schools for primary schools.

I want to look after them. I do not want to lose them either. I know this is a conversation piece. I want to protect what we have. The Deputy is correct with regard to the pupil-teacher ratio. To give every student a chance, there has to be a smaller numeral, but obviously schools will decide their classroom sizes for themselves. At present, the pupil-teacher ratio is 1:24 and this will continue.

In its analysis in August, the Department said appropriate learning experiences were very hard to achieve in class of more than 25. It is no wonder that in one response to the budget last week the INTO stated classes continue to be super-sized, school leaders are not supported, and capitation is underfunded by at least €46 million. The Minister has read the survey published last year on teaching principals, which stated they were overworked, underpaid and grappling with never-ending administrative work. There are huge problems here, particularly with regard to the pupil-teacher ratio.

I thank the Minister for visiting Scoil Chaitríona Cailíní yesterday, where a terrible fire has destroyed nine classrooms, the library and the hall. The Minister has already sent an architect. I know he will do his very best for all of the children. It is a fantastic school and has been for generations. One Deputy said her mother went there. Accommodation and reconstruction as soon as possible is what we need. It is an iconic school that is very important to our community in Coolock and Artane in Dublin Bay North.

We all sympathise with the community there.

I have met the principal, staff, some of the parents and some of the young people. It was a devastating day and they were still in shock yesterday. Out of the ashes they will rebuild. There was a lot of community fundraising for the new library so it was an especially difficult day. The mother of one of the teachers, Gráinne Campbell, whom I did not meet, sent a message last night to say she was also devastated as all of her teaching materials were gone. They will rebuild and I will ensure it gets proper focus. Yesterday morning, I met the architect from the Department out there and we will absolutely prioritise it.

With regard to what we need to do within the educational system, we have 125 special schools, more than 3,300 primary schools and more than 750 secondary schools. We have a lot of schools that are doing absolutely amazing and incredible work. Obviously, supports in terms of financial bread and butter stuff are very important. The Deputy mentioned capitation. There had been a reduction of 11% and we had an increase of 5% last year. We are now up to 7.5%. We are not there yet. The price of running schools is a big thing. The Deputy also mentioned leadership. One more teacher in the day will take a wee bit of pressure off teaching principals. It is not where I want to be but it is an indication of where I want to go.