Thursday, 17 October 2019

Questions (6)

Peter Burke

Question:

6. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Minister for Education and Skills the steps he will take to support small schools and the communities they serve. [42607/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

What steps will the Minister take to support small schools and the communities they serve?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Rural schools make up the majority of our primary school sector, with almost 2,000 out of just over 3,100 schools. As such, I fully recognise their value to communities throughout the country. They provide a vital link to local heritage and history, help sustain rural populations and often act as a link for sports and social activity.

The majority of rural schools, more than 1,200 of them, are classed as small, having four or fewer teachers. While facing the challenges and opportunities that all schools do, this particular group of schools has specific challenges. I will continue to listen to our partners on this and discuss what we can do to support small schools and ensure they have a sustainable future. The programme for Government makes a commitment not to close any small school without the consent of parents and I am honouring this partnership approach as I examine the issue.

I have spoken to international colleagues to hear their perspective and, together with my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, I hosted a symposium on small schools. I want to engage actively with the people and organisations who work in and with small schools and who understand the value and opportunities they offer their communities.

Already, we as a Government have shown that we are listening and I was pleased to announced additional supports for small schools in budget 2020. Improved teacher staffing levels will be introduced for small schools with four teachers or fewer. The one-point reduction in the staffing schedule will help ensure better teacher retention in schools with up to four teachers by ensuring that one less pupil is required to retain and recruit a teacher. To be clear, we are dropping the retention and recruitment figure by one simultaneously. More than 1,300 schools will benefit from the pupil-teacher ratio reduction.

One additional release day will be provided for primary school teaching principals. The extra time to carry out administrative duties will apply to 1,760 schools with fewer than seven teachers. The work now under way on small schools seeks to build on this in a sustainable way.

Between now and next March, I will continue to engage with the main partners through the primary education forum and the Department's small schools steering group to develop a new policy of supports for small schools and feed into the Estimates process for 2021.

I acknowledge the work the Minister is doing at the Department and the work in securing an increase in the Department's budget by 3.4% on 2019 levels to €11.1 billion. This will enhance the opportunities for young people and adults to access education and give them an equal chance and opportunities to achieve what they can in life. It is very important that the Minister outlines the commitment in the programme for a minority partnership Government not to close rural schools. As he reflected in his statement, they make up 64% of our school network.

The one-point reduction in the staffing schedule, together with the announcement made, will assist them. I commend the work the Minister is doing through joined-up thinking with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, on the hot meals programme, which was piloted this year. Ballymore in County Westmeath in my constituency is benefiting from it. It is a brilliant initiative to ensure everyone gets an equal chance, and this is what education is about.

The Deputy used the phrase "joined-up thinking". Obviously, this has to happen at an interdepartmental level, which is why I was anxious to have the Minister, Deputy Ring, at the symposium on small schools. When we speak about rural development and regional development, it is important that we have somebody of his stature in the equation. Small schools, whether they are in urban or rural communities, are the lifeblood and heartbeat of those communities, as the Acting Chairman knows from his constituency of Roscommon. Many communities might have nothing except a school.

Boards of management work on a voluntary basis. Nobody has contradicted my belief that the biggest voluntary organisation in the country comprises the boards of management in primary and post-primary schools. There must be more numbers involved and it must be more expansive than even the GAA. It is a big thing. It is good to have community engagement, and something that boards of management do a lot of is fundraising. I know this is because of pressures in capitation and, as I have said, the budget is not reflective of where I want to be as the Minister for Education and Skills, but the increase of 2.5% is indicative of where I want to go. We need to make gains on this the next time.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is very important that we listen to the voice of the community. We can see the Minister is reflecting this and doing it in his daily work. He Minister took advice on the subject of history, stress-tested it against the voice of the community, and made a decision. It is very important that we have Ministers who respect the community, equally respect the advice that has been given, stress-test it appropriately, and then make a decision. Essentially, this is what Ministers are there for. I thank the Minister for the work he is doing for the small school network. As I have said, they make up 64% of the school network. It is very important to see the programme for Government acknowledge these schools are not being closed, that they are supported and that we make changes to ensure our small school network will flourish. I note the Minister's acknowledgement of boards of management and the work they do in the community to ensure schools are run well and the fundraising element of their role. I thank the Minister for his ongoing work and for securing such a budget for the Department for 2020 in the backdrop of Brexit.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. Something that is very helpful in ongoing discussions in the primary sector is the primary forum, where all of the stakeholders are around the table. It is very important and it is a forum I certainly value. It is a model that we must continue to use, and we must ensure we keep the communication lines with it open.

Politicians get things wrong and sometimes get them right. The mention of stress-testing made me think about the primary forum which is a forum to stress-test many things within the primary sector. I acknowledge my team of officials who have been working proactively in this regard. The stakeholders themselves are central and fundamental because they value the forum and their contributions are paramount to any future change.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

I call Deputy Burton next. I ask all Deputies and the Minister to stick to the time limits because we are running behind.