Adjournment Debate. - School Staffing.

I have been contacted by parents and staff of Our Lady of Mercy primary school in Sligo regarding the proposed suppression of one teaching post with effect from 31 August 2001. The school is situated in an area of huge economic and social disadvantage, the worst in the north-west. Over 70% of the catchment area of the school is in this disadvantaged region. It is one of the main disadvantaged regions in the north-west and it is preposterous that the Department of Education and Science is proposing to remove a teacher under the urban cycle for disadvantage scheme.

This is the largest primary school in Sligo town. The Minister saw at first hand last February the excellent work being done by all the partners in the school community. Removal of this post will cause problems which the school thought it had sorted out previously. The school authority simply cannot implement the Department's maximum class size guidelines if this decision proceeds. At junior level it would mean class sizes of 24 to 26 when the minimum is 20, while at senior level it would mean class sizes of 31 to 35 when the maximum is 29.

Our Lady of Mercy school has a strong policy of integration as laid down in the Department's guidelines. Given the school's open door policy and its strong ethos of concern for the poor and socially disadvantaged, the loss of a post in the next school year would seriously compromise the school in that area. The school has not even had the benefit of the second post during this school year. The post had to be advertised and the second successful applicant had to work three months' notice. This person is not due to start in the school until 28 May, almost at the end of the school year. The school spent over £400 advertising for a temporary teacher and got no reply. Natural justice and a sense of fair play should be applied to the school. There are over 540 students and 31 teachers and they demand that this post not be suppressed.

I will quote from a letter forwarded to the Department of Education and Science by the home/school liaison co-ordinator.

As the H.S.C.L. co-ordinator in this school I simply cannot accept what you set out in recent correspondence to Chairperson, Board of Management.

I know only too well from first hand experience on the ground how much we need to keep this second post.

The maximum class guidelines will not be adhered to and already hard pressed teachers will be unable to cope with the extra numbers. All the good work of recent years will be undone by this poorly thought out decision.

I urge in the strongest of terms that the decision be reversed and that we be allowed to keep this second post for another school year even in a temporary capacity.

If the Minister is not willing to give priority to disadvantaged status in urban areas, the Government is losing its way in education policy. I urge the Minister of State to, at least, allow the second post to be left in a temporary capacity.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to clarify to the House the staffing position of Our Lady of Mercy primary school. The Minister for Education and Science regrets that he cannot be present to answer the matter. I will also outline to the House how the school is benefiting from the new disadvantage programme for pri mary schools which the Minister announced in January.

The staffing of a primary school for a specific year is determined by reference to the number of pupils enrolled in the school on 30 September of the previous year. The number of mainstream posts sanctioned is determined by reference to a staffing schedule formulated for a specific year following discussions with the managerial authorities and the INTO. The staffing of the school in question is a principal and 19 mainstream class teachers based on an enrolment of 564 pupils at 30 September 1999. The school has also been allocated a disadvantaged concessionary teaching post.

The Deputy will be aware of the new programme to tackle educational disadvantage, Giving Children An Even Break, launched by the Minister for Education and Science in January this year. All primary schools were invited to participate in a comprehensive survey conducted by the Educational Research Centre in April and May of 2000 on behalf of the Department of Education and Science. The purpose of the survey was to identify objectively the level of concentration in each primary school of pupils with characteristics associated with educational disadvantage and early school leaving.

The survey provides a valuable basis for directing resources to areas of greatest need. The findings were used to allocate resources under the new programme to tackle educational disadvantage at primary level. The programme involves expenditure of £26 million over a three year period, including the immediate allocation of more than 200 new teacher posts and supplementary funding to primary schools with concentrations of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The new programme has both an urban and rural dimension. Under the urban dimension, the Minister is committed to supporting schools with the highest concentrations of disadvantaged pupils in the maintenance of maximum class sizes over the three year period of 20:1 in junior classes, which comprise infants through second class, and 29:1 in senior classes, which comprise third through sixth class.

In rural areas, selected schools will have the services of a teacher/co-ordinator which will work in clusters of four or five schools. Prioritised schools which could not be clustered with other similar schools will receive financial supports as an alternative to teacher/co-ordinator support. In addition, all participating schools will receive additional funding to be used in the provision of a range of in-school and out-of-school supports for the pupils concerned. Based on the level of concentration of at-risk pupils in the school as reflected in its return to the Educational Research Centre, Our Lady of Mercy primary school was one of a number of selected schools considered for additional teaching staff under the urban dimension.

In line with normal staffing arrangements for national schools, teacher post allocations for the purpose of the new programme in respect of the current school year are also determined by reference to enrolments in junior and senior classes at 30 September 1999. To enable Our Lady of Mercy primary school to adhere to the maximum class size guidelines for all junior and senior classes under the new programme, the school has benefited from the appointment of two additional teaching posts in the current school year.

The enrolment of Our Lady of Mercy primary school at 30 September 2000 determines the staffing for the 2001-02 school year. Under the terms of the staffing schedule, this enrolment warrants the retention of the staffing of a principal and 19 mainstream class teachers in addition to the disadvantaged concessionary teaching post. The enrolment at the school at 30 September 2000 was 543 pupils compared with 564 pupils at 30 September 1999. Examination of the pupil numbers in junior and senior classes at 30 September 2000 shows a significant reduction compared to the 30 September 1999 enrolment. One additional teaching post is warranted under the new programme to implement the maximum class size guidelines. On this basis, one of the two teaching posts allocated to Our Lady of Mercy primary school in respect of the current school year will be withdrawn with effect from 31 August 2001.

Our Lady of Mercy primary school is included in the urban dimension of the new programme and also eligible to receive supplementary grant aid of £5,171 towards the provision of suitable educational supports for the pupils concerned in respect of the current school year.