Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Ceisteanna (50)

Maureen O'Sullivan


50. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Skills to set out how he plans to address issues facing primary schools such as class sizes, workload burdens for management and capitation grants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26599/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

How does the Minister plan to address various issues that are facing primary schools, such as class size, the management workload burden and capitation grants?

Budget 2019 marks the third year of a major reinvestment in education. In 2019, the budget for the Department of Education and Skills will increase by €674 million, which represents a 6.7% increase on last year's budget. In total, the education budget will have increased by €1.7 billion compared with 2016. I am holding a symposium tomorrow to engage with people and organisations who work in and with small schools. I am interested to listen to the views of the experts, but more importantly to engage with ideas and proposals on how to support and sustain small schools as a key component of the primary education system. I know my colleagues around the House will be very interested in that. I am working on the assumption that they have been notified about the symposium by email. If they have not been notified, I would like to let them know publicly now that the symposium is taking place in the Hugh Lane Gallery. If they need any information about times etc. they can contact my office. The purpose of the symposium is to focus on how to strengthen and sustain our small primary schools that have one, two, three or four teachers.

With regard to class sizes, it is important to point out that over 1,300 additional posts in schools will be funded, including more than 370 teaching posts to cater for growth in student population and additional special classes. The numbers employed in our schools will reach the highest ever level in the coming school year. This builds on the budget 2018 measure which provided a one-point improvement in the staffing schedule in primary schools, which brings the position to the most favourable ever seen at primary level.

I am aware of the workload burdens placed on schools. The primary education forum was established in September 2018 to support the planning and sequencing of change in the primary school sector and to exchange information on the intentions and impacts of the actions in the action plan for education to look for synergies and opportunities to streamline implementation and address workload issues. In adopting this approach, my Department and its partners have agreed to make several changes to the pace and sequence of the planned reforms, including the implementation of the primary mathematics curriculum and, second, to sequence the commencement the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In addition to managing the sequence of change, the leadership framework introduced in 2017 allows for flexibility in identifying and prioritising the evolving leadership and management needs of schools and in assigning and reassigning post holders to specific roles and responsibilities to meet the evolving needs of schools. Some €2.75 million was allocated in budget 2017 to restore middle management positions. Today, more than one in three primary school teachers holds a management position. In addition, schools with teaching principals saw an increase in the number of principal release days in each of the last two budgets.

I am pleased to have been able to provide for a 5% increase in capitation funding for primary and post-primary schools. This will apply from the start of the 2019-20 school year. Over the course of the 2019-20 school year, an additional €10 million will be allocated to primary and post-primary schools, of which €4 million will be allocated in 2019. I fully acknowledge that the issues raised by the Deputy in her question are important for future investment. I will take account of the budgetary submissions from all the relevant education stakeholders.

I remind the Minister, in the context of the symposium he mentioned, that some islands with small populations which have small numbers in their schools have particular practical difficulties if they are reduced to one-teacher schools. It is kind of ironic that on 4 July last year, I raised the exact same question with the Minister's predecessor following the INTO briefing, which many of us attended again this year. We know the pupil-teacher ratio has been increased twice. That is all very welcome. The ratio in some of the DEIS schools in the north inner city is very good, but our primary classes are still the largest in the eurozone. We have to reduce them. The capitation grant was €178.50 in 2008. It went up to €200 in 2009 and 2010. Since then, it has been falling each year. In 2019, it went back up to €178.50, which is the rate that applied in 2008. Even though schools do a marvellous amount of fundraising, the capitation grant continues to be very important. It needs to go back to what it was. It needs to keep going upwards rather than downwards.

We are making progress with the pupil-teacher ratio. The Deputy is correct when she says we have a long way to go. I am reminded of the seanfhocal, mol an lá um thráthnóna, we praise the day in the evening. We will not ease off on this important issue at EU and OECD levels. There was a reduction of 11% in capitation funding in 2011. This massive reduction was introduced as part of the wider reductions that were being made right across the Government at the time. It was a very difficult one for communities. School communities are always on hand to help to support local primary and secondary schools. Putting fuel in the tank and ensuring the school carries on each day are bread and butter issues. There has been an increase of 5% this year. I am conscious that there is some way to go when it comes to capitation, which will be at the heart of the conversation when I sit down with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe.

I understand that approximately 4,500 middle management positions, including AP1 and AP2 posts, were lost under the moratorium. Approximately 1,300 of these positions have been restored. There has been no further advance since 2017. This issue needs to be considered. I have spoken about the paper overload for principals. I think there is a particular burden for teaching principals. I know that some efforts have been made in this regard. It has been suggested that a supply panel is needed. The payment of commercial rates by schools, which are technically charities, is another issue that has been raised with me. I do not know whether this can be looked at. Another point occurs to me when I think about the need to move away from all the paperwork and onto other issues. Like the Minister, I have taught at second level. The issues that have always presented at second level, including anxiety, depression, anger and violence, are now presenting among much younger pupils. That is a major challenge for many primary schools. I suggest that middle management roles, rather than being focused on policies and plans, need to be directed towards dealing with the real issues that are evident in primary schools. When an issue arises in a school, it is dealt with. Those involved will not go up to the office to read the policy before dealing with the issue.

I agree entirely with the Deputy's final point. The issues that present themselves in our primary schools are much more complex than they used to be. Teachers are aware of that.

Continuous professional development training is important, as is equipping them with the skills and capacity to deal with these emerging issues. I see a lot of schools acting as support for one another, which involves schools principals meeting informally. More than ever, teachers and principals are rising to the challenge.

The Deputy mentioned island schools, which are really important. We introduced a policy measure that will retain the two-teacher provision for island schools irrespective of a decrease in the numbers. There are 26 one-teacher schools, 537 two-teacher schools, and 376 three-teacher schools in the country. In 2018 and 2019, the number of schools in the one, two, three and four-teacher category is 1,367, which is 44% of the total number of schools, which is 3,100.