Budget 2020 has provided for improved teacher staffing levels for schools with four teachers or less. This measure will see a more favourable pupil teacher ratio in small schools from September 2020. This improved schedule will apply in two, three and four teacher schools and ensure one less pupil is required to retain/recruit a teacher.
In addition, Budget 2020 is the third successive budget to provide for an increase in the number of principal release days. One additional release day will be allocated to each school with a teaching principal with effect from 1 September 2020. This will bring the number of release days to 19, 25 and 31, depending on the size of school. This is an increase from 14, 18 and 22 days since 2015. In addition, a further four additional release days are allocated to schools with special classes.
Rural schools make up the majority of our primary school sector: nearly 2,000 out of just over 3,100 schools. As such, I fully recognise their value to communities right across 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 (over 1,200) are classed as small - having 4 or fewer teachers. Whilst facing the challenges and opportunities that all schools do, this particular group of schools has specific challenges. I have been listening to our partners around this and discussing what we can do to support small schools and ensure that 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 with international colleagues to hear their perspective and, together with my colleague Michael Ring, Minister for Rural and Community Development, hosted a Symposium on Small Schools. I want to actively engage with the people and organisations who work in and with small schools and who understand the value and opportunities they offer to their communities.
Already, we as a Government have shown that we are listening and I was pleased to announced additional supports in Budget 2020. The work now underway in relation to 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 my Department’s Small Schools Steering Group to develop a new policy of supports for small schools and feed into the Estimates process for 2021.