O'Keeffe targets smaller schools for mergers
EDUCATION Minister Batt O'Keeffe has signalled a new look at possible amalgamations of small schools in a bid to save money.
The fate of small schools is a hugely sensitive issue in rural Ireland where they are cherished as cornerstones of local communities.
Almost half of our 3,200 primary schools have fewer than 100 pupils, with five teachers or less, and are predominantly in rural areas.
There are 650 schools with fewer than 50 pupils and 837 with between 50 and 99 pupils.
Last year's so-called Bord Snip Nua report on public service cuts said there was scope for many of them to be amalgamated, with savings estimated at €25m over three to four years.
Now, the minister has signalled that his department is about to start taking a close look at the situation.
A spokesperson for Mr O'Keeffe said he valued the special place small school held in the rural community. But he said the minister was "mindful that our schools must continue to be modernised, ensuring that there is critical mass and a focus on providing the best possible educational facilities".
In some cases, it would make good sense to amalgamate schools as long as educational outputs were improved, he said.
The move coincides with plans for an overhaul in primary school patronage as the Catholic Church prepares to hand over the running of some of the 2,894 schools under its control.
That church's move reflects changes in society and demand for different patronage models, although it will be left to local communities to vote on whether they want a different patron for an existing Catholic school.
The minister confirmed he had no plans to undertake an immediate large-scale programme of school closures, other than in cases dictated by falling pupil numbers.
But, he does want stricter official guidelines in relation to the number of pupils required for his department to approve either a new school or for a school to be regarded as sustainable.
A primary school needs a minimum initial enrolment of 17 junior infants and a minimum projected enrolment of 51 pupils for the third year of operation to be considered for department recognition.
Mr O'Keeffe also said the Department of Education would be examining "discreet groups or clusters of small schools and perhaps some individual small schools to see how we might achieve more value for money and a more efficient use of the resources that are currently allocated to these schools".
But, in a parliamentary reply to Labour TD for Waterford, Brian O'Shea, Mr O'Keeffe acknowledged the place of the school in rural communities.
He said he was conscious that there was a wider dimension -- in addition to the cost of maintaining small schools -- to be considered.
"Among the issues that will need to be taken into account are the impact of school closures on dispersed rural communities, parental choice, the availability of diversity of school provision and the additional cost of school transport."
The minister has promised to consult all the school patron bodies, such as the Catholic Church, Educate Together, teachers unions, school managers and parents as part of any initiative on small schools.
A spokesperson for the Irish National Teachers' Organisation said in any examination of small schools, the department must be mindful that they were the heart of rural communities.