Watch out Ruairi! Cuts to small schools spell big trouble
Closures are feared as teacher numbers are slashed in rural Ireland. Kim Bielenberg on measures that could start a revolt
For the Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn it is political dynamite. The Government's Value-for-money Review of Small Primary Schools is currently being drawn up.
When the results are produced, Minister Quinn could be forgiven for averting his eyes and quietly chucking it in the bin.
Many rural Fine Gael and Labour TDs must be fervently hoping that the report never sees the light of day.
The Department of Education is examining the operation of 600 schools with 50 or fewer pupils.
The results could blow up in the faces of TDs across rural Ireland, and make the septic tank controversy seem like a genteel garden fete by comparison.
The Government's Budget decision to slash teacher allocations to small schools is already being portrayed as a dagger through the heart of rural Ireland.
Campaign groups have been set up and the post boxes of backbench TDs are filled with criticisms from irate parents.
When the local post office, garda station, pub and shop have closed the small school is seen as the last outpost.
Newtown Upper National School near Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary is typical of hundreds of small schools affected by the Budget cuts.
At the end of this academic year the 52-pupil school will lose one of its three teachers.
Principal Breda Fitzgerald said: "The school helps to give the area its whole sense of identity. It has been here since 1853.
"Without the school there is very little left. The nearby shop has closed and one of the pubs has gone.''
Next September, the Co Tipperary school will have more pupils but fewer teachers because of an apparent bureaucratic anomaly.
Adjustments are planned over three years to the staffing arrangements for one, two, three and four-teacher schools -- those with fewer than 86 pupils.
Under the Department of Education's plan, a school which, this year, got a third teacher for 49 pupils will have to have 51 in future
The problem for Newtown Upper is that the allocation of teachers for next September is based on the number of pupils last September
Breda Fitzgerald said that last September the school had 50 pupils on its rolls.
Even though two further pupils have joined the school since last September a teacher will be lost, because the allocation is done retrospectively.
Ms Fitzgerald said the loss of a teacher would mean the school will be divided into two multi-grade classes.
"It means that each class will have four levels, which is very problematic, particularly with the new focus on building literacy and numeracy,'' said the principal.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn hopes that the changes will encourage small schools to amalgamate but Ms Fitzgerald said that was not a realistic option for Newtown Upper.
She said the closest schools are about five miles away in the town of Carrick-on-Suir. Those schools are full.
A spokesman for the INTO said many small schools now have increased pupil numbers but will still lose a teacher next September.
"This will leave many schools with impossibly large classes,'' said the INTO spokesman.
There are also bound to be closures of small schools. When numbers dip below 15, as they do in some schools, their potential for survival is limited.
The minister has to find savings somewhere, but he is unlikely to follow the lead of Colm McCarthy, who proposed taking a hatchet to small schools in his An Bord Snip report
The report stated that there were 659 primaries with fewer than 50 pupils.
If these were merged with other schools, Colm McCarthy estimated that this would save 300 teachers, or about €18m in annual salary costs.
Further mergers of the 851 schools in the 50-100 pupil category would cut the number of teachers by 200, and save another €9m annually, according to the report.
The potential for savings may have looked simple enough to an economist like McCarthy but the practicalities are difficult.
Observers of the way primary schools operate say savings from amalgamations may be hard to realise.
In the short-term, there are likely to be extra costs. If two primaries merge, the department may have to pay for extra classrooms. There will be extra transport costs.
There is also the practical problem of staffing arrangements for the merged schools.
Under the current system, when two schools amalgamate, both principals are retained; one is head of the school and the other is a "privileged assistant''.
Some small schools are under the patronage of the Church of Ireland, and there may not be a similar one within easy reach.
Many small schools have only recently been refurbished. Does it make sense to close these upgraded facilities?
Ruairi Quinn and his officials will tread warily.
There is nothing new in this controversy, of course.
In the past inspectors were charged with meeting local communities over amalgamations and closures. Tempers could easily flare -- and the inspectors were advised to keep their car parked near the hall in case they had to make a quick getaway.