Friday 30 September 2016

Report reheats the political hot potato of small schools for the Government

John Walshe

Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30

'Girls, in particular, suffer in multi-grade classes which are the norm in one and two-teacher schools'
'Girls, in particular, suffer in multi-grade classes which are the norm in one and two-teacher schools'

Just when Enda Kenny thought small schools were off the political agenda, along comes a report which raises serious questions about the emotional well-being of pupils in these schools.

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Last week's 'Mayo News' had a front page story headed 'Taoiseach saves Mayo schools' which reported that he had given the thumbs down to a Government report recommending amalgamation of 32 small schools in the county.

It added that small rural schools in the county's western seaboard would have been the biggest losers, with nine proposed mergers in Erris and nine in Achill - schools that are all in the Taoiseach's political heartland.

Small schools are the hot potato that successive governments are reluctant to touch, despite the fact that we have a very high percentage of them.

There are around 3,150 mainstream primary schools of which 45pc have less than 100 pupils, while a fifth have only one or two teachers.

Other countries have dealt with this issue. Scotland, for instance, has a slightly bigger population than ours but a third fewer primary schools.

The report from the ESRI brings a new dimension to the debate. Children attending schools with fewer than 50 pupils are more critical of their own behaviour and physical appearance, and see themselves as less popular than peers in larger schools.

By contrast, children in larger schools (more than 100 pupils) tend to be more self-confident as learners, while happiness levels are somewhat higher in schools with more than 200 students. Surprisingly, the researchers found no variation in anxiety levels by school size.

We should be concerned about pupils' views of their own behaviour, appearance and popularity, as the views formed in the early years of education are carried right through their lives. There was also a worrying finding elsewhere, to the effect that more than 10,000 third-level students attended counselling in colleges last year.

We can't, obviously, blame the existence of small schools for the 300pc increase over eight years in the numbers seeking counselling in college. But we at least have to ask these questions - what is the relationship between a child's wellbeing and school experiences and does school size matter to their emotional well-being?

These have been addressed in the ESRI report, which is drawn from the large-scale Growing Up in Ireland survey, a massive study that just keeps on giving more and more useful data.

The emotional wellbeing of pupils is one issue - the education outcomes of small and large schools is another.

The value-for-money report on small schools was finally published in February after long delays. This is the report which the Mayo News credits the Taoiseach with for burying. The same report observed that "there is no evidence that small schools provide any greater educational benefits for their pupils which would offset their greater costs".

The Government rejected the value -for-money recommendations of proceeding with some limited amalgamations and effectively left it up to local communities to come together and decide if it's in their best interests to start a discussion locally. Some will, no doubt, look at yesterday's report from the ESRI and wonder if children's interests would be better served by considering the amalgamation of some small schools in their locality.

Girls, in particular, suffer in multi-grade classes which are the norm in one and two-teacher schools. Dr Smyth, author of the report, said: "I am not condoning or calling for the closure of any of these small schools but the issues that young girls are facing in multi-grade classrooms need to be addressed."

But the report is hardly likely to prompt a rethink of small schools by the government, which is very well aware of the emotional attachment to institutions in small communities around the country.

The Irish Postmasters' Union is already selecting candidates to fight in the general election to keep local post offices open. The last thing the Government wants is a spate of 'Save our Schools' candidates.

Irish Independent

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