Thursday 22 August 2019

Ministers lead drive to strengthen small schools ahead of fall in pupil numbers

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Two ministers are heading up a new initiative to protect and strengthen small schools ahead of an expected fall in primary pupil numbers.

Key players in primary education are attending a symposium today with Education Minister Joe McHugh and Rural Development Minister Michael Ring to share ideas on sustaining small schools.

The focus of the initiative is the 1,380 primary schools with four teachers or fewer, many of which are in rural areas.

Small schools are a distinctive feature of Irish education. Those with four teachers or fewer represent 44pc of the school network, but account for just 15pc of pupils.

High birth rates saw primary enrolments grow by about 100,000 - more than 20pc - since the turn of the century, but now they have peaked nationally and many schools face declining numbers. However, schools in areas of population growth are continuing to see a surge in numbers.

While falling enrolments will threaten the future of some schools, the initiative will explore the unique challenges facing the sector.

For instance, small schools have multi-grade classes and the principal's time is shared between teaching and having responsibility for all other matters. Small schools have to deal with the same raft of initiatives as a big schools, but without the same resources.

The symposium - which will involve representatives of teachers, principals, patrons and parents - will look at governance, compliance and protection, support for teachers and pupils' access to a rounded education.

Mr McHugh said his aim was to bring together the knowledge and experience of those who teach in, manage and support small schools, in the hope of developing policy aimed at sustaining and strengthening small primary schools.

Mr Ring said small schools were a focal point for communities, were a "vital" link to local heritage and history, and helped to sustain populations.

The National Parents' Council-Primary conducted a survey ahead of the symposium.

CEO Áine Lynch said parents really valued the small school, but also had concerns, such as regarding the transition to a large post-primary school.

Among the issues to be raised by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation is a return to the more favourable pre-recession pupil thresholds for appointing teachers, as well as more release time for teaching principals to attend to non-teaching duties.

Discussions will continue at the Primary Education Forum, and its work will inform policy development.

Irish Independent

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