Friday 27 April 2018

Pupils packed into biggest classes in the eurozone

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

More than 125,000 primary pupils are squeezed into "supersize" classes of 30 or more, the Irish Independent can reveal.

The number is growing year-on-year, with the most crowded classrooms in the extended Dublin commuter belt and other pockets of population growth. Schools in Carlow, Meath, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown and Wicklow are feeling the biggest pinch.

Overall, almost one in four (24pc) of 532,933 pupils is in a class of 30-plus, despite a Government promise more than a decade ago to have all under-nines in classes of below 20.

Today, only one in 10 (10pc) primary pupils is in a class with fewer than 20, although the under-nines account for more than half of all enrolments.

The average class size is 25, which, although unchanged from 2013/14, remains the highest in the eurozone and compares with an average of 21 across the developed world,

But some classes are well above average, with the most pressure in communities where young families settled in the past decade, and where enrolments are stretching pupil-teacher ratios to extremes.

The extent of the problem is evident in an Irish Independent breakdown of enrolments by local authority area, based on Department of Education data.

The latest figures will fuel debate at the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) annual conference, starting today. And they pile further pressure on Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan to reverse the cut in teacher allocations to schools that have triggered the upward trend in class sizes since 2008.

Improving the pupil-teacher ratio is high on Ms O'Sullivan's agenda, but she also has to find money for teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) just to cope with the general expansion in enrolments resulting from high birth rates since the late 1990s.

With extra pupils and teachers, also comes the need for new schools and extensions.

 Teacher recruitment in recent years has only kept pace with additional enrolments and has made no impact on class sizes.

Pupil numbers in Irish primary schools have risen by about 27,000 since 2011/12, and the enrolments bulge is now also being felt at second level.

An additional 13,000 pupils are expected across both primary and post-primary next September, and about 1,500 teachers will be needed for those, as well as over 200 SNAs.

The latest enrolment figures are based on returns made by schools last September. They show that 125,592 primary pupils are in classes of 30-plus, including 9,869 in classes of between 35-39, with one class with 40 pupils. At the other end of the scale, 53,337 are in classes with 19 or fewer pupils.

Overall, the proportion of children in classes of 30-plus, 23.8pc, is the same as last year, but because of rising enrolments, the numbers affected are up by over 1,000 from 124,363 - and from 106,000 in 2008-09.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) described the figures as shocking and significantly worse than last year.

INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan said the learning potential of primary school pupils was being completely compromised by larger classes.

She said it was indefensible that Irish children were packed into the most overcrowded classes in the eurozone at the very time they are best able to learn. The primary teachers' leader said in overcrowded classes there was little if any time for individual attention and one-to-one support.

She said research on the negative effect of overcrowded classes was unequivocal, especially with young children.

"Even critics of demands for smaller classes concede there are big benefits in the early years," she said.

Ms Nunan said smaller classes in Canada had positive effects on children's academic outcomes, behaviour and social interactions.

Teachers were able to pick up on problems as well as strengths and talents and smaller class sizes were credited with these improvements.

Class size is determined by a formula under which schools get one teacher for every 28 pupils - and they decide themselves how best to use their allocation.

Changes to how this is calculated, which came into effect in schools in September 2009, unravelled some progress made in reducing class sizes in a number of years prior to that.

Before the change, it was one teacher for every 27 pupils, and reverting to that would cost about €15m.

According to the international think-tank, the OECD, smaller classes are often seen as beneficial because they allow teachers to focus more on the needs of individual students and reduce the amount of class time needed to deal with disruptions.

But its 'Education at a Glance' report 2014 stated that overall evidence on the effect of differences in class size on student performance is weak.

However, it did report some evidence that smaller classes may benefit specific groups of students, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also highlighted a positive relationship between smaller classes and more innovative teaching practices.

Irish Independent

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