Wednesday 25 April 2018

The baby boom means 70,000 extra pupils -- but who is going to teach them?

A surge in population of children will put more pressure on schools, says Kim Bielenberg

It opened in prefabs only two years ago with just 20 pupils. In two months' time Holywell Educate Together National School will move into a new building with a capacity for 700 pupils.

Holywell near Swords, Co Dublin, is one of the big and bright new schools that is being built to cope with Ireland's baby boom.

One of the many headaches faced by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is the dramatic growth in the number of kids of school-going age.

According to the Department of Education, the total enrolment is expected to grow by 70,000 pupils between now and 2018.

The number of children in primary school is expected to surge by 45,000, and there will be 25,000 more students at post-primary level.

Second-level numbers are expected to continue to rise until 2024, according to the department's projections.

So where will these extra pupils go to school and who will teach them?

The residents of the Holywell Estate near the Swords school are fortunate that a new school will be ready to cope with the surge in local population.

The department and some local authorities learned from previous planning disasters when children in rapidly expanding suburbs were left without school spaces.

Gerry McKevitt, development officer of Educate Together, said: "When the Holywell Estate was built, a plot of land was set aside for a school. This meant that it was much easier to ensure that there were places available when kids in the estate reached school-going age.''

Over the past decade the forward planning section of the Department of Education has developed a computerised mapping system that tracks the precise demand for new classrooms.

This system relies on quarterly birth statistics and information about child benefit payments in each area.

The areas of the country where there is likely to be a big demand for new school places show up red on the computer map.

Maps published by the department last year show the greatest demand in West Dublin and across the Leinster commuter belt.

Although there are notable exceptions -- including areas of Co Galway -- many parts of the west and midlands do not show any growth in demand for places.

A cursory look at birth statistics shows why overall demand for school places has grown.

There are now 20,000 more babies born in Ireland every year than there were at the turn of the millennium.

Of course, the number of births fluctuates from decade to decade. Numbers may drop again, as they did in the 1980s and in the first half of the 1990s.

Gerry McKevitt of Educate Together said: "The department has become a lot more sophisticated when it comes to predicting how many classroom places will be needed, but it is not an exact science.''

One factor that is hard to predict is the effect of emigration on demand for school places. So far, it has not dampened demand, but that may change when the present generation of single emigrants in their early 20s have children.

The Government has outlined its plans to build new schools and classrooms to meet growing demand over the next five years. There will be 157 new schools and 118 large-scale extensions.

While Ruairi Quinn has unveiled the plans for new classrooms costing €1.5bn, there is much less certainty about how he is going to pay for the new teachers required to teach the baby boomers.

The dearth of funds is likely to increase pressure for a rise in class sizes, prompt further cuts to rural schools in areas of declining population, and may mean there is less money to maintain existing school buildings.

A spokesman for the INTO said: "The Government is employing extra classroom teachers to meet increased enrolment but cutting non-classroom teaching jobs like special education, English language teaching and guidance counsellors at second level.''

Teachers fear that new schools and extensions will divert money away from refurbishments in existing schools.

The INTO spokesman said: "While significant progress was made during the boom years to upgrade many schools, others remain in a poor state. Without remedial work many will get worse and the long-term bill will increase.''

Financial pressures and population growth are likely to reinforce the trend for bigger schools at primary level.

The department is currently finalising a value-for-money review of small primary schools.

Estimates produced by The Department of Education last year showed that average annual expenditure per pupil in a one-teacher school was €13,000, compared to €2,500 in a 24-teacher school.

Bigger is not necessarily better, however, according to Sean Cottrell, chief executive of the Irish Primary Principals Network.

He said: "In some urban areas there has been huge pressure on schools to increase in size.

"Some of these expansions are unsuitable, because there is not enough land. You have prefabs taking over playgrounds.

"Because there is less space, schools have to introduce rules such as no running in the playground."

Space should not be a problem for the pupils at Holywell Educate Together as it moves into its gleaming new 24-classroom school

The new school will have three ball courts, a sensory garden and a special-needs unit. It will also serve as a local community centre.

"It will be very exciting when we move," said principal Maria Boyne.

Irish Independent

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