John Walshe: 'How do we solve the problem of too many small schools without closing them down?'
Education Minister Joe McHugh is taking a political risk opening the Pandora's box of small schools some months away from the next general election.
He and Rural Development Minister Michael Ring are hosting a symposium today to discuss how to "support and strengthen our current cohort of primary schools", but the Opposition may try to spin it as a cover for closing some of the smaller ones.
And we do have a lot of small schools -too many, in fact, with some of them less than a few kilometres from each other. In a number of cases, they are openly competing for pupils.
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The problem is exacerbated by the flight from the land which is accelerating in parts of the western seaboard, where primary school enrolments are dropping.
Small schools are ingrained into the Irish psyche and sometimes nostalgically seen as part of a quiet, unhurried rural idyll. But they are an important part of the fabric of modern rural life and are woven into their communities. They are also a big "hot potato" for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and they caused huge political problems for Labour's Ruairí Quinn when he was education minister.
Small schools are officially defined as those with four teachers or fewer. There are around 1,380 in all, making up 44pc of the total, but only 14.4pc of all students.
The distribution is as follows: There are 19 one-teacher schools, 548 two-teacher schools, 397 three-teacher schools, and 415 four-teacher schools.
Eight counties account for 70pc of all small schools - Donegal and Mayo, which the ministers represent, along with Galway, Clare, Cork, Kerry, Roscommon and Tipperary.
Research shows that the quality of education can be as good if not better than in larger schools, but this is not always the case. Professional isolation of teachers can affect the quality of education, especially where they have to teach different grades in the same classroom. And while we have a high standard of teaching in Ireland generally, there are few educational disadvantages worse than having the same unsatisfactory teacher for three or four years.
With dwindling enrolments in an increasing number of rural schools, "something needs to be done", as they say, but what exactly? Mr McHugh, himself a product of a small school in Co Donegal, says he doesn't want these schools just to survive, he wants them to thrive.
He is looking for ideas to achieve this from the 16 groups representing parents, teachers, school patrons and managers at a meeting in Dublin today. None of them will want to propose anything that could be said to help sound the death knell of rural Ireland.
The temptation will be to propose lots of additional teaching and other supports to keep all rural schools open. That might be politically popular, but it is an expensive option which could also worsen the urban-rural divide. There is already resentment in some city schools with very large classes, who look in envy at the small classes in rural areas.
Instead, the ministers and Department of Education and Skills will be looking for more "creative" ways of encouraging communities to consider their local schooling situation. We've been here before. A decade and a half ago, a report from the Irish Primary Principals' Network put forward ideas such as "clusters" or "federations" of schools or "school hubs" to offer a better service for all pupils in rural areas. Not much happened to implement them.
Eventually, in 2015 one proposal was implemented on a pilot basis to address the problem of getting sufficient people to sit on boards of management of small schools. This allows two schools under the same patronage to have a shared governance arrangement, and the pilot is being extended to 2023. No hurry there, then.
Any fresh ideas arising from the "conversation" starting today will be fed back to the Primary Education Forum, which will develop a policy for supporting small schools. It is chaired by Dr Alan Wall from the Department of Education.
Fianna Fáil, which sees itself as a champion of small schools, will be watching from the wings. If it sees an opportunity, it will portray Mr McHugh as foolhardy for re-opening the issue.
In 2012, it hounded Mr Quinn to publish the Value for Money report into small schools and when he did, then berated him over its contents, making somewhat exaggerated claims that hundreds of schools were in peril.
Ironically, it was a Fianna Fáil minister, Mary Coughlan, who had commissioned the report. One of her party predecessors, the late Seamus Brennan, had controversially proposed that no primary school should have fewer than 50 pupils. The idea was quickly dropped.
Mr McHugh is studying how countries such as Finland and Scotland handle the issue. Small schools make up 20pc of the total in Scotland, compared with 44pc here. Over 15 years, Scottish authorities closed about one in 10 primary schools. No Irish education minister will be following the Scottish lead any time soon.