Friday 22 February 2019

We need to have rational debate about small schools

Morning Ireland's hostess with the mostess and author Rachael English is left red-faced when she remembers her school days.
Morning Ireland's hostess with the mostess and author Rachael English is left red-faced when she remembers her school days.

John Walshe

The Government clearly does not want small schools to become a big local issue in the next general election.

The issue has been gaining political traction in recent months with the increase in the number of one-teacher schools up from 11 a few years back to 44 this year.

Several hundred people attended what independent TD Tom Fleming called a "monster meeting" in Cahersiveen recently expressing alarm at the prospect of further schools in Kerry losing teachers. More such meetings were in the offing elsewhere so something had to be done.

The Cabinet backed Minister Jan O'Sullivan's plan to make it slightly easier for small schools by lowering the number of pupils needed to keep a teacher. It also finally agreed to publish a long-awaited report on the future of small schools. But, crucially, it rejected the report's plan for saving money.

The Government has been markedly reluctant to publish the report until now, fearing that it would simply hand an electoral gift to Fianna Fáil, which portrays itself as the champion of small schools.

Fianna Fáil will pour over yesterday's announcement and the report to try to make political capital out of it. Sinn Féin will find it harder to do so as it is part of the North's administration which is closing some small schools.

Ironically, it was Fianna Fáil in the dying months of its Coalition with the Greens that commissioned the Value for Money (VFM) report on small schools. The then minister Mary Coughlan was not happy about it as she knew what a big political issue small schools are in rural Ireland.

VFMs are regularly carried out to assess whether or not public spending is achieving value for money and meeting public policy objectives.

The nature of these reports is to set out the facts and indicate where savings can be made. There is usually a consultation process involved. Few VFMs provoked as much interest as that on small schools which attracted over 1,000 submissions from the public.

The issue strikes a chord in many parts of the country, particularly the West which sees it as part of an anti-rural agenda that has already resulted in the closures of banks, small garda stations and post offices and the downgrading of local hospital services.

The small school is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche. Even if they've never read the book, the idea brings to mind Alice Taylor's 'To School through the Fields' and the view that small is cosy, safe and unhurried. Small can be beautiful in many cases.

But try telling that to a parent whose child has to put up with an unsatisfactory teacher for years on end. It's the quality of the teaching, rather than the school size that counts.

The publication of the VFM report will cause mixed reactions. Some will say the Government has simply kicked the can down the road by rejecting the report's recommendations. Others will try to argue that there is still uncertainty over the future of small schools.

Rejection of the report's recommendations does not, however, entirely rule out amalgamations. There will be carrot and no stick to achieve mergers in cases where schools are within 8km of each other.

Capital funding will be provided to support such amalgamations where enrolments drop below 25 pupils. No small school will close unless the patron and community agree.

It is past time we had a national and rational conversation about the future of small schools.

The simple fact is that we have too many of them. There are around 3,150 mainstream primary schools of which 45pc have less than 100 pupils, while one in five have one or two teachers. Other countries have had that national conversation - Scotland, for instance, has a slightly bigger population than ours but a third fewer primary schools.

Unless something is done soon, the number of one- and two-teacher schools will continue to grow. This is in part because of declining populations in some rural areas but mainly because of the budgetary measures taken in December 2011 to raise the pupil bar in terms of numbers needed for the appointment and retention of an additional teacher.

Yesterday's package will ease that, but only slightly.

Irish Independent

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