28th September 2020
Mary Magner, President of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation
As we started the new school year, teachers and principals across the country pulled out all the stops to make sure that our schools could reopen safely. Over the summer closure, work went on to put signs and sanitisation stations in place, to schedule drop offs and lunch breaks and to plan out ‘pods’ and ‘bubbles’ to ensure, as far as possible, pupils could socially distance. This preparation shone a spotlight on an issue that the INTO has been raising for years – our primary classes are far too big.
Ireland’s classes are the largest in EU and well above the European average of 20 pupils per class. Our average class size is 25 pupils, but the reality is that one in five children in Ireland is taught in a class of 30 or more. Keeping an adequate distance between children, or even groups of children, in the average Irish classroom, when you have more than 30 children in that room, is a near impossible task. Our supersized classes hindered our ability to reopen schools, and may well challenge Micheál Martin’s great intentions to keep them open.
Aside from how obviously unwise it is to have pupils packed into classrooms in the midst of a pandemic, there are other reasons that reducing class sizes makes sense.
Small classes have been shown to have a positive impact on pupils’ learning. Younger children, in particular, benefit from smaller classes. When our little ones are developing their literacy and numeracy skills, smaller classes make sure that they can get more individualised attention and support from their teacher, laying the foundation for a strong academic future.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds also do particularly well when their classes are smaller. A smaller class ensures that teachers can better cater to the broad spectrum of pupil needs and use the most effective teaching methodologies, which just aren’t feasible when classes are oversized.
The DEIS Scheme (Delivering Equality of Opportunity of Schools) provides extra supports in schools that cater to our most socio-economically disadvantaged pupils. Under that scheme, there is a lower pupil-teacher ratio in classes of the most disadvantaged, DEIS Band 1 schools. But, while there was a small general reduction in class sizes in Budgets 2016 and 2018, there has been no corresponding reduction in our most disadvantaged schools. During the national lockdown, we heard time and time again that our most disadvantaged children suffered most from the closure of schools. We need to take action to ensure that they get the opportunity they deserve to reach their educational potential.
We are approaching the national budget in October and we are being told that we will have to live with COVID-19 in our communities for the foreseeable future. If the government is committed to keeping schools open, so that parents can continue to work and support the economy, then class sizes need to be reduced.
The INTO is asking the government to commit to reducing the class sizes by one pupil per class per year over the lifetime of the government, starting in the forthcoming budget. The government must, now more than ever, deliver on its commitment to tackle supersized classes. Great effort has gone into getting our schools opened safely. Let’s now ensure that we can keep them open.