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June 2019

Supports Needed for Small Schools - John Boyle Remarks from Symposium

Remarks from John Boyle at the Symposium on Small Schools on Wednesday, 26 June 2019.

A Aire McHugh, a Aire Ring agus a chairde,

Fifteen weeks ago, Minister Mc Hugh and I were informally chatting at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession in Helsinki. Minister Mc Hugh and I reminisced fondly about the small schools we had attended in Donegal. We both acknowledged that small schools have very particular challenges to meet nowadays. We got the bright idea that we should have a symposium to discuss how best small schools could be supported in the future. I want to thank Minister Mc Hugh and everyone in the Department of Education and Skills who has worked so hard to make this symposium happen.

It’s only right and fitting that we focus on supporting and strengthening small schools. Primary schools have always played, and must continue to play, a central role in sustainable rural communities. The core function of a school is to provide quality education to the pupils it serves. Small, intimate learning communities, where all students are known and encouraged, have more parental involvement, fewer discipline problems, and reduced negative effects from socio-economic factors and poverty.

While it could be argued that all primary schools with teaching principals are small, the focus today is on schools with four, or fewer, classroom teachers.

We currently have over 1300 such schools.

In INTO’s view, the first key step in supporting small schools is to return teacher appointment figures to where they were before the recession. 53 pupils in a two-teacher school and 83 pupils in a three-teacher school are simply too many. We need to get to a place where small schools can appoint a third teacher at 48 pupils and a fourth at 78.

This would be a first step towards a level playing field but there are many other measures that would support and sustain small schools.

INTO believes that the provision of one leadership and management release day per week, for every teaching principal, would help the leaders of our small schools to keep abreast of administrative, leadership and management duties. We call for this measure to be introduced from September 2020. It is beyond time too, for the primary principals’ pay award, granted through an adjudication in 2007 to finally be paid.

No man is an island and, we must protect the teachers in our smallest schools from professional isolation and the basic health and safety implications of being the sole adult in a school.

The INTO believes that a minimum enrolment should not be the only determinant as to whether a second teacher is appointed/retained in a small school. A range of other factors need to be considered – geographical remoteness, distance from other schools of the same ethos, serving Gaeltacht communities and other factors. A school which is essential and vital to the community should not be deprived of its two-teacher status solely on the basis of not meeting an arbitrary minimum enrolment. The recent scheme announced by government to fund the employment of a second adult in one-teacher schools is ad hoc and insufficient. Every one-teacher school should have another permanent worker in the classroom with the teaching principal.

Every mainstream teacher in a small school teaches more than one class group and every class group has pupils with a range of ages and individual learning needs. There is a strong case for preferential class sizes in these scenarios and opportunities for professional development and interaction with fellow teachers.

The new pilot scheme of substitute supply panels should also be extended to rural areas. If every teaching principal had a leadership and management release day per week, schools could cluster their days to create a full-time position. These positions would be permanent and would give certainty to teachers, pupils and parents that every school day would be covered by a fully qualified teacher familiar to the children and schools. Giving every small school access to a caretaker and a secretary would also provide much-needed support.

It has to be acknowledged that since the drastic cuts were imposed on small schools in 2012, some provision has been made for island schools, minority faith schools and Gaeltacht schools on the grounds of geographical, religious and linguistic needs. These schools are very important to rural communities and must continue to receive support.

Since the cuts, some schools have amalgamated but many have closed. Most worryingly, the number of one teacher schools has grown.

School closure has a detrimental effect on the social and financial fabric of a community. But the protocols for school reorganisation have not changed in 50 years. They must be reviewed and, in considering school reorganisation, criteria other than just pupil numbers must be taken into account.

Schools need to know there is a clear and agreed protocol when school reorganisation is necessary or, indeed, desired by the school community.

We must strengthen the links between early childhood care providers and our primary schools to ensure that there is continuity of education for families that want to raise their children in rural Ireland.

Our small schools are special, they play a valuable, central role in many communities throughout the country. Our small schools deserve support and I am hopeful that this symposium will highlight their importance and lead to the implementation of the supports our schools need to deliver a world class primary education for the children in their communities.

Date: Wednesday, 26 June 19