Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Welcome for small schools move, but more needed

It is with great relief and delight that I welcome the measures announced in support of small schools recently, writes Marion Sherlock, Principal of St Joseph's NS, Halverstown.

As announced by TD Martin Heydon in his recent press release, 'Small schools play an essential role in rural life and I welcome the package of measures announced this week as they provide security and protection for our small schools'.

Small school are a cornerstone in so many small town lands in rural Ireland and have become the life and soul of these communities. In recent years, grandparents and the wider community members have become more integrated into the daily life of these schools. The recent measures to reduce the necessary pupil enrollments to retain a teacher in a one, two, three or four teacher school is heartening and for some schools threatened with the prospect of losing a teacher next September a lifebuoy. However for many other schools it does not go far enough.

These reductions in enrollment figures are for retention of teachers only. Five years ago a school had to have 81 pupils on roll to both retain and acquire a fourth teacher. Today (after reductions) a school still needs 83 pupils to retain a fourth teacher and 86 to gain a fourth class teacher. Similar differences remain for schools wishing to retain or gain a second or third class teacher. These reductions sound great and are a welcome stepping stone on the journey to reversing the destructive measures inflicted on small schools over recent years. If we are to believe that our government is serious about supporting small schools in rural Ireland and the communities they support and serve, then all these cuts must be reversed in total.

In addition to these staffing issues, all schools including small schools are struggling with numerous other cuts to education over recent years. The reduction in capitation grants over successive recent years is forcing schools and consequentially parents to fundraise to pay basic school bills. While the return of the annual Minor Works Grant last school year is more than welcome, we should not be backslapping the government for returning a grant that is so essential to the upkeep and maintenance of a school building. All schools have a backlog of repair and maintenance needs lined up for attention following the absence of this grant for some years. Furthermore we have been given no guarantee that this grant is here to stay. How can a school plan effectively with such ad hoc arrivals of essential funding? In recent years, the most vulnerable children in our schools, those with special educational needs have been robbed of a basic entitlement - resource hours which have been granted to them. Only 90% of any hours granted to a pupil with specific diagnosed learning, physical or emotional needs is awarded to them. This cut needs to be reversed immediately to ensure all children a fair access to education. These are but a few of the major cuts that schools and children have had to suffer in recent times.

I truly hope that this positive step announced by our government is a sign of brighter days to come. I live in hope.