The loneliness of a long-distance runner is nothing compared to the isolation and fear experienced by the principal of a one-teacher school, the INTO annual congress has heard.
South Galway principal Pádraig Lohan (49) told delegates how he had to give his older pupils the code for the school mobile phone in case of an emergency after his school lost its second teacher in 2014.
Speaking in support of a motion demanding that the Department of Education ensure that no school drops below a level of two full-time teachers, Mr Lohan described the overwhelming sense of responsibility.
He had been told by the Department of Education that he “couldn’t legally leave to go to the toilet”.
Mr Lohan, whose school at Derryoober - 17 km south of Portumna - overlooks Lough Derg, said there were days when he looked forward to the visit of the postman, the “Rentokil and special delivery guys” and a passing farmer.
“I had to teach all of the classes,” he said, ranging from phonics to junior infants to algebra to sixth class.
“There was one child...who actually picked up the algebra from junior infants. He could tell me the multiples of 24 up as far as 10,000 and he was only four or five,” he said.
“I had 11 hours of resource and learning support a week which wasn’t too bad,”he said.
“There was never a week I wouldn’t at least get three or four phone calls from other teaching principals of one-teacher schools asking advice of what to do. You are only alive when you are helping someone else,” he said of his unofficial role as counsellor.
He was advised by the Department of Education to hold a series of public meetings to discuss the future, but began to realise that closure of the 160-year old school would then fall on his head. At its lowest, the roll had fallen to seven pupils.
“People felt so attached because they went to the school, their grandparents, their great grandparents, their great great grandparents (also went),” he said, and the school had secured an upgrade in 2009 before numbers fell.
“We have a post office, in fairness, but we faced nothing but closures. The school is the last bastion of identity in the rural area,” he said.
Over a summer, and with no State funding, the community built a childcare facility at the school which turned the situation around.
Two years later, the school now has 16 pupils and a busy childcare and afterschool club which opens at 7.30am for breakfast. The school has turned “full circle” with a 300% increase in pupils, he said.
Also speaking on the motion, Eoin Fenton, INTO district secretary for Galway-Roscommon, said he knew of a one teacher school where the fire drill included practising emergency numbers written up on a whiteboard for the pupils in case the principal should fall ill.
Mr Hugh Lynn, vice chair of his Galway-Roscommon branch, pointed out that all 12 offshore islands had two-teacher schools and this made “absolute sense”.
“If island primary schools can be ensured a safe environment, surely in all schools children should be afforded to the same,” Mr Lynn said.
Mayo has the highest number of one-teacher primary schools, at nine, according to the Department of Education, which confirmed that there are 26 in all, while there are 537 two-teacher schools. A grant was announced earlier this year for an extra adult in one-teacher schools, but the INTO says a full teacher is imperative. A number of two-teacher schools are also "hovering on the brink" of falling to one teacher, it points out.