‘All the staff give an awful lot, nobody minds doing a bit extra’

Tomás Healy expects the roof of his school’s new classroom to be on in a few weeks.

But it will probably only be occupied for the few remaining months before the summer holidays and then lie mostly silent for years.

Cuts to teacher numbers for smaller schools in Budget 2012 mean Tirelton National School might never have four class teachers again.

The school was due to lose a teacher next autumn regardless of the budget, because of a small drop in pupil numbers this year to 76. But a rise in enrolment requirements from next year to employ additional staff or retain existing teacher numbers is also likely to impact.

“If the changes weren’t being made, I expect we’d be back to four teachers in about three years’ time. We were bursting at the seams here last year with three teachers for 81 pupils but if more come in the next year or two, we’ll still only have three teachers,” says Tomás, principal of Tirelton NS.

By 2014, a school will need to have at least 86 pupils before it will be allowed a fourth classroom teacher, five more than the current figure of 81. It rises to 83 this year and 85 in 2013.

Tomás is one of hundreds of people who gathered in a West Cork hotel last month to voice their concerns about these changes, part of what they see as a subtle push by Government and the Department of Education to coerce small rural schools into closure or amalgamations. Another protest is planned in Bantry tomorrow night when Taoiseach Enda Kenny visits, with organisers from the Save our Small Schools West Cork group saying 3,000 people could attend.

At its annual conference in Dublin last week, the Irish Primary Principals Network president Gerry Murphy said principals, teachers and parents are simply standing up for children in the same way as the country’s elderly population have stood up for themselves in the face of Government cuts.

A part-reversal of cuts to teacher posts at disadvantaged schools has been hinted by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn after he admitted their inclusion in the budget was a mistake.

But Mr Murphy said the same must be accepted about changes to staffing for schools of one, two, three and four teachers, many of them educating rural communities since Famine times.

“The minister says he isn’t trying to close small schools, but I’m not convinced that those working in small schools believe that. The politicians knock on our doors every five years, now it’s time for us to knock on theirs.”

Tomás poses a question: “If they close schools here, where are we going to go?

“It looks great to a fella sitting down in an office looking at various numbers to say we’ll do X, Y and Z. But, in reality, there’s no proper analysis of things.”

With four teachers for this year, Tomás has split the pupils into classes of 23 (seven junior and 16 senior infants), 17 (10 first class and seven second class), 19 (12 third class and seven fourth class) and his own class of 17 (11 fifth class and six sixth class pupils).

But he expects the mix next year — with just three class teachers — will require one of them to take 30 in a mix of fourth, fifth and sixth classes, with 33 in the middle grouping of first, second and third, in order to keep the infant class size down. This will allow one teacher take next year’s seven senior infants and the six junior infants Tomás is expecting to enrol into a much smaller class of 13

“We try to keep the infant class numbers small to give them a good start, but that’s all dictated by the intake each year. In September two years ago, we enrolled 16 junior infants but we have just seven juniors this year.”

The school opened in 1887 and there were just over 30 pupils at the school when Tomás arrived in 1995. But the closure of another school in the parish and the arrival of new families has seen numbers growing since then.

“We’ve also had some newcomer children from international families, who need a lot of help with English language. That has had to be covered from within our learning support hours,” said the principal.

The school expects to gain learning support hours, from 15 to 20 hours a week due to the fortunate fact of happening to have four teachers this year. But while it will benefit from a change to how learning support hours are to be allocated, the picture is uncertain for subsequent years.

“There’s no question that it’s harder to get to children who have difficulties when they are in one of three different classes in the room. I remember starting as a teacher in Dublin with 48 in the room, and it’s not too long ago, but it was still easier when there was one single class, even though there were problems there too.

“All the staff here give an awful lot, everybody is working together and nobody minds too much doing a bit extra, I suppose that’s the way in most country schools with two, three or four teachers.”

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