‘We are not impressed by meetings. It’s difficult to see what they’re about’

OFFICIALLY, the nationwide consultative process initiated by Education Minister Noel Dempsey is aimed at shaping the education system. Unofficially, many teachers feel it’s a waste of time.

The National Consultation Process on the Irish Education System, is a process aimed at involving the public to the greatest degree possible in framing education policy and it visits Cork's Silversprings Hotel at 8pm tonight.

National Parents' Council, Primary, chief executive Fionnuala Kilfeather welcomed the consultations but believes it is inclined to be dominated by the big teacher groups.

"I think in general, from the feedback we are getting, that the meetings are being dominated by the teacher unions, and it's inevitable that they become politicised," she said.

"Some unions are sending the same people to meetings all over the country, and so ordinary people who are concerned not just about money and funding, are not being properly heard under the present consultation process."

Ms Kilfeather said that in principle they welcomed the consultation process but it was inevitable that big public meetings would become unwieldy.

"I don't think that big meetings are the be all and end all. They are supposed to be about vision, but they seem to be mainly looking at teacher problems.

"We would hope for focus groups whereby people got into issues they were concerned about, especially parents and pupils," said Ms Kilfeather.

On the question of funding, she said that money was being invested in the education system, but it would never be enough. In regard to something like the Summer Works Scheme, she would like to see the department set up a structure to support local boards of management.

This should be established at regional level to help boards get the proper advice and assistance in having works carried out.

John White, deputy general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), described the meetings of the consultation process as "very unstructured" and thus there was not an opportunity for any special issue get reasonably exhaustive treatment.

"There is an expression of strongly held views by teachers, parents and management that little real dialogue is engaged in," said Mr White.

"We are not impressed by the meetings at all. It's difficult to see what they are about," he said.

For a teacher, said Mr White, education was a life-long project. For a minister it may be three or four years and for a parent, maybe six or seven years.

"Teachers are the experts in education. You just can't pull someone off the street and put them in front of about 30 adolescents."

Consequently, it was hardly unexpected that the meetings were dominated by issues affecting teachers.

John Carr, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said there were difficulties with the process. "There's no real engagement, and we hear that from teachers who have attended meetings all over the country," he said.

He feels that there is nothing wrong in building a vision for education needs in the future, but the problem is that the future begins today.

He pointed out, the country's spend on primary education is among the lowest in the EU, second only to Greece. It represents about 70% of what is spent on second level and 30% of third-level education. Class sizes were the highest in the EU.

While the INTO did not have any organised campaign of engagement in the meetings, primary teachers had left them with the feeling that their ambitions were shared.

"After these meetings, primary teachers felt vindicated on issues like special needs education, class sizes and resources, because parents and the general public agreed with them," said Mr Carr.

THE minister has no illusions that enough has been done for education and readily admits to the fact.

"It is simply unacceptable that a child's education prospects are more dependent on their address than on their ability. But we have to accept that many of the barriers to education lie outside of the school gates," Mr Dempsey told his party's recent Árd Fheis.

The minister's philosophy, however, is that addressing the deficiencies in the system is not just a case of more resources for everybody something which teachers, pupils and parents in schools up and down the country realise only too well.

Shrone & Rathmore

STAFF, management and parents of Shrone NS, Rathmore Convent Primary School and Rathmore Boys NS, in Kerry, agreed to amalgamate in a new school building in 1998.

In June 2000, the Department of Education appointed a design team to design an eight-teacher school to accommodate up to 200 students.

The schools were told at the time they would have to raise £50,000 locally.

In April 2001, Rathmore Boys NS was in such poor condition it was demolished. Students from that school have been taught in three, demountable classrooms, said to be a step above a prefab, since then.

Administration and remedial teaching is carried out in a small portacabin. There is no staff room.

In September 2002, the people of Rathmore raised €65,000. Soil testing was carried out on the proposed school site, made available by the Presentation Sisters, last Friday.

The new school is on the department's funding list but Rathmore Boys NS principal Diarmuid McCarthy said the prolonged process is very frustrating.

"What we would like to know is when are going to have our new school," he said.

All three schools are still waiting for the school design to be completed and for the project to move on the next phase.

Kilcredan National School

'When there's a crisis we get some money, but otherwise we're ignored'

KILCREDAN National School, near Castlemartyr in east Cork has 218 pupils. It may be a relatively modern building built in 1972 but it is very overcrowded and pupils use three portacabins.

Principal Margaret Beausang said yesterday they were promised two new classrooms, a multipurpose room and a staff room.

A total of 35 first-class pupils cram into a classroom which is just 20 sq ft. There is no staff room which causes problems for the 10 full-time teachers and one part-time support teacher.

"We're still on this so-called famous waiting list. We had a general purposes room which is now being used as a classroom. It's very overcrowded, there's a total lack of space and staff have to eat their lunch in the classrooms," Ms Beausang said.

"I feel it's a priority and it's urgently needed. We keep on writing to the department but it appears we are just banging our heads off brick walls," the principal said.

Last summer the department agreed to replace the windows, which were over 30 years old and this work was carried out. Work was also carried out to prevent flooding, which saw raw sewage from the septic tank pouring onto the playground.

Ballygarvan National School

THE number of students on the roll at Ballygarvan National School, just south of Cork city, has doubled in eight years.

There are 168 pupils at 70-year-old three-classroom school in what is one of the fastest developing areas near the city. Funding for a new school was sanctioned in 2000 by Micheál Martin.

The board of management identified two possible sites, the Office of Public Works (OPW) examined both and negotiations began with the landowners.

Negotiations were protracted but a price was agreed.

But the board of management discovered earlier this year that funding was no longer available. Pupils are being taught in four prefabs which have been in the school yard for 12 years.

Parents' association member Liz McCarthy said those prefabs were supposed to have been there for just four years.

The school is due to get another prefab next year, and another the following year, she said.

"We are hoping to arrange a meeting with the Department of Education soon to make sure our school gets on the list for the September budget," she said.

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