Teaching while the supports fall away

A blue sign facing the narrow country road outside Derrinacahara National School stands below a plaque marking its foundation in 1888.

The modern sign carries the school slogan: “Celebrating Children.”

There are 81 celebrated children on the roll of the West Cork school and, up to the start of December, principal Gabrielle Crowley was hoping to have a fourth teacher on staff again next autumn. Before the 2012 budget was revealed, the number on roll this year would have entitled the school to an additional teacher in September.

But even though they may have 82 pupils next autumn, cuts to staffing allocations for small schools will leave Derrinacahara NS one child short for the following year.

The requirement for a fourth teacher is jumping from 81 to 83. In Sept 2013, the number of pupils needed for a fourth teacher rises further to 85 and a year later, that goes up by one more pupil to 86. Staff at Derrinacahara do not have a realistic expectation of reaching these targets.

“With three teachers here now, our average class size is 27 but that’s just one less than the national average. So that puts paid to the notion that rural schools have much smaller classes,” says Gabrielle.

She teaches fourth, fifth and sixth classes, as well as being principal.

Carol O’Driscoll has 11 junior infants, five senior infant pupils and 10 children in first class, all in one room, about four miles northwest of Dunmanway.

The school’s enrolment up to two years ago had meant it had four teachers for a few years but the number of mainstream class teachers has fallen to three this year.

Caroline Daly has a group of 25 second and third class children, as she covers maternity leave for colleague Marie Mac Sullivan.

Gabrielle has the same challenges as Carol of having three different classes, as she works with the school’s 30 most senior children.

“There are a lot of programmes suitable for fifth and sixth, but the fourth class pupils in my class need to be doing something different all the time. The one thing we could do if we had four teachers again is to sort the classes into more suitably-matched groups,” she says.

The school had a rural co-ordinator since 2002 until last September, when another budget cut saw such posts withdrawn.

“When he was here, we could do more station teaching, where you can split the class according to ability levels. It means you can give the better-able children more challenging work and work more closely with weaker ones,” says Carol.

Gabrielle points out that the work of the rural co-ordinator Richard Swann with parents also helped reap benefits in the classroom. Parents came in and he did a maths programme that gave them confidence to help children with their homework.

“Or if a parent thought a child had a problem with their education, they could come in and talk to me and Richard could take over my class for a while,” the principal explains.

The school’s inclusion in the Department of Education’s Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme for schools with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils also entitles it to an additional book grant. But, over the last two years, it has been cut from €4,500 to €1,617, meaning it is harder to maintain the book rental scheme or to keep the library restocked.

“In fairness to our parents’ association, every year they help us fund swimming classes, library trips, buses for school tours, to the cinema, or up to the Lifetime Lab in Cork,” says Gabrielle.

She was using a break before the Irish Examiner visited to cut up tickets for a dance. When the proceeds are combined with those from a race night, the school should recover the cost of new books.

All this has happened despite high levels of disadvantage in the school, with a fear in rural schools that many think it is just an urban issue.

“It’s a different kind of disadvantage in rural schools, but we have children from families on low-income small farms, or who have a medical card, or whose parents did not go to third-level education.

“Rural isolation is a big problem and a lot of those issues are linked historically to people who did not go to school all the time as children, or who dropped out early,” says Gabrielle.

Some of the funding Derrinacahara NS got as a rural DEIS school paid for art classes once a week. But since the cuts, that incentive is only available every second week.

Because the school has six children with high special educational needs, it gets over 23 hours a week of resource teaching provided by two teachers, 16 of which are worked by Maureen Horgan.

Learning support teacher Anne Marie O’Sullivan works with them for an additional 7.5 hours a week, on top of her 17.5 hours helping pupils whose literacy or numeracy skills need a boost.

But next year, a third of the school’s 22.5 weekly learning support hours will be lost because of allocation changes. From autumn, they will be based on class numbers instead of pupil numbers.

This will also mean Anne Marie may have to make up the balance of her teaching hours at another school. The Department will no longer allow schools employ teachers like her in a full-time capacity as both a learning support teacher and a resource teacher.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s officials say this is because the resource teaching hours for children with more profound needs are usually not allocated by the National Council for Special Education until nearer the summer holidays each year, whereas learning support hours are known the autumn before.

The impact of this change will be felt as Anne Marie will have to take children for shorter lessons on maths or literacy, take them in groups or spend more time giving in-class help.

It will mean another resource teacher will have to travel to Derrinacahara to cover those extra hours Anne Marie is teaching.

The Department of Education says the breaking up of special needs teaching into five-hour blocks means neighbouring schools can come to arrangements on sharing resource teachers or learning support teachers.

But Anne Marie says this confounds what Government policy says about the need to focus on developing children’s basic skills.

“You can’t just do English literacy or maths with a child on, let’s say a Wednesday and a Friday, if you’re only there those two days. The minister is saying literacy and numeracy are the most important things, but it would be absolutely counter-productive to be splitting time between schools,” she said.

“One of the biggest things about special education is that these children need routine and consistency. Often, just going over the same thing over and over again is what makes the difference,” she explains.

“If I’m only hitting two or three schools a day or two a week each, or driving between them during the school day, they’re not getting that routine they need or those valuable hours are going to be lost.”

But Gabrielle fears the practicalities like this are completely lost on people who set the policies.

“All they see is numbers and economics,” she said.

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