Not all disadvantaged primary schools will be included in plans to tackle Ireland’s historically overcrowded classrooms.
Plans to reduce the pupil:teacher ratio in primary school classrooms do not extend to Deis band one junior schools and 'vertical schools' which cater for mixed aged pupils.
While these schools currently operate on lower pupil:teacher ratios when compared to schools outside of the Deis scheme, it is “essential” all disadvantaged schools receive this planned reduction, according to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (Into).
The department has overlooked the Deis schools where modest reductions in pupil:teacher ratios have been secured for too long, according to John Boyle, Into general secretary.
He said: “Singling out a small minority of these schools and ignoring the rest is a cause of great concern.
“This decision makes no sense considering the evidence that class size matters most for younger children and for those suffering disadvantage.”
Announcing further details of her department’s budget on Wednesday, Norma Foley, the Minister for Education, said she was “particularly pleased” to have secured funding to tackle overcrowded classrooms.
This will be done through the creation of 400 new teaching posts, and new measures will also be introduced to help schools retain teachers while dealing with Covid-19 requirements, according to the department.
Budget 2021 for primary and secondary education represents a 5% increase, or €410m, on last year’s budget.
It also includes an additional allocation of €226m for schools to meet costs relating to Covid-19.
This is the remaining balance of the €437m approved in July for reopening schools.
Additional costs are currently being incurred due to reduced capacity on school bus transport for secondary school students.
These have been agreed on a “cost-recovery” basis with the Government in recent weeks.
In line with previous years, pay and pensions represent the most significant proportion of expenditure in the department’s overall budget.
For 2021, these two areas account for €6.8bn, or 77% of planned expenditure in the coming year.
This includes €185m to meet ongoing pay requirements, including extra school staff recruited to respond to demographic changes.
Covid-related funding for the academic year 2021/22 will be reviewed in line with public health advice, according to the department.
Funds have been earmarked for schools for the remainder of 2021, from August to December, as part of a central contingency reserve being allocated by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
More than 1,000 teachers are set to be hired under the plans, of which 403 will be working with children with special needs.
Almost 1,000 special needs assistants (SNAs) are also to be recruited.
Separately 900 school staff, including teachers, SNAs, caretakers, and secretaries, have not returned to schools as they have been deemed “very high risk” of contracting Covid-19, Ms Foley confirmed.
Special education sees an allocation of more than €2 billion for 2021, or more than one-fifth, of the overall budget for the department.
This includes the further roll-out of the School Inclusion Model, with two further pilots to be set up in two extra Community Healthcare Organisations (CHO) as well as the current pilot in Kildare, west Wicklow and west Dublin.
According to Josepha Madigan, Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion, this model is designed to provide a broader suite of therapeutic and educational supports within a school.
Extending the pilot project is an “important continuation” of reform measures seeking to expand on the types of supports offered in schools including therapy services, she said.
“This is part of the long-term roll-out of this new system, which I am determined to lead.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the department said while there has been a reduction in mainstream class sizes in recent years, there hasn't been a corresponding reduction for urban Deis band 1 schools.
These schools already have a preferential staffing schedule of 20:1 at junior classes and 24:1 at senior classes, she added.
"Most schools in DEIS Band 1 operate junior and senior schools with a ratio of 22:1."
As an initial step in addressing pupil: teacher ratios, there is a focus on a reduction in the senior DEIS urban Band 1 primary schools, by one-point from 24:1 to 23:1.
The budget includes further supports as part of the DEIS programme schools catering for the highest concentrations of educational disadvantage, she said adding that this included additional funding of €2 million.