'Anyone who comes to see the school can see the need for a modern building. It's almost Third-World conditions'

Mon, Apr 9, 2012, 01:00

CENSUS STORIESCHILDREN: BUILT IN 1955, the main classrooms in Glenville National School in Cork are cramped and difficult to heat. In fact they are perpetually cold.

To help squeeze more staff and students into the premises, the toilets and cloakroom have been converted into rooms for resource teachers.

It’s also damp – so damp that the moisture destroyed two of the school’s expensive computers.

As conditions deteriorate, the numbers being admitted to the school continue to rise. Designed for 90 students, the collection of old buildings and prefabs now accommodates 160 students. Because it is based in the commuter belt outside Cork city, the local population has risen quickly, so increased demand for school places is inevitable.

“Anyone who comes to see the school can see the need for a bigger, modern building,” says principal Michael O’Donnell. “It’s almost Third-World conditions. We have been on various lists since being sanctioned for a new eight-teacher school in 2005, but we’re still waiting.

“We’re lobbying hard, but there are no guarantees.”

The baby boom of the past decade is placing unprecedented pressure on school capacity right across the Republic, but in particular in commuter belt areas, where population growth has been strongest.

The 2011 census results show the birth rate during the previous five years averaged at well over 70,000 births a year, among the highest in Europe.

If anyone thought the economic downturn would dampen the birth rate, they’re mistaken. A record-breaking 20,000 births were recorded in the first quarter of 2011 alone – the highest recorded since authorities began collecting three-monthly figures more than 50 years ago.

As a result, total pupil enrolment in Ireland is projected to grow by about 70,000 between now and 2018.

Most of the increase will be at primary level (45,000 – a 9 per cent increase), with the remainder at post-primary level (25,000 – a 7 per cent increase).

This will pose major challenges for the education sector. No one wants a repeat of what happened in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, in 2008 when 100 children struggled to find school places.

That is why the Department of Education is planning to build 106 primary schools and 43 secondary schools over the next five years. Large-scale extensions will be added to a further 65 primary schools and 49 secondary schools.

In total, the plan will provide more than 100,000 permanent school places, of which more than 80,000 will be new. Whether the State can afford the €1.5 billion price tag is another matter.

The department says some schools will be delivered using public-private partnerships, and others will come from the public purse. However recruiting hundreds of extra teachers will require a costly relaxation of the embargo on public sector recruitment.

It’s not just primary and secondary level education that’s under pressure – population growth will also pose challenges for the childcare sector.

Since the downturn and the rise in unemployment, many creches have closed or are focused more on pre-school rather than full-time day care.

This, according to Irene Gunning of Early Childhood Ireland, is due to the universal free pre-school year. Some 95 per cent of eligible children – aged between three and four – are availing of the service.

However the growing number of children means the cost of this is set to rise, with numbers set to jump from 63,000 children in 2010 to 68,000 in 2014.

In order to keep costs under control, the Government plans to reduce the capitation rates paid to pre-school providers by 3 per cent – or €2 a week – from September, and increase the permitted staff- to-child ratios from one staff member to 10 children to one staff member for every 11 children.

“We’re seeing the free pre-school year being stretched,” Gunning says. “Everyone is worried about it. They took a little slice out of it recently and we may see more of that over the coming years.”

In order to protect it, she would like to see it ring-fenced and ideally expanded in the Government’s early years strategy, which is being drawn up in the coming months.

While in general there is no shortage of childcare places, the same cannot be said of many poorer areas, where private providers are less likely to set up.

One way of tackling this to date has been through a programme of subsidised childcare in not-for- profit childcare facilities. The number of places under the programme has been capped due to pressure on public finances.

This is a worry for people such as Dara Hogan, director of Fledglings Early Years, a not-for- profit social franchise that is providing affordable early years education in west Tallaght.

The local population has increased by about 15 per cent, but there are not enough childcare places. As a result of the cap on subsidised childcare, he says, many families would not be able to afford the service even if new places became available.

All of this will pose a headache for policy-makers. Buildings and teachers are crucial, but costly. However, investment in children – even at a time of austerity – makes sense.

The outcomes for high-quality childhood care and education have been proven again and again. One major US study, for instance, found that for every $1 invested, $17 was returned in later years through better developed, better educated children.

For people like Michael O’Donnell, investment cannot come soon enough.

“Our 1955 building, which we first applied to have demolished in 1999, continues to be used by children and teachers despite not being fit for purpose,” he says.

“In these circumstances, the primary curriculum is just a pious aspiration for children trying to learn and teachers trying to teach, in such difficult and overcrowded conditions.”

THIS IS IRELAND

WHAT IT SAID ABOUT BIRTH RATES

73,000

The average number of births annually between 2006 and 2011.

20,000

The number of births in the first quarter of 2011, the highest on record.

162,000

The projected increase in the school-going population over the next 20 years(based on census data).