The response of schools to the influx of Ukrainian pupils has been that rarest of things when it comes to the refugee crisis: a good news story.
While State efforts to secure accommodation have at times teetered on the brink, schools have quietly got on with the job of absorbing newcomers into their classrooms.
English-language supports have been provided by the Department of Education in a timely manner, for the most part. Free school transport has been laid on and pupils have, by and large, integrated well amid warm welcomes from school communities.
“We’re not hearing of any big issues in schools,” says Paul Crone, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. “Schools are managing the situation locally; the department is responding quickly to request for support, whereas at other times you might not hear from them for dust.”
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Another option, according to the records, is to consider “double shifts” in existing schools, such as having a first shift from early morning to early afternoon, and a second shift from early afternoon to later in the evening
More than 13,700 Ukrainian pupils have been enrolled in schools across Ireland since the Russian invasion last February. Most – some 8,800 – are in primary schools, with 4,900 pupils in post-primary schools.
Department surveys indicate there are about 54,000 spare school places at primary level and 20,000 at second level. In theory, then, there is plenty of spare capacity in the system.
There are concerns, however, about potential school place shortages in areas with very large numbers of refugees in hotels or other centres. Contingency plans state that in these circumstances, schooling may need to happen in hotels, community centres or churches.
Records also show that high demand for prefabs or modular accommodation means there is limited spare capacity to facilitate children arriving from Ukraine at existing schools on a large scale.
[ Number of primary pupils in Ireland increases for first time since 2018 due to Ukrainian enrolments ]
Another option, according to the records, is to consider “double shifts” in existing schools, such as having a first shift from early morning to early afternoon, and a second shift from early afternoon to later in the evening.
So far, however, these kinds of options have not been needed.
Even in schools where up to a third of pupil numbers are Ukrainian, schools have been able to access English languages supports.
Those in the education sector say the speedy progress is down to regular communication between stakeholders, which was a feature of the Covid-era.
At national level there are regular meetings to flag any issues. Some say meetings scheduled to last an hour or more are over after 30 minutes, such is the lack of drama. Many also point to the key role played by Regional Education and Language Teams, hosted by the 16 regional education and training boards. They have been advising authorities on space capacity in schools and the need for additional supports.
If pupil numbers continue to increase, the main concern among those in the education sector is the supply of teachers rather than accommodation.
The demographic trend among the Irish school-age population is downwards at primary level. While overall pupil numbers at national schools nudged upwards in the 2022/23 year for the first time in four years due to new arrivals, capacity in schools generally is not an issue.
At second level the demographic trend is upwards and there is less spare capacity. However, there is also less demand for education among Ukrainian pupils at post-primary level.
[ Integration of 13,000-plus Ukrainian children in Irish schools seen as a success story ]
As few as half of Ukrainian students aged 13-18 are actually enrolled in Irish schools. Many are continuing with remote learning from home, where live classes in Ukraine typically begin at about 6am. Some are combining the two – remote and in-school learning – which brings its own challenges.
“You find some of these students are exhausted, which can create problems,” says one educator. “We’ve found there hasn’t really been much engagement with exams like the Junior or Leaving Cert. Some don’t tend to regard subjects like music and art as real subjects. There are cultural issues like that – but it will begin to change as they become more embedded in the classroom.”
Official figures bear this out: just three Ukrainian students sat the Leaving Cert exams last year while two sat junior cycle exams.
On the supply of teachers, official figures show that more than 70 Ukrainian teachers are at various stages in securing official registration to teach in Irish schools under a fast-track route; many others are assisting in an unofficial capacity as interpreters or assistants, principals say.
In the meantime, principals and teachers say the system has responded well – and are confident it will continue to do so even if numbers grow over the coming months.
“The speed at which pupils are picking up the language is breathtaking,” says one principal. “Overall, we’ve been flexible and adapted to meet their needs. And we’ve done that for other refugees and new arrivals. At the end of the day, that’s what we do.”