Access to rural broadband could help save small schools – Minister

Joe McHugh in ‘intense discussion’ over improving pupil-teacher ratios

The Minister for Education is involved in “intense discussions” over securing more favourable pupil-teacher ratios to help secure the future of small schools.

Latest figures show that dozens of primary schools have either closed or had to amalgamate over recent years amid concern for the future viability of small schools in rural areas.

Speaking at a symposium with education stakeholders on Wednesday on initiatives to strengthen small schools, Joe McHugh said these institutions were often the “heartbeat and lifeblood of a community”.

He said the Government was committed to supporting and strengthening small schools to move from “surviving to thriving”.


Teachers’ unions, principals and school management bodies say austerity-era changes to staffing schedules have disproportionately hit small schools with up to four teachers.

Mr McHugh acknowledged this was a key issue for schools and was being examined in the run-up to the budget.

“I’m in danger of getting into a budget discussion, but what I can say is that we’re having a very intense conversation around the pupil-teacher ratio for the small schools. It’s something I see as integral to the future sustainability of schools,” he said.

"I know I have the support of Minister Ring [Minister for Rural Development] around the Cabinet table. It's something he has picked up on when he goes into schools in his constituency as well."

Mr McHugh also said the Government’s National Broadband Plan would allow more people to work remotely and could help breathe new life into isolated rural schools as a result.

“That is going to be a game-changer in terms of people making the decision to do more remote working.

"If there's somebody working for Amazon or Facebook or Google or LinkedIn in Dublin . . . what we're saying here today is if people decide to come and do remote working in a more rural area, we have quality education and a reputation that is second to none in terms of smaller schools," he said.

Almost half of the State’s primary schools are defined as small with four teachers or fewer.

However, they account for just 15 per cent of the primary school population. Most are based in rural parts of counties on the western seaboard.

Many schools say they are struggling due to falling pupil numbers, increased urbanisation or commuting patterns.


The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has called for austerity-era changes to pupil-teacher ratios to be reversed.

Currently, a school can appoint a second teacher when it has an enrolment of 18 pupils and a third teacher when it reaches an enrolment of 54 pupils and a fourth teacher when it has 84 pupils.

Prior to the recession, these rules were more generous and allowed a third teacher to be appointed with an enrolment of 48 pupils and a fourth teacher with 78 pupils.

The trade union says some teaching principals find themselves increasingly professionally isolated as a school’s pupil number drops below the threshold for retaining other teachers.

The union also says there are major pressures on principals in smaller schools, who must juggle the demands of teaching multiple class levels while also taking care of the administrative requirements of the school.

The Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPMSA) has called for a leadership and management day a week for teaching principals.

The association wants full restoration of austerity-era cuts to the capitation grant and a planned schedule of increases into the future.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent