The number of one-teacher schools in the country could rise to 60 by next September, a seven-fold increase in just two years, the Dáil has been told.
In reply to questions from Fianna Fáil, Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn said preliminary figures showed 60 schools fell short of the 20-pupil threshold to qualify for a second teacher, although numbers would not be finalised until June.
There were just eight one-teacher schools in the state in 2012 but numbers have been steadily climbing due to cuts announced in Budget 2012.
Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Charlie McConalogue said “this is a direct admission from Minister Quinn about the real impact of his cuts on smaller schools”.
Not only was the number of one-teacher schools increasing but 61 three-teacher schools had now fallen below the new threshold for retaining all of their teachers, he noted. “The burden of Minister Quinn’s changes to the Pupil Teacher Ratio has fallen on rural schools, minority faith schools and Gaeltacht schools.”
A spokeswoman for the Minister said, however, it was “highly unlikely” the final figure for one-teacher schools would end up as high as 60.
“There is an appeals process for schools that can show enrolment is not going to fall below the threshold, and half of small schools which have appealed had their appeals upheld,” she said.
Under the cutbacks, the threshold for an allocation of four teachers changed from 81 to 86 pupils, for three teaches from 51 to 56, and for two teachers from 14 to 20 pupils.
Concern about the sustainability of small schools was also expressed yesterday at an Oireachtas committee where school principals warned of a leadership “crisis” due to poor governance structures at both primary and secondary level.
Director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) Clive Byrne presented a five-point plan on tackling the problem to the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection.
This involved creating a centre for leadership and planning to improve professional standards; implementing existing recommendations on staff supports; meeting an agreed quota target of one assistant principal per 100 students; learning from best practice overseas; and establishing a steering committee to drive reform.
As for the short term, NAPD vice president Mary Nihill recommended the greater sharing of responsibilities with boards of management so not everything ended up on the principal's desk. In addition, she suggested there should be some "creative redeployment" within the public service so principals and deputy principals could get some administrative support.
The Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) advocated similar reforms, warning that teachers currently felt pressurised into taking leadership roles and then were "punished" by the system if they tried to step down due to burn-out.
Conscious that a number of small schools in one locality might have a leadership deficit, the network’s deputy president Brendan McCabe proposed that schools be encouraged “to try out different models of clustering”, perhaps by having one principal for a number of schools.
The IPPN had examined initiatives in Holland and Scotland where reconfiguration took place without the need for forced closures, and Department of Education officials said yesterday they would be interested in seeing similar pilot projects here.
Committee members strongly supported the submissions, with two former school principals Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD (Lab) and Jim Daly TD (FG) in attendance.
“There is no boundary to the responsibilities you have,” said Mr Ó Ríordáin who recalled having to “fix the photocopier... and everything else; that is incredibly stressful and you do not concentrate on your primary role which is as a leader of learning.”
Mr Daly said school boards were “not up to scratch for the job they are being given”, and he cited the management of building projects as one particularly burdensome area with “the Department conveniently using the devolved grant system” to load more responsibilities onto principals.
Senior department official Eddie Ward said it had "major concerns" about leadership and was working towards a new system of career development which gave principals greater clarity about their role, as well as training and back-up resources.
He said development towards middle-management “must come earlier in a teacher’s career” and the culture needed to change whereby leadership was “not just the concern of a few” but was a role for everyone in schools.