Politicians protect small schools - but are they best for children?

200 small schools are located within an 8km radius of one another

Research findings are mixed as to whether small schools produce better educational outcomes than larger ones. While they do allow for more personal attention, they are also associated with professional isolation and curriculum delivery challenges. File photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Research findings are mixed as to whether small schools produce better educational outcomes than larger ones. While they do allow for more personal attention, they are also associated with professional isolation and curriculum delivery challenges. File photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

 

Normally if a Government sat on a report for two years and then dismissed its findings for political ends, the Opposition would be up in arms. But there are not many votes to be had in advocating the closure of small schools.

The Value for Money Review of Small Primary Schools was born in the austerity era, but for concrete policy goals.

Some 43 per cent of primary schools in the Republic have fewer than 100 pupils, compared with 30 per cent in Wales, for example, and 25 per cent in Victoria, Australia.

Many are located within close proximity of one another, creating added cost, but also the risk of uneven educational delivery.

The review identified 540 schools with fewer than 56 pupils which were located within an 8km radius of another school. Some 200 of these are located less than this distance from a school of similar size, which makes them the most obvious candidates for amalgamation.No schools were named in the report, which was completed in April 2013 but only published by the Government last February.

However, documents obtained by The Irish Times identify not only the schools but also the merger options which were proposed and costed.

A number of schools earmarked for merger are in the Taoiseach’s constituency, including Lecanvey National School and Muirisc, NS located just 3.3km from each other on the road between Westport and Louisburgh.

Both are two-teacher schools, with 24 pupils each, under Catholic patronage. Whatever about the economic logic of amalgamation, the educational benefits are highlighted in the last inspection report for Lecanvey.

Schools identified for amalgamation: Small primary schools within an eight km radius of each other

Schools mapped here are as per data provided by the Department of Education. In some cases one school is mapped while a second is not. This is because the second school has been closed or amalgamated (as noted) or because the department did not list a separate entry for the second school.

‘Very restricted’

It cites a “chronic lack of space in this school”, and a “very restricted classroom and play area”. Moreover, “both mainstream classrooms are too small in size to allow for the optimum delivery of the current primary school curriculum”.

The inspection report for neighbouring Muirisc also indicated a greater concentration of resources would help pupils. It called for more focus on the development of language for mathematics and queried the use of outside tutors for the delivery of aspects of the curriculum.

Research findings are mixed as to whether small schools produce better educational outcomes than larger ones. While they do allow for more personal attention, they are also associated with professional isolation and curriculum delivery challenges.

The current network of schools suits teachers and parents but, as Prof John Coolahan, has remarked: “If your first concern is the wellbeing of children, then you’ve got to try to structure the system so children have an equal chance, to some extent, of quality.”

Amalgamating schools would also potentially serve another policy goal of the department: to create the space for new school patrons in rural communities. All but two of the 200 schools listed are under Catholic patronage.

The schools earmarked for merger have been mapped on the Irish Times Data Blog. They show the greatest concentration of small schools on the western seaboard.

On Achill Island, the department proposes merging three of seven schools, while on the the Ard/Carna peninsula near Inver, Co Galway, an ambitious plan to merge five schools is considered.

The modelling exercise was used by officials to estimate the cost of new classrooms, and the extension of the school transport scheme, which would have to be offset against savings.

‘Annual premium’

An investment of €50 million-€57million would be required in new infrastructure, the department said. This would be recouped by savings of €37 million a year, described as the “annual premium” for one- and two-teacher schools.

Officials noted that it would be hard to achieve such amalgamations at a time when there were long waiting lists for school building grants.

A school that was waiting for five years for a grant was likely to put their “foot down and use the amalgamation as a bargaining chip”, noted one official.

It would “get all the parents, politicians, councillors on the case… that is the reality of Irish life”.

Imagining herself in the principal’s position, the official wrote: “Why should I and my school be left with a leaking roof and a broken boiler for the past few years and be expected to take in another 30 pupils for just a pat on the head and my teachers cope with bigger classes and all the issues of the amalgamation, along with pay cuts, etc?”

This neatly captures a mode of thinking that runs right through the education system.

Parents, teachers and politicians are forever fighting for their slice of the pie. It is understandable, especially at a time of underfunding. But does it best serve the educational needs of children?

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