Gaeltacht parents oppose teacher ratio changes in smaller primary schools

 

PARENTS OF children in small Gaeltacht schools have called on the Minister for Education to outline how he believes imposing new pupil-teacher ratios in small primary schools will save money in the long term.

“Ruairí Quinn, éist linn!” chanted more than 200 parents and their children at a demonstration in Galway at the weekend.

The parents from nine Gaeltacht schools in south Connemara expressed vehement opposition to a change which they describe as “discriminating against rural communities, non-Catholic school populations and Irish speakers”.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation members attending a consultative conference in Galway also described the move as a “blunt instrument”. The organisation’s general secretary Sheila Nunan described the budgetary measures as “flawed and lacking in planning” and called for a “coherent, long-term and resourced strategy for sustainable schools that met children’s needs irrespective of location”.

Such a strategy should “respect linguistic diversity and plurality of patronage”, Ms Nunan told more than 300 members at the meeting, which was called to discuss the impact of new primary education cuts.

The change to pupil-teacher ratios for those primary schools with four or fewer teachers was announced as a form of “phased increase” in pupil threshold in the December budget. Larger primary schools will not be affected.

Opposition has been expressed at a series of meetings around the State, with 500 people attending a meeting on the issue in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, on Friday.

Protests have also been held in areas including An Tuairín, Co Galway, one of the first Connemara Gaeltacht schools to be affected; Dunmanway, Co Cork, last week, and near Castlemaine, Co Kerry, before Christmas.

At the Galway demonstration, which was held in “solidarity with INTO members”, Connemara Gaeltacht parents said Mr Quinn was “forcing closure by stealth” by eroding confidence in the viability of schools with four teachers and under.

“It is time that this Government stopped blaming the previous government, as it is not acceptable that our children should have to suffer in these circumstances,” said Dara Bailey, who has one child at Leitir Móir and three at Leitir Calaidh primary schools. Fellow Leitir Calaidh parents Maria Nic Dhonncha, Mairín Ní Fhatharta and Margaret O’Sullivan said they were “very disappointed” at remarks by Minister of State for Education Ciarán Cannon in Ballinasloe on Friday night in which he proposed “clustering” junior and senior cycle primary classes from several schools under one board of management.

“Mr Cannon doesn’t seem to understand that if we lose our school, we lose our community, our identity is gone and it will affect the Irish language,” the parents said. “If Mr Cannon reflects the general attitude of Government, then as a society we are in serious trouble.”

Mr Cannon told The Irish Timesyesterday that no one was “forcing amalgamation”, but such clustering could take place within a community or parish setting. “At least let us look at all the options,” he said.

Parents Ann Joyce, Delia Griffin, Mary Uí Fhatharta, Ellie Joyce and Teresa McDonagh of Tír an Fhia school said some schools might end up with one teacher for eight classes, which raised health and safety and EU work-time directive issues.

They called on Mr Quinn to “talk to the primary school principals” who might be able to propose viable cost-saving measures which would have a less detrimental effect on children and communities. Mr Cannon said the Minister would talk to principals at their forthcoming conference.

Last week the principal of Ahascragh school in north Galway, Liz Mulry, said there were less damaging measures Mr Quinn could take to save funds, such as tackling the price of building contracts for extra classrooms.

“If this new pupil-teacher ratio was being implemented in schools in Ballsbridge or Drumcondra, the Government would not get away with it,” she said.

CONCERNS FOR SCHOOL: LOCAL RESIDENTS FEAR DEATH OF COMMUNITY

FACED WITH the closure of the school that defines their community, local residents in the Gaeltacht community of Leitir Calaidh in Galway are blaming a Dublin Government that they say does not understand them.

In last month’s budget, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn set about increasing the number of pupils a school would need to retain a teacher.

Currently, a school with 12 students is entitled to a second teacher, however in 2014 this number will rise to 20.

For Scoil Naisiúnta Bhríde in Leitir Calaidh, which has 19 children enrolled and 19 projected to be enrolled in 2014, this means becoming a one-teacher school, which parents and teachers alike say would be its death.

“It won’t work,” said school principal Cathy Mhic Gearailt. “I’d expect that parents wouldn’t send their child to a one-teacher school and I’d say it would be closure here.

“In this day and age the curriculum is so wide. There are 11 subjects per class and a lot of the work is hands on and involves group work.”

She added that when a nearby school in Cnoc was reduced to just one teacher, it quickly failed, causing more social destruction than simply the loss of a school.

“The change in their area since the school closed, even parents chit-chatting at the gate and the kids to all play together and to know each other and now there is no sense of community there.”

Leitir Calaidh is a small townland just north of Leitir Mór in the south Connemara Gaeltacht. While it has close ties with its neighbouring areas, its residents cherish their own unique identity.

The death of that community is what the parents fear most, as Anne Marie Hernon, whose son is in third class in Scoil Bhríde, said.

“It would take away our identity because we are such separate areas and this school is the one thing that identifies ourselves.”

Visiting the school last week, Fine Gael Senator and party spokeswoman on education in the previous Seanad, Fidelma Healy Eames said Mr Quinn’s policy on retention numbers was mistaken and he had shown “a lack of understanding of the complexity of rural schools”.

She added that while his cost- saving objective may have been well intentioned, it would have been fairer if he had simply increased the pupil-teacher ratio across the board by 0.6.