School feels little benefit from growth of economy


This morning Mr John Boyle, a 37-year-old from Donegal, will begin his second year as principal of St Colmcille's junior national school in Knocklyon, Dublin. With 735 pupils and 32 staff, the school is typical of the larger national schools in urban areas throughout the State. The senior school at St Colmcille's has a further 750 students and 30 teachers.

The school is well regarded in the area, built on the strong reputation of its teaching staff. This is despite - and not because of - the support it receives from Government.

Class sizes in St Colmcille's - averaging 30 for junior classes and about 33 for senior classes - are among the highest in the OECD. Mr Boyle would like to see classes with no more than 20 pupils to each teacher. The school remains hugely dependent on voluntary contributions from parents. It cannot provide the range of services and expertise that its students with special needs require.

Built in 1975, St Colmcille's has continued to expand as the population of the Rathfarnham/Knockylon area has mushroomed. The spread of the parish has increased the demand for places.

This morning, 180 new pupils will begin junior infants, but the school is unable to accommodate another 120 who want to enrol. About one-third of the children are still accommodated in prefabs, first placed on the campus in 1983.

Staff facilities are also meagre - with a small staffroom, lunch breaks are staggered. The school does not have a library or a properly equipped gymnasium. Planning for a new school has begun but it will probably be at least 2003 before the ribbon is cut. Mr Boyle is grateful for the support he has received from the planning and building unit of the Department. "It is clear that more money is at last available for new buildings." The schools tries to support pupils with special needs. It has a learning support teacher, a teacher for non-nationals (there are about 15 such students at the school) and one special needs or resource teacher.

But those with special needs still face an 18-month wait for psychological assessments, unless their parents can afford the £150 or so fee for a private consultation. Most of those with special needs are not assessed until they are in first class even though they would clearly benefit from earlier intervention.

Like all primary schools, St Colmcille's receives an annual capitation grant of £80 per pupil, almost half the grant available to secondary schools. The school, however, depends on the £20 voluntary contribution from parents. This year, parents are paying an additional £6 to fund English books for the new primary syllabus. Parents have also paid for the equipment and games for the schoolyard.

Mr Boyle, like virtually all school principals, must also confront a relatively new problem - the lack of qualified teachers. He has advertised for a temporary teacher, needed from October, but is uncertain whether one will become available.

So far, he has not had to employ untrained teachers but this is unusual; in all there are about 1,000 unqualified teachers working in the primary system.

Mr Boyle is irritated by assurances from the Department of Education that the average pupil teacher ratio in primary schools is 20:1.

"Some progress has been made - especially during the Micheal Martin era - but we have still a long way to go. The reality on the ground in primary schools has still to see real fundamental change."