Schools condemn cuts in language support for newcomer pupils
"I HAVE NO idea how we're going to cope," says language support teacher Maura Regan. "How can two teachers do the work of six?"
With 183 newcomer students to cater for, Holy Trinity National School in Galway has six language support teachers on staff, four of whom are to lose their jobs as a result of recent budget cuts.
Newcomer students come from all over - Brazil, Nigeria, Poland, China to name but a few - and all now speak with a broad Galway accent whatever their standard of English.
Principal Peter Woods is angry. "We finally got to the stage in the schools where I felt we had enough teachers to cater for our needs," he says. "Now we're losing four language support teachers, I'm losing other staff members as well. The impact is going to be huge."
At present, a school is entitled to one English language support teacher for every 14 newcomer students, up to a maximum of six teachers.
In the Budget, a ceiling of two support teachers has been imposed, regardless of whether a school has 28 or 200 newcomers.
In the breakdown of cuts provided by the Department of Education it was stated that some arrangement could be sought for schools with a large proportion of newcomers among their students.
But few are convinced.
Jim Bennett, principal of St Colmcille's National School Swords, Co Dublin, is scathing about the cut. "Language support enables these children to function. To say that it's a luxury and should be available only in the good times is unbelievable," he says.
A fifth of the 475 students in his school are newcomers and numbers are rising. English is a second language for 40 per cent of his junior infants and he stands to lose two of his four language support teachers. "I am going to have to pour the efforts of the remaining language support teachers into those junior infants. What's supposed to happen to the other children who need it?" he asks.
Until now, schools have coped very well with an unprecedented influx of newcomers into Irish classrooms.
"English language support has been a tremendous success story for us," says Denis Coleman, principal of Scoil Mhuire na mBráithre in Tralee which stands to lose four of its six language support teachers. "It's madness to withdraw teachers from something that has been working so well, allowing children to integrate with their classes and with the community."
The cuts will also affect post-primary schools.
As in the the primary sector some schools will be asked to shoulder an uneven burden.
Pat Halpin, principal of Balbriggan Community College, says: "We can't manage; we have 570 students and 130 of them are newcomers. It affects us disproportionately."
A lack of proper English tuition affects the entire school. It will force difficult choices on teachers, particularly in classes with students who do not speak English.
Do teachers stop and explain, ensuring that a student has understood what was taught?
Or do they just carry on and hope for the best?
The reality is that most teachers do a bit of both. The certainty is that without the proper supports for teachers and students, both English-speaking and non-English speaking pupils suffer.
"Look, we're here to educate children," says Bennett.
"If a child is sitting in a class for five hours a day, not understanding what's going on, that's not education. It's childminding."
Maura Regan is dreading the prospect of prioritising one student over another, but if the school ends up losing its language support teachers she will have little choice.
"You have to understand the way language support works," she says.
"You can't have huge numbers and for the most part you need the children you're teaching to be of a similar level. Because of this, teaching all of the children who need support is going to be impossible with just two of us. I have no idea how we're going to work this out."
"I cannot understand how someone could look on this education as a privilege," says Jim Bennett.
"It's not a privilege, it's a right. The idea that this service would be viewed as an optional extra is appalling."