Statistics provided by the Minister for Education last week show enrolments in primary schools falling by around 70,000 between 1995 and the turn of the century. Pupils numbers in the State's national schools are falling by an average of 11,000 a year. This represents a dramatic decline in numbers and must have a fundamental knock on effect in the educational system. What is to be done with the empty space in schools, for example, or the roughly 350 teachers per year who become surplus to requirements?
Second level schools have so far been spared the effects of the falling birth rate the addition of the Transition Year as a sixth year in many schools has helped - but by 1999 the numbers will have started to fall in this sector, too. On the one hand, the falling numbers provide this Minister, Ms Breathnach, and her successors with a great opportunity to reduce class sizes and improve on the very meagre funding for the running of schools, training of teachers and development of new programmes.
On the other hand, it presents huge problems. Inevitably there will have to be some rationalisation of buildings, particularly at second level; there is also the problem of continuing to inject new blood into a profession where several hundred existing teachers are becoming surplus annually. In this sense, an early retirement package will probably eventually prove as attractive to the Minister as to the teachers. On the rationalisation front, the Minister set up a commission last month on the matter, a commission which drew criticism from Fianna Fail's education spokesman Micheal Martin last week. He is concerned that the Minister wants to close small rural schools. But her target is more likely to be the multiplicity of small second level schools in provincial towns rather than rural primary schools; and few could argue but that there is a need for rationalisation at this level.
Fianna Fail came out championing small rural primary schools last week by promising that, in government, it would appoint a second teacher to all one teacher national schools. Undoubtedly, many teachers struggling with classes of 20 plus across eight different grades deserve such additional support - but do all one teacher schools, even the smallest? Using surplus teachers, freed up by falling numbers, to counteract disadvantage is a sensible policy indeed it is a policy which the Minister is already, to an extent, following. But to single out rural one teacher schools is a one dimensional approach to a complex problem. What about the problems of teachers in multi class two and three teacher schools? Then there are the problems of teachers in the sprawling urban ghetto's where disadvantage of a different kind is rampant.
There would be little public support for a policy of closing small rural schools and it is unlikely that the Minister would contemplate it; a primary school can be the heart of a local community and the teachers often provide many other community services. Undoubtedly, small rural schools whether one or three teacher require additional support, but to propose a blanket allocation of a second teacher to all one teacher schools smacks more of a neat political slogan than a considered approach.