The Minister for Education Norma Foley are not taking into consideration the obstacles facing schools as they work towards reopening when reassessing teacher allocations for the upcoming academic year.
A freeze on staffing levels needs to be implemented immediately, according to Sinn Féin TD for Louth and East Meath Imelda Munster, who says she has received representations from parents at Rampark NS in Jenkinstown and St Patrick’s NS, Harestown in Monasterboice about the decision to decrease the number of teachers in the primary schools.
Deputy Munster has accused the Minister of doing a u-turn on comments she made prior to her ministerial appointment, when she spoke in Dáil Éireann about the need to have more teachers in classrooms, not fewer.
“In St Patrick’s NS in Harestown one teaching position will be lost, which will result in mixed level classes of up to 31 children. Parents have said that this will make physical distancing impossible. This teaching post must be reinstated,” she said.
“In Rampark NS, two teaching positions have been lost since last September. The school is six pupils short of retaining both teaching positions. This has left the school in a position where the pupil to teacher ratio in classrooms from first class up to sixth class is 32:1.”
As of the 2019/20 academic year, there were 197 pupils – 103 boys and 94 girls – enrolled at Harestown NS, taught by eight classroom teachers and supported by three learning support teachers and two special needs assistants. With eight classroom teachers, all classes from Junior Infants to Sixth Class were taught separately with a dedicated teacher for each class.
However, the reduction in teaching staff, based on enrolment numbers for the upcoming year, will see some classes split and taught side-by-side – meaning more pupils per classroom, despite schools now having to implement distancing measures for pupils due to Covid-19.
As of the 2019/2020 academic year, the co-educational Rampark NS, led by Principal Joan O’Hanlon and Deputy Principal Julie Carolan had 170 pupils and seven mainstream classroom teachers, as well as two Special Education Teachers and one Special Needs Assistant. The average teacher to pupil ratio in mainstream classes in Irish primary schools is currently 25 to one, with the EU average just 20. According to INTO, over 20% of classes in Louth have over 30 pupils which is above the national average.
“Both of these schools will now be operating well above the recommended pupil to teacher ratio of 26:1. This is too high in normal circumstances, but it is completely unacceptable in the midst of a pandemic where physical distancing is central to ensuring the safety of children and staff,” Deputy Munster continued.
“I raised the situation at Harestown with Minister Foley, and received a response from her office outlining why the school was not eligible to retain its existing staff. It is clear from the response that the department is not taking the additional challenges caused by the current crisis into account in its decision making on staff allocations.
“The views expressed in the response I received from her office do not correlate with statements made by the Minister on this very matter prior to her appointment as Minister for Education. On June 8, in the Dáil then-Deputy Foley highlighted the need for a safe environment for our children, and said ‘under the current guidelines we need more, not fewer teachers. I am calling on the Minister and the Department to include additional places for teachers to reflect the current circumstances.'”
Then-Deputy Foley is quoted in the media as saying, “I have been contacted by many schools across the county worried about teacher numbers for the 2020/21 academic year,” said then-Deputy Foley. “There are very real concerns that some of these schools could lose a teacher because of declining student numbers. However, given the current Coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions which will have to be implemented in the new school year, I am urging the Department to ensure that additional teacher places are allocated.
Deputy Munster has joined a number of other local representatives include councillors in the north and south of the county in calling for a freeze on staffing levels in primary schools to ensure schools are not put left with unmanageable class sizes to contend with as social distancing measures are implemented.
“I would suggest that the Minister revert to her previous position on this matter and introduce a freeze on staffing levels this year in all primary schools. The positions due to be lost in St Patrick’s NS and Rampark NS must be reinstated immediately to give both schools every opportunity to reopen safely at the end of the month. This is a matter of public safety and the issue must be rectified immediately.”