Education | Small rural and urban schools provisions
To ask the Minister for Education the degree to which provision continues to be made to ensure the viability of smaller and denominational rural or urban schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
As the Deputy is aware small schools are defined for statistical purposes as schools with 4 mainstream teachers or less. Small schools are highly valued in their communities in that they provide a vital link to local heritage and history, help sustain rural populations and often act as a link for sports and social activity.
There is a commitment contained in the Programme for Government to continue to recognise the importance of small schools. There is a further commitment not to close any small school without the consent of parents. The decision making authority for a school closure belongs to the Patron of a school. Any proposal to close a school must involve consultation with all of the relevant stakeholders, parents, teachers, students and local communities and follow decisions taken at local level. Proposals must be agreed with the Department.
Budget 2020 provided for improved teacher staffing levels for small schools. This measure saw a more favourable pupil teacher ratio in small schools from September 2020. This improved schedule will apply in two, three and four teacher schools and ensure one less pupil is required to retain/recruit a teacher. This builds on measures in previous budgets which has seen improvements in the appointment and retention thresholds for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th classroom teacher and more favourable enrolment thresholds for one teacher schools situated 8km or more from the nearest school of the same type of patronage and/or language of instruction.
Small schools have also benefitted from further improvements to the primary staffing schedule for all schools implemented in recent years and the staffing schedule at primary level will now reduce to 23 pupils to 1 teacher from September 2023, which is historically the lowest ever allocation ratio at primary level.
This builds on measures in previous budgets which has seen improvements in the overall allocation of teaching posts and specific targeted measures for small and isolated schools as well as primary schools on our islands. The staffing process also contains an appeals mechanism for schools to submit a staffing appeal under certain criteria, including a specific one aimed at small schools, to an independent Primary Staffing Appeals Board.
Furthermore, in July 2021, my Department launched a two-year action research project aimed at supporting small rural schools. This project officially commenced in January 2022. The purpose of the project is to inform the development of a policy of supports for small schools through working with education partners to trial innovative approaches to support and sustain small schools in a number of clusters. Six project clusters of small schools have been formed, two in Galway, and one each in Donegal, Kerry, Wicklow and Waterford, consisting of 3/4/5 schools per cluster.
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