Small schools under threat

The future of 60 primachools across Donegal is uncertain, due to a review of the viability of small schools. Last October, the Department of Education and Skills commenced its ‘Value for Money’ review of 589 small schools - those with 50 pupils or less. Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproporationately high number of these schools are in rural counties, and many of them are Irish language schools. More than 10% of the total number of schools under review are located in Donegal.

The future of 60 primachools across Donegal is uncertain, due to a review of the viability of small schools. Last October, the Department of Education and Skills commenced its ‘Value for Money’ review of 589 small schools - those with 50 pupils or less. Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproporationately high number of these schools are in rural counties, and many of them are Irish language schools. More than 10% of the total number of schools under review are located in Donegal.

Minister Ruairi Quinn moved to allay fears at the INTO annual conference in April. He told delegates: “The study is simply about ascertaining the facts to inform future decisions. It does not mean that any policy decision has been taken at this point or that any particular outcome is sought. My vision for the primary system is not simply about saving money. It is about making sure we deliver the best education we can for all our children.

Yesterday, however, Pearse Doherty TD told the Democrat/People’s Press that he believes there is serious cause for concern. “This all started under the previous government, with the An Bord Snip recommendation that all primary schools with 50 pupils or less be closed and a review made of all schools with 100 pupils or less. “As former Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Education, I know that even before the McCarthy Report, department officials were continually saying that small schools are not viable.

Reason for Concern

“There is reason for concern. There are real issues about what to do with small, rural schools, which I believe are integral to rural life and at the heart of rural communities. For this reason, we should not be looking at the forced closure of any school although, if the Board of Management decides that it’s in the school’s best interest to merge, that’s different.”

“I believe the Department are looking at dividing primary education into two tiers. For example, where there are two primary schools in an area, having one take the junior cycle - junior infants to first or second class and the other take the senior cycle - fourth to sixth class. That’s fine in urban areas. But would be real difficulties bringing that into rural areas, where schools are further apart. Also, I’d be very worried that merging schools might cross Gaeltacht boundaries.

“The reality is that this review isn’t about the quality of education, it’s about ‘Value for Money’. The Department wants to see if it can close or merge schools and save money on salaries and that’s it.”

Bernadette Ní Dhuibhir, principal of Scoil Mhin na Manrach, the Rosses, which currently has just seven pupils, says everyone at the school is “quite worried”. She told the Democrat/People’s Press. “We’re very concerned, the staff, pupils and parents. First off, I’m not happy in that I’m losing my second teacher at the end of this year because our numbers fell from 12 to 7. We’ve been yoyo-ing between one and two teachers for a number of years and that’s extremely difficult. For example, we have a strong teaching through Irish policy. Our pupils don’t get any English, not even informally, until senior infants. That total immersion is vital to give them a good basis in the language, especially if they have English at home. It won’t be possible to continue that if I have all the classes together.

“The Dept. have already cut down the ancillary grant this year, which makes it very difficult to pay a second person, for example our secretary and caretaker’s wages come out of that. So, we’ll have to do a lot of fundraising next year, no matter what happens.

“I don’t think they will force us to close and merge with another school, though. Our parents have been fighting hard on our behalf. I dispute the Dept.’s claim that it costs €100,000 to run a single teacher school. The teacher still gets paid and the capitation grant will still apply, so if you merge schools you’re talking a net difference of €30,000 which is not a lot. Especially when you remember that one of the main reasons for our falling numbers is emigration. There are very few families left in the area right now but that’s not to say that families won’t move back when times improve. Also, there is overcrowding in some schools, and you do wonder why transport isn’t provided to bring them out to schools such as ours.”