Education campaigners in Donegal say department policies continue to threaten small schools, particularly minority faith and language schools, and said their protests will continue this year.
“There has been widespread debate about the consequences of last year’s budget with regard to small schools, and the result of the pupil-teacher ratio cuts in these schools,” said Father John Joe Duffy, Ballybofey curate and campaigner for small schools.
Father Duffy said the results of last year’s measures will be felt over the coming years, and fully realised in 2016-2017. He said the decision by Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn, TD, to reverse cuts last year to urban schools in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (Deis) scheme but not to reverse the cuts for rural Deis schools, “clearly demonstrate a government who do not seem to understand that rural Ireland is suffering from social, educational and financial disadvantage, and the legacy of deprivation in rural towns and villages”.
Small Donegal schools have been particularly hard hit by government proposals to increase the number of pupils a national school must enrol to maintain staffing levels. The new staffing scheme takes effect over three years, with required enrolment increasing each year.
The past year has been “one of anxiety and worry and stress about the future of our schools,” schools campaigner and Church of Ireland Rev. John Deane said. “We’re worried about the pupil-teacher ratio being increased. We’re worried about the capitation moneys we get from the government that are being cut as well, and those two put together are very worrying for us.”
Church of Ireland schools are at the heart of local community and parish life, but the distances between them would make amalgamation impossible, Rev. Deane said. He used the Wood School in Ardara as an example, noting that the nearest minority-faith school to the north is in Dunfanaghy; the nearest to the south is in Dunkineely.
“It’s guaranteed in our constitution that minorities will be protected and looked after, but to me that is not happening at the moment,” Rev. Deane said. He said minority-faith schools have received significant capital investments but said there are a number of schools “coming very, very near the cut-off point” in terms of enrolment.
Rev. Deane added that minority-faith schools have also received great support from the Catholic community, and also credited the work of Father Duffy.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Rev. Deane said. “We have the best of community relations here but we would like to be able to hold on to our own ethos and culture that we have in our small schools.”
Rev. Deane and Father Duffy were among Donegal’s most prominent campaigners for small schools last year, working together to highlight the impact of department decisions on small rural schools.
“The most damning indictment of the government’s policy of severe cuts in pupil-teacher ratios was the severe consequence this had on Protestant and linguistic-minority schools,” Father Duffy said. He said the cuts will continue to have a much more severe effect “on the very future and survival of the schools”.
Though Father Duffy said he accepted Minister Quinn had not intended to disproportionately affect those schools, he said, “His actions, in many cases, will result in the closure of Protestant and minority linguistic schools”.
Father Duffy said Budget 2013 missed an opportunity “to show that we are a truly pluralistic society, that we are a truly inclusive country and that we are a democracy in which there is a place for minorities.
“I believe now is the time for this government to show all the people on the island of Ireland, north and south, that we give equal rights and equal opportunities to all our children in our country, where class, creed and language ought to be treated equally,” he said.
Father Duffy and Rev. Deane addressed a protest against education cuts held in March of 2012 that drew up to 2,500 people to Letterkenny. They said the campaign will continue this year.
“We’re looking to reinvigorate the protest we had,” Rev. Deane said. He said they have lobbied Donegal’s Oireachtas members, though results have been disappointing. “We’ve been promised nothing and we’ve certainly got nothing, to be honest with you,” he said.
Father Duffy said he had also been disappointed by the lack of political engagement and leadership on the issue in Donegal and nationally. “The issues are very much alive and require political leadership in order to solve them,” he said. “Therefore our campaign continues.”