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Overcrowded classes and an empty classroom: Serious 'frustration' at teaching job cuts during a health crisis

A mixture of excitement and frustration prevailed at one Louth school with classes of 33 pupils as available classrooms lie empty.

Empty Classroom An empty classroom at a Co Louth school where teaching cuts have led to oversized classes. Source: TheJournal.ie

THE EXCITEMENT AMONG pupils returning to school over the past three days was palpable at Rampark National School in County Louth but after the Department of Education reduced teacher allocation funding last year, staff and parents are under pressure to protect the community from the spread of Covid-19. 

A large empty classroom sits unused in the rural Jenkinstown building while four of the school’s six classrooms hold 33 pupils each, many with mixed year groups – a figure much higher than the national of average of 25 pupils to a class. 

It’s a consequence of the Department of Education’s decision to remove funding for one teacher last year due to declining pupil numbers in the area, and with an appeal of that decision from the school’s Board of Management refused, no additional teacher funding has been made available for the new year. 

It is the second teacher lost from the school as a result of teacher allocation funding cuts over the past two years, and despite assurances from the Department that appropriate resources would be allocated to schools for the new year in light of the pandemic, the funding cuts in Rampark NS have not been reversed. 

“It’s constantly been mixed messages from the Department about the reopening of schools and telling us things we already knew but no support to accommodate the situation we find ourselves in,” explained outgoing principal Joan O’Hanlon to TheJournal.ie

“It’s very much the line that ‘that’s the way it is and the decision is final’. We appealed the decision, we went through the procedures in terms of appealing, we approached the Department itself, we went down the route of contacting political representatives.

“It was brought up in the Dáil and the then Minister Joe McHugh promised to look at it outside the review process… we followed up with the new minister Norma Foley and we have had no response.”

Following weeks of preparations to safely reopen the doors to the school’s 170 pupils, teachers and parents report feeling neglected by the Department. 

The Irish National Teacher’s Organisation told TheJournal.ie that several other schools are in similar positions across the country and insisted these concerns should be address by the Department immediately. 

“Over-sized classes are an issue in many parts of the country with 100,000 pupils in classes of 30 or more,” John Boyle, General Secretary of the INTO said.

“Ireland has the largest classes in the EU, with an average of 25 pupils per class. This is in stark contrast to the EU average of 20 and is a national embarrassment.”

“The Covid-19 pandemic has made the need for government to reduce class sizes all the more apparent and urgent,” Boyle added. 

In June, prior to taking up the brief of Minister for Education, Kerry TD Norma Foley told the Dáil that she had “very real concerns that some of these schools could lose a teacher because of declining student numbers” and called for teaching posts to be protected ahead of schools returning this month. 

Following the subsequent publication of the roadmap to reopening schools earlier this month, Foley, who had by then been appointed Minister for Education, committed to “increasing supply of teachers at primary and post-primary” level. 

TheJournal.ie contacted the Department of Education to seek clarity on where it is providing additional teacher posts but did not receive a response.

With pupils now returned to classrooms, and fears surrounding the nationwide spike in cases in recent weeks, teachers and principals are growing worried about how they can protect their pupils and staff in large class numbers despite other teaching spaces laying empty. 

Julie Corcoran, who teaches a split second and third class group at the Louth school and who will assume the role of principal before the end of the year, described the Government response to class size concerns as “nonsensical”.

They said they’d give extra money for infrastructure but we have an empty classroom and no teacher to put into it.

“We have overcrowded classrooms. It just seems very narrow, their vision. There’s a bigger picture and we’re not the only school, there’s loads of schools like us.”

Teachers are not alone in sharing concerns around the ability of schools to implement public health advice in the face of teaching job cuts.  

‘Excitement and frustration’

Fiona Roddy, a parent of three children attending the primary school, described the excitement of her children’s first day back and her own concerns for the coming year, insisting that pupils would be better supported if funding was made available so all teaching space could be used.  

Her youngest son, Finn (5), began his first day of primary school on Wednesday, with older siblings Bella (8) and Kyle (10) returning yesterday. 

The mum-of-three said there was excitement and eagerness on the part of all three pupils to begin the new school year at the school, while also pointing to the will of parents to have their children back in a safe classroom setting. 

image1 Fiona Roddy pictured with kids Finn (5), Bella (8), and Kyle (10) as the new school term begins.

“Finn knew he was starting at school and yesterday went well. We arrived at the school gate, had our picture taken and he met his teacher and was brought to class,” she said. 

“He was gone before I had a chance to give him a hug, I said ‘bye’ to him and he never looked back. It worked really well for him.

“And I think we’re just taking things as they come this year, everybody is, and that’s why it’s so important for social distancing and we feel there is a solution to adhere to those guidelines which are paramount to the limiting of the disease spreading – and that’s the classroom. 

‘So it’s frustrating for us as parents, and for the teachers, that there is a solution here that can help alleviate the situation and make parents feel more at ease, make the teacher’s job easier, and assure parents it’s safe and we’re doing all we can. 

“And I think I speak for all parents when I say that,” she added. “Education has to happen for social reasons and for mental health reasons. I share the concerns of most about going back to school and the inherent risks. But the Department of Education’s standardised response to this defies logic.”

Andrea Phillips’ nine-year-old son Mark also returned to school yesterday and she told TheJournal.ie how he looked forward to returning after six months off but still had reservations about how he can stay safe over the coming months. 

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“As we were approaching September and the imminent return to school, he was becoming more talkative about wanting to see his friends, saying ‘I can’t wait to get back to school… he was very excited about all of that,” she said. 

“In the last week, there’s a little bit of, I wouldn’t say anxiety, but questions about going back. He said ‘will we be able to do our group work?’ and I said ‘I don’t think so’ but my focus was about helping him understand the role he can play, keeping himself safe and those around him, and to be mindful.”

Rampark National School is not alone in facing challenges to support the return to school. Another primary school, Clonbonny National School in Athlone has resorted to using a shed as an isolation facility for pupils, prompting outrage among staff and parents. 

Others have raised concerns around a lack of supports from the Department for children with special needs. 

The pressure of reopening is being felt among teachers, principals and parents but many are left wondering how the Government will support them in this task over the next nine months. 

“My kids came back to school and were very happy. But I have three children in large classrooms in terms of numbers and for me, that is a big concern,” Edel Connolly, a parent of four kids at Rampark National School said. 

“Where is the sensible solution to this when we’re told all the time we need to be socially-distancing but they’ve a high number of children in a classroom.”

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