Dáil Éireann - Volume 536 - 15 May, 2001
Adjournment Debate. - Selected Staffing.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I am grateful for this timely opportunity to address a most urgent matter affecting the pupils, parents and teachers of the junior convent school, Castleblayney, and other schools around the country. There is anger and dismay at the proposed forced abolition of the middle infants grade at primary level. Schools have been sent a cold and remote circular from the Department of Education and Science that takes no account of the real needs of real children, a circular that has been greeted with alarm in many homes and classrooms.
The casual and uninvolved reader of today's newspaper story on this issue might be tempted to regard it as a technical matter but nothing could be further from the truth. The Department's proposed course of action will cause real hardship to people who are already suffering economic, social and educational disadvantage.
What is middle infants? It is an additional grade after junior infants which provides a necessary space for pupils who are not yet ready for senior infants. It is particularly important for schools and communities where disadvantage is concentrated. Castleblayney is a prime example. It is one of the most disadvantaged towns in the entire country. There is a lack of economic development, a high level of long-term unemployment and a disproportionate level of social problems such as early school leaving, teenage pregnancy and child sexual abuse. In the words of the principal of the junior convent school: “We have children who are suffering depression, children who have attempted suicide and children whose parents have committed suicide. We have  children who are living in very poor conditions due to dysfunctional home management.”
The post-primary school which is on the same campus has been officially designated as having disadvantaged status since the early 1990s. When the current Minister's predecessor, Deputy Martin, met the representatives of the junior convent school he said he was at a loss to explain why their school did not also have disadvantaged status. He recognised that it was vital to break the cycle of educational disadvantage as early as possible as many of the pupils never achieve a second level qualification. He promised to rectify this under the Department's new deal but there was disappointment that the school received only £2,660 from this scheme.
The junior convent school in Castleblayney is due to be allocated two new teachers in September because of an increase in numbers. The principal now states that if middle infants is abolished the school will lose those two teachers in two years and also possibly one other teacher. Parents will have to be told before the holidays in June whether their children can do middle infants. They enrolled their children last year thinking that this grade would be available to them and over 20 have requested middle infants for their children this year.
There has been a middle infants grade at the junior school since 1975. Every year since then middle infants has catered for between 20 and 25 pupils. Parents make the final decision in consultation with staff regarding the placement of children in this class. Teachers and parents are unanimous in their support for the retention of this class and in their belief in its proven success. The existence of the middle infants grade shows an understanding of and compassion for the needs of children, particularly the most disadvantaged. Crucially it takes into account their need and their right to make progress and to be seen to make progress. It eliminates the psychologically damaging sense of being “kept back” which exists when pupils are simply retained in junior infants for a further year.
I urge the Minister to reverse the proposed course of action which would lead to the axing of middle infant classes in Castleblayney and elsewhere. Pupils are not mere numbers on roll books. They are children with individual needs, living in communities which also have unique needs. If middle infants is to be removed then it must be replaced with the early start scheme in all affected schools. Either way a three year infant programme is clearly needed in many schools. Above all there must be flexibility and understanding and I urge the Minister to show those qualities now.
Mr. Treacy) Mr. Treacy)
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. Treacy): Arís, I am pleased to have to address the House on the staffing position in the junior convent school, Castle blayney, and the retention of the three year infant cycle.
The Deputy is no doubt aware that the staffing of a primary school is always determined by reference to the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous year. The enrolment of the junior convent school on 30 September 1999 was 161 pupils. This enrolment warrants the staffing of a principal and five mainstream class teachers for the 2000-01 school year. The enrolment on 30 September 2000 increased to 182 pupils and this enrolment will warrant the staffing of a principal and seven mainstream class teachers for the 2001-02 school year, an increase of two mainstream class teachers. In addition, their school has the services of a shared language support teacher, a shared resource teacher and two special teachers for children with special needs.
I will outline the position with regard to the middle infants year. The primary curriculum is designed as an eight year course and there is no official programme for a middle infants class within the curriculum. The policy of the Department is that children who are over four years of age should be enrolled at the beginning of the school year and commence in junior infants. I am aware that there is a tradition in some schools whereby pupils are enrolled for a number of days prior to the summer vacation to facilitate them in adjusting to school life.
After spending a year in junior infants, pupils should progress on to senior infants and spend two years overall in the infant cycle, not three. As a general rule, pupils should progress from one standard to a higher standard at the end of each school year. In recent years our Department has allocated considerable support for pupils with learning difficulties in schools. Learning support teachers, resource teachers, special needs assistants and a wide range of resources under the various schemes for schools in areas designated as disadvantaged, are among the forms of provision allocated to schools for these pupils. I am confident that the level of provision available should enable pupils to make progress in keeping with their needs and abilities and to move consecutively through the different class levels in the school in keeping with their peers.
I am aware that there may be individual cases where a principal teacher, following consultation with the learning support teacher and class teacher and parents of the pupil, concludes that a pupil would benefit educationally by being held back for a second year. In such cases our Department would favour the retention provided there is an educational basis for same, along with a clear programme for the pupils to follow. I also direct the Deputy to the fact that it is the long standing policy of our Department that when it becomes aware of the existence of a middle infants class to inform the particular school to cease this practice. In this regard, our Department recently issued a circular to schools outlining the official policy in relation to the retention  and promotion of pupils. This policy was already outlined in rule 64 of the Rules for National Schools and in a previous Department circular, 10/67. The circular, Primary Circular 11/01, which was recently issued, reaffirms the official policy in relation to the retention and promotion of pupils within all schools throughout this country.
Dáil Éireann 536 Adjournment Debate. Selected Staffing.