Small schools closure threat

AN emergency meeting was held in Rahugh on Monday night over fears of the closure of the local national school.

AN emergency meeting was held in Rahugh on Monday night over fears of the closure of the local national school.

The local hall was packed to capacity as people from all walks of life in the community gathered to hear what Chairman of the Board of Management Aidan Dunne and Principal Annette Lynam had to say.

The two teacher school, which has 39 pupils, is one of many throughout the country with less than 50 pupils, being examined for mergers and amalgamations under the Small Primary Schools Value for Money review.

Principle of Rahugh School Annette Lynam said the school was “a vital part of the parish” and the meeting was called because there was “huge concern” within the community.

She said young families had come and built in the area with a view to sending their children to the local school.

Ms Lynam said each school should be examined under “a case by case basis”.

She outlined while some small schools may be in bad physical shape, Rahugh is “huge in terms of space. Even though we only have two classes we have three classrooms, It is very modern and equipped to the best standards.”

She said if the school was closed the pupils would have to travel to schools in either Tyrrellspass or Kilbeggan. “There schools are already overcrowded and have several portacabins. So they already have chronic parking and accommodation problems,” she said adding that Rahugh pupils were at present “very well accommodated.”

She said the public meeting was held with a view to alerting local representatives as well as the community of this issue. She said the school should not only be kept open, but should even be developed further.

As a result of the meeting she said the group’s focus is now to bring up enrolments and make sure the school remains open. “We want to try and get new enrolments to get over that mark. We formed a new committee to promote the school. People dont know the facilities are there. We have the bolster enrolments,” remarked Ms Lynam.

The Special Group on Public Services and Expenditure was established to examine current expenditure programmes in each Government Department and to make recommendations to Government for ensuring a return to sustainable public finances.

The report outlined that of the 3,200 primary schools in the State, approximately 47% had five teachers or fewer. The report also identified significant cost savings that could be achieved by reducing the overall number of schools through amalgamations and mergers.

Other schools affected in Offaly are Mount Bolus NS which has 42 pupils, Cloneyhurke which has 38, St Cormac’s which was 27, SN Chiarain Naofa in Kilcormac which has 27, Gaelscoil Eadan Doire which has 42 and SN Roc Con Rua in Roscrea which has 30 pupils.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said there are no plans to undertake an immediate large-scale programme of small school closures at this time.

The exception to this is small schools where the question of closure would arise in the normal course under the current sustainability limits. These will continue to be dealt with in the same way and such schools may be closed if the numbers reduce over time to an unsustainable level. However, the Department of Education and Skills is commencing a Value for Money (VFM) review of Small Primary Schools.

In considering any policy changes relating to small schools, the Department is conscious that there is a wider dimension in addition to the cost of maintaining small schools to be considered.

Among the issues that will need to be taken into account are the impact of school closures on dispersed rural communities, parental choice, the availability of diversity of school provision and the additional cost of school transport.

In regard to school amalgamations, the Commission on School Accommodation published two reports in September 2001; namely the Amalgamation of First Level Schools and Amalgamation of Second Level Schools. These reports present a framework of key issues and recommends detailed models for the amalgamation process together with other recommendations on dealing with amalgamations in the future. The recommendations in the report are incorporated in the best practice in dealing with amalgamation within the Department.

Laois/Offaly Deputy Charlie Flanagan said he was concerned that the scope of the review may be too narrowly focused on value for money and may fail to take into account value in the broader sense.

“Small schools play a crucial role in maintaining a vibrant community life in small villages throughout Offaly. There are currently seven schools in Offaly which the Department classifies as small schools. Each of these schools is the focus of community life in their local area.

“I have urged Minister Quinn to ensure that there is full and open consultation with communities as part of the current review. I will be lobbying strongly to ensure that any decision taken is based on the best interests of children and the broader community,” said Deputy Flanagan.

Outgoing President and current PRO of the Irish Principal’s Network Larry Fleming said any closures should be voluntary. “There are some one teacher schools with less than twelve pupils where the school and the community would favour a closure. But there should be no closures unless they are agreed and voluntary,” said Mr Fleming.

He said closing some schools would prove a false economy as a large number of small schools have been recently refurbished and it would cost millions to bring the schools they are amalgamated into up to standard.

He said another option would be to “cluster and federate” a number of small schools whereby there would be single board of management and one principle. He said this has proved very successful in other countries.

Meanwhile Mr Fleming said children who attend small schools do very well in secondary school. “They tend to be more independent and to settle into secondary school better. They perform very well,” said Mr Fleming, noting that in schools where 4th, 5th and 6th class students are together, a child can effectively be doing the 6th class curriculum for three years.