A CROWDED protest meeting in Tullamore sent a very clear message to the Education Minister this week - keep your hands off our small schools.
The SOSS campaign, Save Our Small Schools campaign as it has become known, saw hundreds of concerned parents, teachers and local representatives gather to voice their opposition to budget education cuts and the possible threat to the survival of smaller and minority faith schools.
Having organised the protest meeting, Cllr John Leahy now hopes that Monday’s meeting will “stir up other counties” so that the campaign against these cuts and threats to smaller schools will continue. “It is time to stand up and be counted,” he stressed.
Earlier, Cllr Leahy pointed out that he was only too aware of the contribution made by smaller schools to the local communities and because of this, he decided to meet with teachers to discuss the impact of the recent budget and what he described as “the savage cuts” on smaller schools.
The meeting heard that new staffing requirements introduced in the budget for schools with four teachers and less could force amalgamations or even face the possibility of closing.
Up to Budget 2012, schools needed 12 children to keep a two teacher school open but under new regulations introduced and due to be implemented on a phased basis, there will need to be 20 pupils on the books in a two teacher school by 2013. Three and four teacher schools will also be affected in a similar manner by these budgetary changes.
Noting the closure of rural post offices and garda stations, Cllr Leahy stressed he wouldn’t “stand by and let something happen to our schools.”
Addressing the protest meeting, Brian O’Reilly, INTO’s midlands representative, pointed to the “unfair” backdating of the staff requirements to September 2011. “We are in serious danger of knowing the price of everything but knowing the value of nothing. This is more then just about money. It is about value.”
Mr O’Reilly claimed a further 1,000 primary schools could close if the budgetary changes go ahead as announced by the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, TD and urged parents and teachers that their job was to ensure that the Government look to other areas rather then at smaller schools.
“It is time for people to say to Government that we want a fair share of cake spent in primary education. We don’t want more. We just want our fair share.”
Mr O’Reilly went on to question why the Education Minister announced the staffing changes before the completion of the Value for Money Review of the provision of small primary schools, which is currently been carried out by his Department.
The meeting then heard the views of a some school principals and parents as they voiced their serious concerns about the impact of the budget changes on their schools and children.
Ms Esther Lambe, Principal of Broughal NS, outlined that people weren’t at the meeting to talk about budgets, money or even the EU. “We are here to talk about your children,” the principal pointed out, adding that “our children are the most valuable members of our community but they are also the most vulnerable.”
Principal of St Cronan’s NS, Lusmagh, Mr John Downey provided a brief synopsis of what the budget changes will mean for his school. “It is hard to see how the community will survive without its schools,” he pointed out.
Mr Tony Sampson, Principal of Carrig NS, believed these changes are in fact “an outrageous attack” on schools and will also have a detrimental effect on students with special needs as well. “It isn’t right that our kids being asked to pay for this mess.”
The outraged school principal said to the Minister to “leave our children alone” and put the blame on the people who caused this. “Children are our future. Give our children a chance. This is short sighted, mean spirited and our children will suffer into the future.”
Head teacher in Oxmantown NS, Audrey Colton, spoke on behalf of the county’s minority faith schools and pointed out the budgetary changes will have a “major impact” on our schools. She said that it will in fact have a disproportionate effect on these schools.
Giving a parent’s perspective, Michael Carroll asked what was the point of looking after small communities if the “heart of them” was going to be ripped out with school closures. “We have to stop to consider what our kids are thinking,” the father of three asked.
A former school principal, Mr Liam Broderick, said it was time to stand up to this “unfair treatment” of children and stand up and say “no more”.
He was followed by Stuart Wallace, an IFA representative, who pledged the organisations support to the protest campaign. It is expected now that the campaign gain momentum and move into neighbouring counties in a bid to have these changes reversed.