I was reading an article a week or two back about the perpetual problem of overcrowding in primary schools. Our esteemed Teoseach, Brian Cowan’s, use of the F word in the Dail had spawned the “witty” headline “F is for Failure”, above an article that went on to explore in some detail how six years ago the government had vowed to tackle overcrowding in schools during its term of office.
Apparently the commitment was to reduce primary school class sizes to a manageable 20 pupils, in line with international best practice. The reporter who penned the article seemed surprised, shocked, and even a little indignant that the government had broken its promise and shown a healthy disrespect for international convention. Which kind of makes me wonder how long they’ve been a political correspondent… but that’s another issue.
The fact that the government don’t seem to take the issue of primary school overcrowding seriously is typical, and spectacularly short sighted. It’s an unfortunate fact that young children – the foundation on which the future of this country will be built – are rarely afforded the priority they deserve when it comes to the allocation of limited governmental resources.
Let’s face it, when you’re confronted with a derailed health system, spiraling crime and an economy showing signs of stalling, taking a broader view can be a bit tricky. But while the subject of class size is perhaps easily sidelined… to do so shows a remarkable lack of foresight on the part of the government. So, nothing new there then!
Primary education is one of the most critical steps in a child’s development. It’s when they learn to enjoy learning… or not! Neglect the crucial early stages in learning, and what you churn out of the other end of the system is an army of disengaged youth – which of course only exacerbates the economic and social problems that distract politicians from tackling the core issue.
I guess it’s the same old story. Your average government minister is primarily looking for quick fix solutions: things likely to bear fruit and make him or her look good before they face re-election. Successful educational policy, by its very nature, demands a much longer term view, and it takes a while before you see measurable results out of the other end.
And so instead ministers jump from one problem to the next, implementing short-term solutions that rarely endure to deliver long-term results. It’s knee jerk politics of the worst kind, and it seems to be on the menu in Dáil Éireann far too often.
While overcrowding crops up in the news with alarming regularity, it’s not a problem that’s distributed equally among all schools. For small rural schools the problem can be exactly the opposite: too few pupils can be as much of an issue as too many. The very same week I read the article lambasting the government’s record on overcrowding, we enrolled our youngest daughter in the local National School. Come September she will be the only child in her class. Yes, you read that right… the only child!
Great, you might think… no overcrowding problems there, and you’d be half right. The problem is that just last year the school reached the critical mass of pupils needed to qualify for a third teacher. As is common in small rural schools, multiple years are accommodated in the same classroom, sharing the same teacher. Getting the third teacher means that the number of pupils in the school are now distributed between three educators in three different classrooms, which means that class sizes are currently manageable. Now, with only one pupil starting school next year, they’ll probably lose the additional teacher… pushing class sizes up again.
In our topsy-turvy education system, it seems that even having less pupils isn’t a solution to the overcrowding problem. Something, somewhere, is terribly wrong.