Sunday 24 March 2019

Our kids deserve better ... starting with class sizes

Each September thousands of new children start primary school. Each September we groan about the growth in class sizes.

Each September we get the inevitable retort: "Well, I was in a class of thirty-eight and it didn't do me any harm, so what are ye all complaining about?"

But the latest figures should be cause for all of us to sit up and take notice.

This year at least 125,000 pupils will be put into so-called "super-sized" classes (30 or more pupils) - an increase of nearly 35,000 from last year. That's one in four kids.

That's a lot. And Ireland still has the highest birth rate of all 27 EU member states, which means we need lots of schools and lots of teachers.

But we seem to have a curious reluctance about ensuring that our young kids get the best education, by keeping the pupil/teacher ratio is as low as possible.

Even during the Celtic Tiger years there seemed to be a lacklustre approach to investing in education.

But that was then and this is now and the public schools are buckling at the seams. Especially those in the commuter belts and suburbs - the places where most young families and their school-going children tend to live.

Today the problem is greatest in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown and the Wicklow areas, where nearly a third of pupils were in classes of 30-plus last year.

Perhaps in more affluent times some of these children would have been attending private schools with smaller classes - but today times are tough and the pressure on public schools increases yearly and kids here are suffering because of it.


Other counties with ratios over the national average are, Meath, Laois, Clare, Cork county, and Longford.

Officially, of course, the government can point to the fact that there has been no "cut" as such in the pupil/teacher ratio.

Since the financial crash and the introduction of the crippling austerity regime they have continued to recruit teachers into the system to cope with rising enrolments and new schools.

But what they have also done, most cynically and cruelly, is to cut the number of Special Needs Teachers, support teachers and assistant teachers.

This means that students who have emotional or physical health problems, who have language or learning difficulties, who may have problems at home or issues at school; these children are now thrown into the mix with no extra help or support from the system.

And so are their parents. It's a disaster for all concerned - teachers, pupils and parents.

I've often marvelled at the dexterity with which some primary school teachers can "manage" a class of twenty-odd children.

Not just manage them but also engage them, keep their interest, teaching those who are extremely bright and get bored easily, and also those who need a little more time before they can move on.

It's nothing short of miraculous. And yet I can't imagine how they are expected to do this without the vital help of support teachers for those with special needs and with language difficulties.

And remember, no matter what special needs a child has, it is their right to be educated with their peers - this is proven to be beneficial for all children involved.


Without the extra teachers the sole teacher most either ignore those who need their attention most, or devote the time needed to them and therefore neglect the rest of the class. It's a lose-lose situation.

For those who argue that class sizes don't make a difference, the facts show they do.

Particularly in today's more multi cultural world where educational skills are very different from what they used to be.

Learning by rote is no longer acceptable. All children - not just those who can concentrate no matter what size class they sit in - deserve an equal education.

In today's Ireland they're not getting it. Yet another example of how we continue to fail our kids.

Investing in education, hiring more specialist teachers and ensuring smaller class sizes? That really should really be a no-brainer.

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