A bus load of East Clare teachers and concerned parents left the county last Wednesday for Leinster House, where they were among up to 1,800 others protesting against planned staff cuts in smaller schools and calling on the Government to “Save our Small Schools”.
According to representatives from East Clare schools, teachers are looking for the Government to take a long-term approach to the proposed changes, which seek to alter the way teachers are allocated to smaller schools. The teachers and parents are calling on the Minister for Education to review enrolments over a five-year period and for a reversal in his proposal to apply the new figures retrospectively.
Among four people who addressed the large gathering outside Leinster House was Whitegate parent Claire Quirke, who is a member of Lakyle National School’s Parents’ Association and board of management. Ms Quirke voiced her concerns with those present and shared her experience with the small rural school of Lakyle in Whitegate, which has been a fixture in the community for more than a century.
She was drafted in to speak on the bus to Dublin and spoke on the day about the fear in communities of amalgamation and of having a school taken out of a community.
While it was accepted that Lakyle was not among the small schools under threat, Ms Quirke explained how the school in her community brings people together to the benefit of all.
“We hope our school is ok but it’s not just the amalgamation of smaller schools for us and all the communities, the point is that the school is the community and if you take it out you take the heart of a parish out of it. We have lost a lot already in rural communities, the pubs are closing but if you take away a community school, we’d lose so much,” she said.
She explained a school creates a sense of pride and a sense of place within communities.
“From our point of view, we have been there for 100 years and when we celebrated our centenary, we had older people telling us what it was like going to school here in their time. The stories we heard, you wouldn’t get out of a history book. So if you take that away, it can’t be replaced with whiteboards, the school provides a sense of belonging and there is more to education than just being in a building with books and a whiteboard,” she stressed.
Asked as a parent why she felt the need to take to the streets and protest on this issue, even though Lakyle is not directly affected, Ms Quirke said, “I think we all have to stand up. You have to get up and do it for yourself. Look at the pensioners who stood up and they saved the medical card. You have to stand up for your own and whatever changes come, at least we will have put in a good fight.”
Representatives from Feakle, Flagmount, Whitegate, Mountshannon, Dromindoora, Ogonnelloe and Kilkishen national schools took the bus to Leinster House and were joined by another bus, from West Clare.
Also joining the protest last week was Mary Noonan, principal of Dromindoora National School, who told The Clare Champion that while her two-teacher school “is not on the cusp” she was in that situation 19 years ago and shares the concerns of her fellow colleagues.
“People were very concerned about small schools, particularly those on the cusp of gaining a teacher and those on the cusp of retaining a teacher and the goalposts have moved massively. What we are seeing is that it is a very unfair move in that the small schools are being singled out,” she said.
She added that while the proposed Government measures will have a huge impact on any affected school “it would have a greater impact on all rural communities”.
“From Blackhead to Loophead there are 50 schools that fall into that category and already in the process of discussing contingency plans. Our point was that it would be very important to retain viable schools in rural communities because they have been hit by so many things, including immigration. We are saying it’s the life blood of rural communities, particularly the GAA, who need to wake up to the fact that there won’t be clubs. The cornerstone of the GAA is the club and the parish, the whole culture of the GAA clubs are at stake here and is likely to go unless we really stand up and say it’s not our fault. The rural schools are as vulnerable as the DEIS schools but we don’t have the voice, we don’t have the numbers to march,” she said.
Ms Noonan added there was a feeling that the present minister, being from an urban setting, “may not have a real understanding of what a small country school is to a rural area and what it means if it closes”.
“If you take, for example, when they closed Ballinruan, for 20 years after the closure of that school there was only one new house built.
“I came here in 1991 and, at that time, it was a very dilapidated prefab and no new houses being built. There was a very small number in the school but we built it up and built two building phases and now the school is very much the focus of the community and meetings happen here, it’s alive,” she explained.
The school representatives also met with East Clare Deputies Timmy Dooley and Michael McNamara at the event.
“We did try to impress on them the need for fair play we felt there were other ways of saving money in the department.
“For instance, umpteen reports were produced by the department at great expense and numerous tomes were delivered by courier to every single solitary school in Ireland and I call them tomes, they would have cost a fortune to have produced and delivered by courier.
“The department also put in satellite broadband service to every school but in some schools, the signal was so poor, particularly the small schools.
“The small schools then opted to go for a better service because you couldn’t use it to enhance the classroom experience because the service was so poor. We were one of those schools,” Ms Noonan concluded.
Further meetings are scheduled to take place in Clare over the coming weeks to ensure this issue is firmly on the agenda.