Cuts to the education budget are forcing more and more schools across Co Longford to consider amalgamating classes, as well as limiting the number of Leaving Cert subjects offered to students, a Longford Leader investigation has found.
Some have already begun the process by pairing fifth and sixth year students, while others are struggling to maintain current curriculum standards as swingeing education reforms take hold.
The crisis has also prompted a furious outburst from those within the teaching profession with claims the present education system looks destined for a return to the recession-hit 1980s.
Moira Mahon, principal of Cnoc Mhuire in Granard, admitted subject restrictions and amalgamations had become almost inevitable choices for the school to take in recent months.
“We are cutting our cloth,” she said candidly. “We will not be able to offer every subject that we do to a fifth year. We will make decisions based on what the children choose.”
One of the subjects trimmed from its former Leaving Cert allocation has been history. While sounding upbeat about its prospects of its return due to increased demand, Ms Mahon warned a series of “very, very difficult” choices still lay ahead.
“Something that we are doing is combining fifth and sixth year classes. It is not so much about the numbers, it is the timetable problems that then come with that,” she said.
Pointing to cutbacks in teaching hours for children with special needs as particularly significant, her views on education more generally illustrated the depth of anxiety now being felt right across the industry.
“We are going back to the way things were in the 80s. The way it was then and the way it is now is that you have less teachers, more students and you have to make choices about the cuts which are coming down the line,” she said.
Changes to the allocation of guidance staff has brought about a gradual increase in pupil-teacher ratio numbers.
This, according to Scoil Mhuire principal Paul Costello, has placed an even greater weight on the amount of teachers the Longford town school can now call upon.
“The main issue is the number of staff we have. The guidance counsellor was ex-gratia but now they are put into the general quota of teachers.
“It means that of the three teachers who retired last year, one won’t be replaced and that affects subject provision,” he said.
Operating from a budget around ten per cent below its 2008 figure, since 2009, the school has seen staffing levels gradually diminish in size.
The continuous shortfall is one Mr Costello hinted could lead to even greater amalgamations involving students travelling to and from different schools to attend classes.
That said, it’s a proposal the former Co Mayo principal was not overly eager to give his universal backing to.
“Inter-school co-operation is something you will have to look at but when I was principal in Westport I had problems. Remember, you have the whole task of getting pupils from one building to another,” he pointed out.
Although the vast majority of secondary schools surveyed by the Leader this week accepted cutbacks were likely to pose even greater difficulties going forward, most have so far managed to avoid large-scale changes.
Mercy Secondary School principal, Josephine Donohue vowed to preserve the Ballymahon school’s existing subject choice compliment.
She refused, however, to rule out the possibility of revisiting the issue at a later date.
“It is difficult in the current climate. In the long term maybe, but for the moment we don’t plan on doing any (subject cuts),” she said.
Like her colleague, Moira Mahon in Granard, Ms Donohoe revealed alterations to the designation of guidance teachers had presented plenty of challenges.
“Your budget is less every year so you have to make do with less money. It’s the same in households; you are looking at what cuts can be made, but that can only go on for a certain number of years,” she added.
Those same concerns were likewise shared by Jimmy Flanagan, principal of another south Longford school, Lanesboro Community College.
“We are losing an assistant principal,” he explained. “We are lucky in one sense in that some schools are losing more. He is though, co-ordinator of our PLC group.”
On the topic of guidance counselling, Mr Flanagan said: “We may have to use the guidance counsellor to take ordinary subjects instead of the actual guidance counselling.”
And it is precisely falling teacher numbers which has resulted in ever growing timetable dilemmas.
“I am teaching science to first years when really Leaving Cert level would be my thing. That’s the way it is, to try and supply the same number of subjects as before,” he said.
Those comments were similarly endorsed by St Mel’s Deputy Principal, William O’Meara.
Stressing that the school had managed to refrain from cutting subject choices, Mr O’Meara said the wider education system could not withstand much more by way of austerity measures.
“Every teacher (here) is timetabled up to the exact limit,” he revealed. “Any further cuts and there will be cannibalisation after that.”