Martin Gavin, County Chairman of Mayo IFA, believes the closure of rural schools could be the ‘final nail in the coffin’ for rural communities, and he has called on rural people to make their voices heard.
Mayo has the second-highest number of two-teacher schools in the country, with 66 such schools dotted around the county. According to Mr Gavin, cuts in teacher allocations due to take effect in September will decimate communities in these areas.
Martin Gavin visited Dublin on Wednesday evening last where he attended the Dáil as a Fianna Fáil Private Members Motion condemning the cuts was taking place. Mr Gavin travelled to demonstrate with parents and teachers from the national school in Leenane that his grandchild attends. More than 1,500 people were estimated to have attended the demonstration.
Prior to budget 2011, at least 12 pupils were required to keep a two-teacher school open. However, due to new regulations being introduced on a phased basis, two-teacher school must have at least 20 pupils to keep their schools viable by 2013.
The national school in Leenane now has 17 pupils. However, by next September that number is expected to be reduced by two to 15, which will ultimately result in the loss of one of their two teachers.
Speaking to The Mayo News, Mr Gavin said ‘attacks’ on rural life were decimating communities. “Farmers have been restricted in relation to turf cutting and hedge cutting. We have restrictions in relation to putting sheep back on our hills. There is a whole raft of restrictions.
“Now rural garda stations are being closed, post offices are being closed and a significant amount of small shops are closing every day. It is only a matter of time before the rural pub goes too. Now they want to put the final nail in the coffin of rural Ireland by closing our schools.”
While in the Dáil Chamber, Mr Gavin heard both Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary and Fine Gael Deputy John O’Mahony speak on the controversial cuts.
Deputy Calleary was critical of what he said was the ‘notion’ propagated by the Government during speeches and in the amendment to the Fianna Fáil motions that no school will be forced to close. “Frankly you are all playing with words,” he said.
If a two-teacher school wants to become a three-teacher school in September 2012 it will need an additional 37 pupils, while a three-teacher school with ambitions to become a four-teacher school will need an additional 30 pupils.
Deputy Calleary made reference to the plight of communities such as Leenane during his speech, pointing out that the the next nearest school to that village is 24km away. He stated that because of the population spread of the area, children from the school could end up being split between four different schools, which could lead to division in the community.
Fine Gael TD John O’Mahony said that he believed the number of pupils during a previous September should not determine the number of teachers the following September. He added, “There should be a real appeals system and not one where nothing changes in all situations. That is very important … One size does not fit all. Amalgamations are not possible in many areas.”
Deputy O’Mahony concluded, “This situation will not be won or lost tonight. There is a long game involved and it is important we get an acceptable solution which will leave rural schools at the heart of our communities for many years to come.”