BACK TO SCHOOL

30 August 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Those pining for an ‘Indian summer’ return of the glorious weeks of weather we experienced a little while ago might find their hopes rising in the days ahead – if they vouch belief in the popular myth that the return of children to school always prompts the sun to re-emerge from its hiding place!

Whether this dubious adage holds true or not, the reopening of primary and secondary schools that starts this week and continues into next is a significant time for pupils and parents, particularly in families which have children starting school for the first time.

It can be a stressful and emotional time, but realisation of this is much more pronounced than it was once and organisations such as the National Parents Council and Early Childhood Ireland provide much sensible and practical advice that can be accessed online.

The guidelines point out that if the right measure of preparation and the appropriate level of emotional support are provided, a child’s discovery of school can be an exciting and adventurous experience.

The advent or return of children to school will also be prompting those in charge of the administration and forward planning of Irish education to consult their own guiding references, and perhaps subject them to amendment.

The findings of recently published statistical research indicated that well in excess of 70,000 children will be entering school at junior infant level this year – a very significant increase when compared to the figures for a decade ago.

And although there were indications in recent years that the numbers completing their secondary education cycle and sitting the Leaving Certificate were reducing somewhat, the Dept of Education now estimates that secondary school participation this year is also set to increase by perhaps as many as 4,000 places.

The increasing pressure on the primary and secondary school systems poses problems of resources that will be accentuated by the still-prevailing climate of economic downturn.

Capital expenditure on extensions and new builds will be required to accommodate the demand, and although the Government has done quite well to maintain a degree of capital expansion in the education sector in recent years, it is questionable whether the current level of spending will be adequate to cope with a sustained trend in rising pupils numbers.

Innovation in the delivery of projects will certainly be required – and developments such as the Monaghan Education Campus, which proved in an exemplary manner the efficiencies that can be generated by vesting oversight of major builds in locally based administrative structures, point to one possible bulwark against the tide of growing demand.

Another less palatable approach, particularly in rural areas of counties like Monaghan, is the consolidation of resources – the sort of policy that threatens the existence of small county schools experiencing static or falling enrolments.

The apparent increased demand for primary school places is unlikely to be manifested in a geographically even spread – and some rural communities which have experienced significant depletion of their young adult population through emigration in recent years are already struggling to sustain the numbers necessary to keep the doors of the local national school open.

In such circumstances it would be unsurprising if further consideration wasn’t given by the Government in future years to reducing the numbers of rural schools and concentrating resources into those that remain.

The sums might seem to add up, but the cost in social terms could be grossly excessive.
The presence of a national school is a vital cornerstone of many small communities – take it away and the social structure of the surrounding population area is dangerously undermined.

The removal of facilities such as Post Offices and Garda Stations has already visited great harm on many small population centres across Ireland, and Co Monaghan has experienced more than its share of these harmful excisions of identity.

Although the policy decisions that the Government must make in education to address the statistical information emerging may take some time to emerge, now is certainly the time for our county’s rural communities to exercise vigilance with regard to the preservation of their school facilities.

In unity lies strength, and perhaps now is the time for our rural primary school sector to band together to produce their own analysis of the demand/resources problem – and identify their own locally-oriented solutions that would see the important social wellspring of the local school preserved and enhanced in the years to come rather than being whittled down to a skeletal structure ultimately unable to support the stresses being placed upon it.

MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE?

In the practical business of politics nothing is impossible – but a future Government coalition between the traditionally opposing forces of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be closer to earth-shattering than ground-breaking in the Irish political realm.

The idea has been promulgated over the course of recent months with some frequency – most prominently by former Fianna Fáil Government Minister Mary O’Rourke at the William Carleton Summer School, and last weekend by the broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy, whose affiliations are with Fine Gael.
It is not a new concept, but the fact that it has drawn comments from both parties that are some distance from outright rejection seems reflective of something significant – even if it is only the distance we have come historically and ideologically from the civil war divisions to which the major forces of political organisation in this country draw their lineage.

It is difficult, although not impossible, to conceive of a FF/FG government coalition in the very near future – the next election might well see something of a narrowing of the seats gap that currently exists between them in the Dáil, and perhaps even the loss by Labour of its stature as a potential junior partner in power, but the circumstances will hardly be such as to necessitate a marriage proposal from either quarter!

In the end the union, if it ever comes about, will like all coalitions be a marriage of convenience, with differences set temporarily aside in the pursuit of the mutually beneficial short-term objective of power.

But might it not perhaps be a very good thing for the maturation of Irish politics if these two not very dissimilar right of centre groupings did nudge a little closer in the bed, leaving room for the coalescing of a stronger and more coherent left of centre alternative for the voter?

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