Ailin Quinlan: Chickens have come home to roost in overcrowded classes

According to a report by the OECD, class size is a “critical parameter” when it comes to reopening schools and complying with new Covid protocols. Ailin Quinlan looks at the issue of Irish class sizes in her weekly column
Ailin Quinlan: Chickens have come home to roost in overcrowded classes

The average class size at primary level is 25, although anyone in the sector would tell you it’s closer to 30, says Ailin. Picture: Stock

STRANGE times indeed. We have teachers gowning up in PPE and — completely untrained — acting as nurses outside specially designated school ‘isolation rooms’ at the first sign of a temperature and sore throat.

A sort of amateur A&E ward, you might say.

Staffed by untrained, unqualified and often extremely nervous personnel.

I was interested to discover, for example, that not only do primary schools not have a trained healthcare professional to do this Contagion-style health isolation stuff, their staff didn’t get any training from the Department of Health in terms of what to do or how to do it.

But, eh, isn’t this sort of thing quite skilled?

Also, what happens if the untrained people trying to manage these isolation rooms get sick, one after the other, after the other?

Meanwhile, many of these same teachers are wearing masks and visors while struggling to teach and also trying to get students to understand the importance of social distancing.

They are trying to provide as close to normal a version of school as possible to pupils — struggling to make class-work, playtime, playgrounds, line-ups and the use of academic equipment as close to normal as possible.

A tough job — because once you take all these time-consuming Covid protocols into account, school life gets extremely complicated.

As one teacher said recently: “Covid-19 related issues are impacting hugely on the normal running of schools — and that means impacting in terms both of teaching time and administration time.”

Stressful isn’t a sufficient word for it.

On top of all of that is the very venomous little snake that has lain in the long grass for decades beyond count — our primary school class sizes.

And now those out-sized class groups are biting us in the butt.

According to a report by the OECD, class size is a “critical parameter” when it comes to reopening schools and complying with new Covid protocols.

Although up-to-the-minute data on Ireland’s class sizes isn’t available, figures from last year show the average class size at primary level here is 25 students compared to an EU average of 20. But in reality, if you talk to anyone in the sector, that’s nearer 30 pupils per class.

If you haven’t been living with your head in the oven, you’ll be well aware of this, because it’s a situation that’s been smouldering for donkeys’ years.

Primary schools, teachers and the INTO have highlighted our over-sized classes. They have complained about it. They have protested about it. But little has been done. Apart from a bit of tinkering around the edges, the primary school system has effectively struggled along in this situation for decades.

And now, thanks to Covid-19 and the neglect of successive governments, the chickens have truly come home to roost.

Consider the difference those 10 extra pupils make to an average sized class forced to accommodate social distancing. To a playground. To anything in school, really…

The General Secretary of the INTO John Boyle warned this week that not only have our primary school class sizes hindered schools’ ability to reopen, they may very well be the reason some schools are not able to stay fully open.

The big thing, says Boyle, is reducing contact between children – and that is much harder with big class sizes and less space.

The problem is also, of course, as the OECD report showed, the low levels of investment in education in this country compared to international standards.

Our education system at all levels - not just at primary level - has effectively been treated by successive governments like the second car in a family just about managing to stay afloat.

The car inevitably gets older and older and shakier and shaker.

Every now and again you call on the local mechanic to tinker around the edges to keep it on the road because although you really need a new car, you simply can’t afford to upgrade.

You’re just about managing to keep going, but the poor old banger is always vulnerable to things going wrong — or to a crisis — because it’s starting to get too old and too shaky and the tinkering is no longer enough.

Three years ago Ireland invested 3.4% of GDP in education, compared to an OECD average of just under five per cent, and an EU average of 4.5 per cent.

As with the second family car, continued under-investment makes our education system vulnerable to problems that crop up. And now a really big problem has arrived.

We have these large class sizes. We have that insufficient staffing.

We have all those schools struggling to cope in inadequate accommodation.

In normal times these are pretty challenging conditions.

But in the context of a virulent pandemic like the one we’re currently experiencing, it means we are in real trouble.

And on top of trying to manage too many children in too small a space and with too few resources, we’re now also expecting teachers — who are untrained and inexperienced in health matters — to act like nurses to potential Covid cases.

Are we mad?

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