The future of one of the country’s most-famous schools could be “devastated” if budget cutbacks are followed through on after the summer, politicians have warned.

Mount Sion primary in the city has produced some of Waterford’s, and indeed Ireland’s, best-known sportsmen and scholars. It was the first Christian Brothers school founded by Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice in 1802.

However, it has recently had to appeal to the primary staffing appeals board against its reduced staffing allocation for the next school year starting in September, for which 358 pupils are already enrolled.

The nub of the issue concerns the enrolment figures. From September to November 2008 there were 346 pupils enrolled, just one short of the prescribed number that would allow the school to retain its full complement of mainstream teachers. But by December the school had in excess of 347 boys ‘on its books’ and the figures have increased again since. The enrolment for 2009-10 is just two short of 360.

The appeals board considered Mount Sion’s case at its meeting on May 14 and has requested additional information before making its decision.

Waterford Fine Gael Senators Maurice Cummins and Paudie Coffey raised the issue in the Seanad on Wednesday, calling on Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe to ensure the school, “a beacon for education” serving large disadvantaged areas in the inner-city, retains its current teaching complement.

If the department’s “unfair and unworkable” cuts are implemented it “will have devastating effects on staff and students alike,” Senator Cummins said.

“The people of Waterford and the entire country are rightly very proud of Mount Sion,” he added. “It has provided education for all classes and its commitment to newcomers of ethnic origin is consistent with the work undertaken by its founder.”

That said, the school’s “worthy cause” was “not based on history or sentimentality” but to allow it “to continue to raise the attainment standards of its pupils… In the interests of fairness and equity, I ask that this school be afforded the same opportunities that pupils have in similar schools in Waterford city.”

‘Marvellous job’

His Portlaw-based party colleague, Senator Coffey said the school has been doing “a marvellous job” for generations. “I cannot over-emphasise the job they do.”

Despite this, Mount Sion now stands to lose two language-support teachers, on top of the increase in class sizes arising from the loss of a mainstream class teacher. “Consequently, the extra burden of support placed on the class teacher will be to the detriment of the other children and the class.”

Saying “it defies logic that commonsense cannot prevail,” he argued: “This is an area in which we can restore faith in politics and politicians… If the bureaucrats maintain that these children are to be treated according to the statistics, all of them will suffer because every class in Mount Sion primary school will have more than 30 pupils, and that is unacceptable.”

He also pointed out that, as well as the significant percentage (30%) of non-national children enrolled, there are many pupils with special educational needs and learning difficulties.

Ironically, to keep class-sizes viable, the school has turned away pupils, which if they’d enrolled them would have entitled them to an extra teacher.

Pleading that “politics prevail over bureaucracy and statistics and allow Mount Sion school to maintain the number of teachers it has”, Senator Coffey stressed “these are real children, not statistics”. He is “very hopeful the appeals board will make the right decision” based on the picture presented by the school’s board of management.

Minister of State Barry Andrews, who has responsibility for children and young people, said that, pending a review of redeployment arrangements, the actual staffing position for all schools will not be known until the autumn – but he stressed that “the appeal board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final.”

But Maurice Cummins said “it is a Pontius Pilate act to say the appeals board is an independent body… this is bureaucracy gone mad.”