Cut and thrust: won't someone please think of the politicians?
TV REVIEW:MINISTER FOR Education Ruairí Quinn has rather a lot of people around him: two secretaries, two political advisers and a policy adviser – and a building full of civil servants.
It’s hard to stop yourself from mentally adding up their salaries during the many lulls in Back to School: Inside the Department (RTÉ One, Monday), which followed the Minister and his kitchen cabinet for six months. Especially so when much of the business involved this inner circle sitting around a table figuring out how to manage the news of more savage cuts in education.
Tempting also, but pointless, to try to shoehorn the lot of them into the political satires Veep or The Thick of It – not least because those TV takes on government life move at a frantic pace, and things appear quite leisurely at the Department of Education.
You have to admire Quinn’s willingness to let the cameras in: he must have known the only people ever to emerge as lovable creatures from a fly-on-the-wall documentary are those babies in Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute, and even they are bloody and bruised. So he must have had a rationale other than the usual “look how hard I work and how many dull meetings I have to attend” (and many of them were shown, so we could all share the boredom) or even “look, I make my own coffee” (a fancy espresso – surely one of the advisers might have suggested instant for these straitened times).
The point of grabbing the media opportunity – an hour of telly – seems to have been to get across the idea that our economic mess means he has no choice but to make cuts, and every change in education is tortuously difficult to engineer. Message received about that – and Quinn stayed on-message at all times. Not so his kitchen cabinet, who came across as rather pleased with themselves and (excluding his policy adviser John Walsh) oddly lacking in media savvy at times.
“Be careful. If you reduce the special-needs assistants by that much it could end up being your medical card [moment],” advised his secretary (not the private one, the other one) during a discussion on the cutbacks in SNAs – no mention of the impact on the children. And when Quinn announced the cuts, one of his political advisers, Neil Ward (I’m betting he has the complete box set of The West Wing), said to camera: “We have a lot of TDs in those constituencies who are very badly affected.”
We saw mammies and children in the cold protesting about the cuts outside Leinster House but there was little doubt the reason for the subsequent rowback was ultimately do with votes.
NOT ALL CUTSwere reversed, and while Ward opined from inside the walls of the department’s Marlborough Street HQ – “We got it to a point that everyone can live with what we are doing” – the reality on the ground was painfully clear in Back to School: Primary Pressures (RTÉ One, Sunday), which was filmed over six months at Scoil Mhuire, a Wexford primary school in the Deis scheme.
With pace and a broad editorial sweep, it captured the busy life of a large school: motivated teachers, hard-pressed parents, giddy bright children, an inspirational, caring principal in Pat Goff, and an autism unit. But hanging over it all was the threat of more cuts and life-changing bad news from Marlborough Street. Particularly affected were the parents whose children need extra help and for whom the loss of an SNA is more than a potential PR disaster. One mother said the cut in SNA hours has already made her son regress: “He has paid the price for the economic crises, and he’s eight.”