Increasing ratios is anti-education and anti-jobs
Leftfield: The new cuts in further education and post-Leaving Certificate colleges will hurt marginalised learners most
In Budget 2013, the Government increased from 17:1 to 19:1, the pupil-teacher ratio for further education and post-Leaving Certificate (FE/PLC) colleges. This cut will lead to educational inequality and societal division as some of the most marginalised learners bear the brunt of this counterproductive and crude new policy.
The cut will also result in the loss of innovative, specialist courses that lead to educational progression or employment. Urgently needed retraining or upskilling courses will be lost, and the link between FE colleges and their local labour markets and economies will be severely weakened.
The rationale offered by the Government is that the pupil-teacher ratio for these courses was more favourable than in second-level schools. But the FE/PLC sector has inherent characteristics that differentiate it from second-level, for example the range of assessment methodologies employed in FE/PLC. These include ongoing assessment in areas such as group work; problem solving; performing procedures and demonstrating techniques; personal development; working co-operatively and independently; self-management and direction; and researching, interpreting, collecting, reviewing and managing data.
The Government has argued that “it is hard to justify providing more generous pupil-teacher ratios to FE/PLCs which educate motivated young adults”. While there are many motivated young adults, this is not the overriding characteristic of students in the sector. Learners include mature students and the unemployed who wish to upskill and retrain, as well as learners who were not ideally suited to mainstream education. The initial task for many teachers in FE/PLC is to help these learners to re-engage with education. Mature learners are in need of particular supports to assist their move back into full-time education. A further difficulty is that a significant number of learners have literacy and numeracy needs. In this challenging context, the continued success of the sector requires that current teaching resources are kept in place.
The Government has suggested that the cut will simply result in a reduction in subject choice for learners, but it will, because of the structure of awards in the National Qualification Framework, lead to a reduction in courses.
The ratio increase will result in the loss of 200 full-time-equivalent teaching posts, which equates, in real terms, to as many as 500 nonpermanent teachers losing their jobs or a significant proportion of their hours. The Government estimates that this reduction in staff will lead to a saving of €12 million in a full year. It is worth questioning how moving up to 500 people from the payroll of the Department of Education and Skills to that of the Department of Social Protection will save anything like that much.
The teachers most likely to be made redundant will be the most recent entrants to the profession. A newly qualified teacher is typically employed on a reduced contract of 50 per cent to 70 per cent of a normal working week and has a take-home salary of about €250 to €300 per week. These teachers do not receive medical cards or rent allowance, for example, and are only marginally above the ESRI’s income poverty line of €224.75 per week.
The cut will result in a double cost to the social-welfare bill: potential learners will be denied places on courses and will remain on the live register, where they will be joined by their potential teachers. Furthermore, it makes absolutely no sense to cut those teachers with critical expertise who devise and deliver innovative, labour market-focused courses.
The increase in the pupil-teacher ratio is not just anti-education: it is anti-jobs.
This cutting of frontline teaching resources, in tandem with the abolition of the cost-of-education allowance for learners and the imposition in the 2011 budget of a €200 registration fee, will send the FE/PLC sector spiralling backwards. It will impact most on some of the most marginalised learners in the education system. The Government must review this policy as a matter of urgency.
Gerard Craughwell is president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which represents more than 14,000 teachers and lecturers