Stakeholders in education should unite against the divide and rule strategy

Opinion: Labour trying to pose as if it is no more than an interested bystander


Divide and conquer. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and you know why? A lot of the time it works. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has hinted at cuts amounting to €100 million in the next budget.

Ironically, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection last June issued a report prepared by Labour Party TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called Tackling Back to School Costs. It might have been better occupied issuing a report called Tackling the Costs of Recent Educational Cutbacks.

While some of the report’s recommendations had merit, many exhibited a profound disconnection from the reality of life in schools.

For example, it says: “It is essential that policymakers, school managers and patrons revert to the aspiration of delivering a system of free education.”

Who could those irresponsible policymakers be who have parted from the ideal of free education? Any chance they are headed by a Labour Minister for Education?

The Labour Party has mastered the art of acting like uninvolved but interested bystanders, rather than key players in educational funding decisions. (I am not an uninvolved bystander either: I teach at second level, although in this column I speak for no one but myself.)

The report states that many parents are finding that their relationship with school is increasingly a financial rather than an educational one. Schools are therefore painted as deliberately trying to frustrate parents’ educational hopes for their children.

The reality is that school managers are desperately trying to keep schools functioning while starved of resources.

Pretending that schools are the villains is a divide-and-conquer tactic that removes the spotlight from decisions taken by successive governments.

For example, Tackling Back to School Costs suggests the immediate abolition of parental voluntary contributions. No one would be happier to do so than schools, but what would fill the gap?

Free education
There is no such thing as “free education”. Someone has to pay. If you mean education that is free at the point of delivery and that is fully funded by the State, schools would like nothing better.

Fundraising is a nightmare. No school manager or board of management wants to do it, particularly in a recession. Few institutions in the country are as aware as schools are of the pressures and chronic anxiety parents face. But what option do schools have?

The shortfall existed long before the recession, although it is much worse now. Take the voluntary second-level system – more than half of second-level schools.

Research by the Joint Managerial Body shows that voluntary secondary schools are forced to fundraise €3 out of every €10 spent on essentials in schools. There has been an 11 per cent cut in the grant per student in the last five years, when every other cost, from electricity to insurance, has gone up. The average 400-pupil secondary school lost €12,400 in funding.

Most parents do not know that in relation to the average 400-pupil school, a voluntary secondary school receives €90 per pupil less each year than comparable community and comprehensive schools, and €212 per pupil less than a vocational school. This is an obvious injustice.

“Do more with less” is the mantra of the department, but there comes a point when that is impossible.

There were 3,800 more students at second level in 2012 than in 2011. In the same period, 434 full-time teaching posts were lost even though, given the increase in numbers, 200 new teachers could have been expected to have been employed instead.

Student numbers are set to climb for the next decade. You don’t need an A in Project Maths to realise that education for children is being seriously damaged.

Every support service in schools is being hit, from guidance counsellors, to special educational needs teachers, to year heads. These cutbacks are largely invisible to the public, but they are not invisible to our young people, or to parents anxiously seeking supports for their child.

One principal spoke about spending up to three hours a day dealing with often distraught students, including Leaving Cert students.

Most are students who until recently had regular, scheduled contact with a guidance counsellor, who was then lost to the school through cutbacks. The principal is not a trained counsellor.

Then Labour TDs lecture schools on “reverting to the aspiration of free education”?

Donogh O’Malley
Maybe they should reacquaint themselves with the views of Donogh O’Malley, the architect of free education in the Republic, who in 1966 said: “We are not a nation which can deploy substantial financial resources . . . Investment in education must get priority for it is a form of productive investment which is vital not only to our future economic development but to the entire national fabric of the growing nation.”

Parents and schools are not on opposing sides. At primary level a new lobby group has formed consisting of management, parents, teachers and principals, calling itself the National Alliance for Primary Education.

It is needed at every level of education. Divide and conquer must not succeed, because it is our children, and their once-in-a-lifetime shot at a decent education, who will suffer.

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