The budget puzzle: how many cuts to education, and how big?
A menu of possible savings has been doing the rounds. How might any choices from that menu affect students after Budget 2014 next week, when Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn decides where the axe will fall?
Budget 2014: rearranging the money. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly. Original photographs: Peter Booth/E+/Getty and Duane Rieder/Stone/Getty
Is the Government going to take €3.1 billion or €2.5 billion out of next year’s spending when it announces Budget 2014 next week? Whatever the final figure is, we know that funding will be reduced and that this in turn will be taken out of departmental budgets.
The Department of Education and Skills is looking at cuts understood to range from €44 million to €100 million. There’s also €43 million due as a one-off payment under the residential institution redress scheme.
But where will the axe fall? How will Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn decide which cuts to make to our education system?
The department outlined some possible areas for cuts, and the savings that could be made from them, in the Comprehensive Review of Expenditure that it submitted to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2011. These are now largely out of date, or at least the numbers are, but the menu of possible cuts has been doing the rounds of speculation. Some areas under discussion could still see funding reductions, given that the Minister will have to cut one way or the other.
Here we speculate on what the impact would be on the ground if, say, money were saved by changing the pupil-teacher ratio or by trimming the stipend given to graduate students conducting research.
Whatever cuts are decided on before the budget, they will inevitably lead to a further degradation in the quality of Irish education, which has serious, negative implications for individuals and for wider society, now and in the future.
Few areas are safe from cutbacks. The question is, where will Quinn make them?
Increase the pupil-teacher ratio
The number of pupils per teacher has not changed since it was increased in 2009, under the previous government. The INTO took to the streets last week to march against overcrowding, so there is a sense on the ground that class sizes might be increased this year.
With many primary schools recording class sizes well above 30, an increase in the ratio would cause real headaches in schools. This is especially the case in Dublin and its commuter belt, where classes as large as 37 are being seen for the first time in a generation. This has a real impact on the quality of education.
Each one-point decrease in the staffing schedule saves about €21 million, however – a large chunk of the education cut required this year.
Squeeze out small schools
The Minister would like to amalgamate some of the 800 or so schools with fewer than 60 pupils.
In the 2012 budget, a change in staffing ratios took 100 teachers out of the small-school system, but Quinn could go further. The department might lower the enrolment threshold for primary schools. The capitation grant, which is paid according to the number of pupils in larger schools, has a 60-pupil floor in smaller schools – in other words, every school receives at least 60 capitation grants, even if it has fewer than 60 pupils. If the threshold were reduced to 30 it would save the exchequer €3.34 million; removing it altogether would save €7.43 million.
The effect? Many smaller schools would find it impossible to pay their bills on the reduced capitation funding and would have to consider closure or amalgamation.
Reduce the number of SNAs
The Coalition has made much of the fact that it has maintained the number of special-needs assistants.
The problem on the ground is that the need for SNA support is growing and schools say they are forced to divide the same overall resources among more pupils. A value-for-money and policy review of the SNA scheme, carried out by the department in 2011, said that “the overallocation of SNA posts and the resistance to suppressing SNA posts that are no longer required has increased the overall cost of the scheme”.