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

Budget 2014: rearranging the money. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly. Original photographs: Peter Booth/E+/Getty and Duane Rieder/Stone/Getty

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 01:04

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 These are now largely out of date, or at least the numbers are, but the menu of possible cuts has been doing the rounds of speculation.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”.

The number of special needs assistants is capped at 10,575. If that were reduced by 10 per cent the department would save €34 million a year, minus the initial €6.6 million in redundancy costs.

The effect in schools would be a further sharing of resources. Teachers say that children who need full-time support can’t share their SNA with other pupils and that they are effectively locked out of learning when they have no SNA.

With 79 per cent of the education budget going on wages, however, it’s one potential wage saving in which the teachers’ unions have no say.

Increased school-transport costs
In the 2011 estimates, school transport was singled out as an expensive service that the department could trim.

The report said that “expenditure on school transport has risen by 249 per cent in the period 1997-2008 while the number of children transported on an annual basis decreased from 157,000 to 135,000 (123,000 in 2010/2011). This represents an overall unit cost per child transported of €1,438 in 2008. By comparison, the average school transport unit cost in Northern Ireland is €1,015.”

One of the options suggested in the list of possible cuts was to abolish the scheme. The other was to remove the scheme for postprimary students. Neither materialised, but the 2012 budget increased the basic fee that parents are charged if their children use primary-school transport from €50 to €100.

This year’s expenditure on school transport will come in at €168.5 million, down from €171.5 million before the adjustment.

The area was left untouched in the last budget, but there could well be further adjustments to the charges in next week’s budget announcement, which would shift more of the cost of school transport on to parents.


Reduce staffing in private and
single-sex schools

Fee-paying schools have been hit by cuts in the number of teachers whose salaries the department is prepared to pay. The last budget increased their pupil-teacher ratio to 23:1 while leaving it at 19:1 for State schools. The fee-paying sector is readying itself for further blows: last month a new grouping of private schools got together to issue a prebudget submission calling on the Minister for Education to leave the staffing schedule in private schools alone.

If there are further increases in the ratio, schools will have to find more money, possibly through fee hikes, to pay teachers privately. They might also opt to move into the State sector, as two private schools have already done.

Another possible increase in pupil-teacher ratios could be applied to schools that the department regards as less expensive to run. Single-sex schools, for example, don’t always offer a full range of subjects: some all-girls schools don’t offer woodwork; some all-boys schools don’t offer home economics.

The department’s 2011 Comprehensive Review of Current Expenditure stated that “for curriculum reasons, differentiation could be made between single sex and co-educational schools. At present, a single-sex school gets the same allocation as a co-educational school and a standalone school gets the same allocation as a school that is one of several providers in the one area. The challenge to provide a range of subjects and courses is more difficult for the co-ed and sole providers.”

Abolish specialised posts
Another way to cut staff in schools would be to abolish special posts, such as chaplain or home-school liaison. That happened last year to guidance counsellors, who are now back in the classroom. Other ancillary roles were mentioned in the menu of possible education cuts; principals say that removing these posts would add to administrative pressures and further erode support for students with emotional or social difficulties.

Cuts to the capitation grant
Budget 2012 announced that the capitation grant – the money schools receive per pupil to cover day-to-day running costs, such as for utilities, maintenance and teaching materials – would decrease over the next four years, amounting to a 6 per cent cut. (Each 1 per cent reduction in capitation funding saves €3.5 million.)

So, in theory, we should not expect any further announcements on that front. But Eileen Salmon of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools says that the effect of the last budget cut is ongoing and cumulative.

“Not only is income decreasing each year but expenditure is increasing. With no money now for the upkeep of schools through the summer-works scheme, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain standards. I don’t know of a principal who isn’t very worried about their finances,” she says.

Third level

Block grant to the HEA
The simplest way to save a lot of money in the third-level sector is to reduce the budget of the Higher Education Authority. The HEA uses a formula to distribute whatever money is available; if it is less than last year, it will be down to individual institutions to deal with funding shortfalls.

This passing of the buck can be damaging. When you force a university to trim and cut, and to reduce services year after year, standards will fall and a good reputation will be eroded.

Cuts to postgraduate stipends
The Irish Research Council has a budget of about €41 million that it uses to fund postgraduate and postdoctoral research students in the humanities and sciences. Postgrads get about €16,000 a year – not a lot compared with funding in other countries.

Postdocs get nearly double this – still very good value for money, according to the council. It also points out that support for research is central to the Government’s aim of building a knowledge economy.

Any reduction in these stipends undermines Ireland’s ability to conduct leading-edge research, as the students they fund are central to the research system. Without the council’s funding, and the trained graduates it delivers, IDA Ireland would find it tougher to convince research-driven companies to come here.

Reductions in lecturing staff
The department cannot unilaterally cut the pay of third-level lecturers, as their conditions are decided in the wider context of public-sector pay. It could still save money by demanding that staff numbers be cut under the employment-control framework, however. In this case, Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin could seek cuts in education generally, leaving it for Quinn to find where they would fall.

Cutting the numbers of lecturers would further increase the student-lecturer ratio, which used to be about 15:1 or 16:1, according to the HEA. The figure is now 21:1 or 22:1. This is moving away from international norms, makes it harder for lecturers to teach and damages an institution’s reputation.

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