Gravity of fiscal crisis 'not fully appreciated'


THE GRAVITY of the economic crisis is still not fully appreciated by some in the education sector, Minister for Education Ruairí­ Quinn told primary school teachers yesterday.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, Mr Quinn said: “When I hear appeals at this conference or elsewhere for reversals of budget measures or calls for increased investment in education, it worries me that the gravity of the fiscal crisis is still not fully understood.”

His comments drew an angry response from the union’s general secretary Sheila Nunan, who said: “We get it, Minister. Our schools see at first-hand how the number of struggling families has rocketed in the five years of recession. On average today, five children in a primary classroom are at risk of poverty.”

Overall, Mr Quinn‘s address received a frosty response from delegates; many appeared frustrated with the content of the speech. This focused on the economic crisis, the forthcoming fiscal compact treaty referendum and his education reform package – rather than primary education issues.

About 40 teachers from small rural schools staged a silent protest as Mr Quinn addressed the conference. The teachers held up placards highlighting the key role of these schools in community life.

The Minister’s speech will do little to reassure teachers and rural communities about the threat to smaller schools.

Mr Quinn said the Government fully recognised that small schools were an important part of the social fabric of rural communities. They would continue to be a major feature of our education landscape. But he added: “This does not mean that small schools can stand still or never have their staffing levels changed to something that is more affordable and sustainable in difficult and challenging times.”

Teachers in small schools could not be immune to the requirement that was being asked of all public servants to deliver our public services on a reduced level of resources, he said.

Mr Quinn pointed out that almost 80 per cent of the current budget in education was allocated to pay and pensions. This Government had protected education as much as it could, he said. Far greater reductions in the number of public servants were being made in other sectors relative to those in schools. But there were limits on the number of teaching posts we could afford.

In her address, Ms Nunan said Government policy on small rural schools was fundamentally flawed, misguided and devoid of planning. “What is needed is a coherent, long-term and resourced strategy for sustainable schools into the future. Instead, the budget proposes to forcibly amalgamate some small schools by cutting teachers while leaving others untouched.” Decisions about small schools in rural communities should, she said, be about ensuring the best education for pupils regardless of location.

“Many issues needed to be considered before embarking on a policy that will see some schools close – such as enrolment patterns and trends, investment in school buildings and respect for language and religious diversity.” Primary consideration should be given to the needs of pupils, their parents and the wider community.

Defending the Croke Park agreement, Ms Nunan said the “sniper fire” continued.

“Critics choose to ignore the facts. Vested interests continue to seek its demolition. It is precisely because we understand the gravity of the fiscal crisis that we make calls for budget measures to be reversed.” No one, she said, was denying the need for fiscal correction. “The question is how the gap is closed. Because we are now at the point of cutting into the bone of public services.”