Easy win on class sizes trumps hard calls over third-level

Budget 2018: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both want credit for reducing pupil-teacher ratio

The investment in employing more teachers will bring the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level to the lowest ever level recorded of 26:1. File photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

The investment in employing more teachers will bring the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level to the lowest ever level recorded of 26:1. File photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

It is not often you get a tug-of-love between the Government and the Opposition party over who is responsible for a budget.

The fact Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were both claiming responsibility for key elements is a sure-fire sign there was plenty to please teachers, parents – and the wider education sector.

The most eye-catching element of the education budget was a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level.

The investment will bring the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level to the lowest ever level recorded of 26:1.

This equates to about 300 extra primary teachers to reduce class sizes, and a similar number to provide for increases in enrolment and the replacement of retiring teachers.

It is not before time. Irish classes at primary level are among the most overcrowded in the EU, second only to the UK.

All in all, there are more than 100,000 children in super-sized classes of 30 or more.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the move reflected the Government’s oft-stated (though difficult to measure) ambition to make Ireland the best education system in Europe within a decade.

Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne, on the other hand, insisted his party had “secured” the investment, claiming to have held the Government “to account” on this commitment.

It is no surprise there’s a scramble for credit: class sizes win votes in a way that many other parts of the education sector such as higher education find hard to compete with.

Decade of cuts

In fact, most of the focus in the lead-up to this budget has been on the “crisis” facing higher education following a decade of cuts, rising student enrolment and reduce staffing.

Many institutes of technology are in debt and struggling to make ends meet. Students argue that quality is suffering from access to tutorials, outdated equipment and overcrowded facilities.

There was extra money for them as well – though not as much as they might have wished.

Increases in a payroll levy on employers, together with increased Government spending, will see €64.5 million in additional funding go towards higher education and training next year.

In reality, it’s a sticking plaster compared with the scale of investment outlined in the Cassells report on the future funding of higher education.

There was an expectation that the Government would, at the least, match its level of current investment from last year with €36.5 million. In fact, it’s contribution to the additional current funding this year is €17 million.

That said, there is a big increase in the capital budget of about €200 million, which will help build capacity for the future after years of cuts.

Hard questions on a future funding model to grow higher education have been ditched for another year, with student loans one of the options under scrutiny.

There won’t be many political parties claiming credit for that.