No special deals for teachers this time round

 

Senior officials at the Department of Education have been going around with ample smiles on their faces in the last fortnight .

The denizens of Marlborough Street, used to toiling in one of the more obscure Government outposts, are jubilant at their new-found popularity with the Department of Finance.

Many of the older hands in the Department were around during the hairshirt 1980s when cutbacks were constant and spending was a dirty word. Now there appears to be money for everything.

The Department is even able to part with almost £500,000 for a group of private consultants. Education is in vogue. Along with officials in the Department of Health and Children, they have been the big winners in this year's spending carve-up and their Minister, Dr Woods, who has been having a rough time from teachers, will no doubt be pleased.

His officials appear so satisfied with their lot it is hard to believe there is a teachers' strike on at all.

The Government Estimates, published last month, show capital and current spending for the Department will increase next year by 12 per cent to £3.7 billion. While this will allow the Department to give teachers a few sweeteners this does not include pay awards outside the national pay deal.

The Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, made it quite clear when announcing his Estimates that no special deals were available for teachers. Eight days of industrial action has not changed this position.

While there might be some goodies for workers generally - in terms of tax cuts and promises to bring forward a "downpayment" under the benchmarking body in the Budget - Mr McCreevy is unlikely to wave a magic wand and end the dispute by the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI).

Mr McCreevy's officials are already unpopular with the ASTI leadership after putting a £200 million (€254 million) price tag on their 30 per cent pay claim earlier this year during discussions.

The stark arithmetic became bleaker for the ASTI when officials said if they got such a rise, primary teachers would have to get it too, costing the State another £200 million.

The scale of these figures would make a serious dent in the education budget. For example it would cost the Government more to pay the ASTI than to run all the State's community and comprehensive schools, which currently gobble up about £136 million a year in current spending.

As one source said last week: "There will be nothing special for teachers on pay and the Minister is unlikely to improve the Government's room for manoeuvre."

On the contrary, one measure which may be in the Minister's Budget briefcase could increase the pressure on the ASTI.

A gesture he is understood to be considering is a new fund for school supervision, currently done by most teachers on a voluntary basis. This could increase the pressure on the ASTI.

The teachers have stopped providing this service on seven days in the last three weeks, forcing school managers to cancel classes because they have nobody to replace them.

The managers asked the Government earlier this year for about £6.5 million to pay trained individuals to come into schools and supervise pupils during breaks and free classes instead of teachers.

If the Minister coughs up this money the ASTI's tactic of withdrawing supervision becomes redundant. If he does not, school managers, already stuck in the middle of the ASTI dispute, will become testy.

So while there is nothing special for teachers on the way - at least not for the moment - the figures for next year show teacher's salaries still looming large in the financial priorities of the Department.

For example, at second level where the pay battle is currently raging, teachers' salaries account for £461 million -

by far the largest slice of current expenditure. It dwarfs the £125 million allocated to capital projects in the same sector, or the £10 million placed in the "disadvantage fund" at primary level.

So who will benefit from the Budget in the education world?

The Woods era in Irish education has been unremarkable, but the Minister has identified access to third level for poorer students as his priority. The Budget is likely to include generous provision for this area.

The Estimates show a 315 per cent increase in spending on the " alleviation of disadvantage", from £3.4 million to £15.5 million. While the jump is large, the sums are relatively small when spread across seven universities and the institutes of technology.

Nevertheless third-level access forms a major part of the Government's social inclusion plans and last year it represented a major part of Mr McCreevy's package.

Dr Woods has set up a committee chaired by Dr Cormac McNamara to propose ways to spend the money. Several ideas have come to fruition and may be reflected in some of the schemes given funding on Wednesday.

The colleges have been crying out for funds to improve their access programmes and they will be watching closely to see if Mr McCreevy responds.

As hinted in the Estimates, the task of building up the education infrastructure is likely to be a priority. A survey has been conducted on the condition of many school buildings. Many, particularly national schools, are atrocious.

New schools and refurbishments of existing ones are consequently badly needed. Since 1998 the Department of Education is responsible for all school building costs and it is becoming a major financial headache.

Mr McCreevy is likely to spell out how to rectify this position and the Estimates show £90 million has been earmarked for this purpose at primary level and £125 million at second level.

Mr McCreevy also has £20 million to give to schools for computers and information technology. Schools have been clamouring for extra money in this area for some time. Teachers often complain that PCs arrive in schools without peripherals and with no technical support.

Ireland is still a long way from having a PC for every pupil and one can expect further investment in this crucial area. A new scheme for buying PCs is the most likely approach.