Education cuts run deepest

 

A special series beginning today will detail the impact of education cuts arising from the Budget. Here we introduce the main educational programmes and issues that are at stake. The series will continue each day next week, writes Seán Flynn 

ON MONDAY'S Morning Ireland John Carr - head of the INTO - delivered the most powerful performance of his 30-year career, his voice crackling with emotion.

Spitting out his words, he said Budget provisions increasing class size were "the most callous, savage attack ever undertaken against primary-school children in this country". Irish children are going to be in the largest, most overcrowded classes in Europe. Children, he said, face being sent home from January because of changes in substitution cover.

Carr's interview reflected the mood of dismay and exasperation which has settled on education since the Budget cuts were unveiled by the Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe.

For days, the full extent of the education cuts had slipped below the public's radar because of the medical-cards furore. It was not just the increase in class size that unleashed a wave of anger among educationalists. There was a string of other cuts, notable for their mean-spirited nature. Library grants were withdrawn. There were cuts in Adult and Further Education programmes and in the Back to Education Initiative. One hundred places were cut from Senior Traveller Training Centres. New restrictions were placed on language supports for newcomer children. Measures to confer new rights on special-needs children and their parents were put on the long finger. Cumulatively, there are 32 cuts or additional charges, many of them carrying an echo of harsher, less enlightened days.

Carr's radio interview was hugely significant. It helped to identify education as the next battleground after medical cards and the income levy. It is a battle the Government will struggle to win, and not just because its authority has been dented by the events of the past week. A key element of the Budget education package - those new limits on teacher substitution - might have to be abandoned because it is simply unworkable.

From January, principals will be unable to provide substitute cover for teachers absent on uncertified sick leave. In addition, teachers absent on school business at second level will also lose their entitlement to a sub.

Essentially, the Budget turns the clock back to another era when teachers were expected to fill in for one another without pay or much in the way of thanks. All of this changed five years ago when the ASTI strike yielded a proper, professional substitution. But the Budget reversed this progress.

On Monday, a group representing 400 school managers - the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) - held an emergency meeting to consider the Budget changes. Afterward, its general secretary, Ferdia Kelly, said the new substitution regime was unacceptable and unworkable. Schools, he said, "would have to consider closing in January . . . there will be no alternative for school management".

"Our members are furious and outraged that the Department of Education and Science would contemplate making schools unmanageable by creating a serious health and safety risk. Boards of management and school management will not be able to stand over this risk. Should this proposal go ahead, schools will not be in a position to open in January on health and safety grounds."

Privately, teachers' unions say the changes to substitute cover represent an Achilles' heel for the Government. One school manager noted: "Batt O'Keeffe and the rest of them can hang tough but if one class is sent home in January or one school has to close, the whole situation will be transformed. Parents will be up in arms."

And this will not be the only issue to occupy their minds. In the run-in to the last election, more than 18,000 parents attended public meetings demanding smaller classes for their children in primary schools. They were complaining about a string of broken promises on class size, which can be traced all the way back to the 2002 Programme for Government. Since then, the Government has again promised to cut class size and it has again walked away from that promise.

For teachers, the decision to actually increase class size - at both primary and second level - in the Budget is a provocative act of vandalism. This will see Irish children in the largest classes in Europe with one teacher for every 28 pupils. There will also be a loss of teaching posts. Minister Batt O'Keeffe says 200 posts will go at both primary and second level. Privately, even some of his closest advisers acknowledge this is a gross under-estimation.

By most calculations, some 1,000 teaching and English language support posts will go at primary level and at least 800 more at second level. The cuts come at a time when projected enrolment at primary level is expected to increase by 100,000 within the next year. It will all mean still more pressure on an education system, already creaking under the strain of sustained under-investment.

In announcing the Budget cuts, the Minister actually trumpeted the 3 per cent increase in overall education spending - including a 10 per cent increase in school buildings. Progress has been made. Education spending has trebled in the past decade but it all needs to be put in context.

IRELAND REMAINS CLOSE to the bottom of the OECD league when it comes to education spending, relative to overall wealth. In 2005, some 4.6 per cent of overall GDP was allocated to education; spending of more than 6 per cent of GDP is common in Finland.

On Wednesday, the INTO executive fired the gun on a national campaign to reverse the Budget cuts. The ASTI has also launched a public campaign ahead of next week's Dáil motion on class size.

In seeking public support, the teaching unions are pushing an open door. There are more than 100,000 pupils in classes of more than 30 pupils. There are thousands of children in dilapidated school buildings. There are schools in every parish dependent on cake sales and race nights for essentials such as proper maintenance support.

There are special-needs children still being denied their basic rights. And there are children who cannot achieve their academic or social potential because of the pressure on resources in their schools.

In appealing to the public for support, the teachers' unions know they can tap into a deep well of public anger and frustration about our education service. Opinion-poll evidence shows huge public support for the work of teachers, often battling against the odds in under-funded schools.

All of this explains why the Government should be apprehensive. The battle on education will be fought on the higher ground where ordinary people aspire to something better for their children. The public wants an education system it can be proud of; one in which each child can achieve his or her potential. It does not want to see education spending as a book-keeping exercise.

Now that the dust is settling somewhat on medical cards and income levies, the real public anger about the education cuts is coming into view. The scattergun nature of the various measures has enraged a hugely diverse group: teachers, parents of special-needs children, social workers, Travellers and groups representing foreign nationals. Moreover, the callous nature of some of the cuts makes them difficult to defend.

At one stage this week the Government might have felt it was out of the woods; that some semblance of order could be restored. But the battle over education has only just begun.

THE CUTS THE IMPACT

1. BIGGER CLASSES

Class sizes will increase from 27 to 28 pupils per class at primary level and 18 to 19 per class at secondary level.

IMPACT:200 teachers will lose their jobs at primary level. At second level, the Department claims that 200 teachers will lose their jobs, but teachers argue that 1,200 will be out of work.

2. NO SUBSTITUTION COVER FOR UNCERTIFIED SICK LEAVE

Teachers absent on uncertified sick leave will not be entitled to substitute cover.

IMPACT:If a teacher wakes up ill on a Monday morning and cannot go to work, the school will not be allowed to employ a substitute until that teacher gets a medical cert. At primary level, students will have to be split among other classes in the school. Schools may have no choice but to send students home.

3. NO COVER FOR TEACHERS ABSENT ON SCHOOL BUSINESS

At post-primary level, teachers absent on school business also lose their entitlement to a sub.

IMPACT:Sporting events, field trips, college open days, tours and debates will all fall by the wayside. A minimum of two teachers have to accompany students on school trips. With no cover for them, most schools will have to opt out.

4. FUNDING FOR DISADVANTAGED CHILDREN SLASHED

Schools with a significant number of disadvantaged students, but that do not qualify as disadvantaged schools in the DEIS programme, have had special- teacher posts to provide support for these students and their families. All of these posts have been abolished.

Extra money for Traveller children within these schools has also been withdrawn.

IMPACT:Teachers with expertise in supporting disadvantaged students will lose their jobs. No extra support or resourcing for children from the Traveller community will create huge gaps in the support network. Less support for students will mean more problems for schools and teachers as they try to cope.

5. FREE BOOKS SCHEME ABOLISHED

All schools, apart from disadvantaged schools in the DEIS scheme, lose the allowance that enabled them to give free school books to some students.

IMPACT:School books can cost up to €300 per year in secondary school. The withdrawal of subsidies will cause massive hardship for some parents.

6. LANGUAGE-SUPPORT POSTS SLASHED

A cap of two language-support teachers per school will be reintroduced regardless of how many newcomer students a school has.

IMPACT:Schools with 160 students who need English language tuition would have had six language-support teachers in situ. Now four teachers will lose their jobs and two will have 80 students each.

7. POST-PRIMARY GRANTS CUT

Grants for transition year, LCVP, Leaving Cert Applied, home economics, physics and chemistry, choirs and orchestras and Junior Certificate schools programmes have all been abolished.

IMPACT:Even with the extra funding, schools normally subsidised these programmes. Now, they will have to consider if they can afford some or all of these programmes. Science labs will remain chronically under-resourced.

8. PROTESTANT SCHOOLS HAVE EXTRA FUNDING WITHDRAWN

Fee-paying Protestant schools have traditionally received extra grants to allow for the fact that Protestant students are likely to be dispersed around the country and might be unable to attend a local free Protestant school. These have been abolished.

IMPACT:These grants have always been distributed to students from poorer backgrounds. Students might now have to attend the local Catholic school.

9. TRAVELLER FUNDING FOR EDUCATION SLASHED

Capitation funding for Travellers in non-disadvantaged schools is withdrawn while funding for Travellers in disadvantaged schools will be reduced.

IMPACT:Children from the Travelling community will have less support and are less likely to stay in school.

10. GRANT FOR RESOURCE TEACHING ABOLISHED

Resource teachers received a small grant for equipment and materials to enable them to teach students with special needs. That has been withdrawn.

IMPACT:Students who need extra help will have to make do with what they have. Teachers will be unable to provide them with new or up-to-date materials.

11. NON-IMPLEMENTATION OF SPECIAL NEEDS ACT

The Education for People with Special Educational Needs Act will ensure the statutory right to a suitable education for people with special educational needs. It was due to be implemented on a phased basis up until 2010. That is now on hold. Children with special educational needs will have their needs met on a non-statutory basis

IMPACT:Parents of children with special needs struggle to get a suitable education for their children. This looks set to continue.

12. NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FUNDING FOR COMPUTERS IN SCHOOLS POSTPONED

€252 million was supposed to have been spent on ICT between 2007 and 2013. Schools have yet to see any of this.

IMPACT:ICT facilities in our schools are sorely lacking and greatly needed. That will continue to be the case.

- GRÁINNE FALLER