Covid-19 exposed a decade of neglect in primary education. It's time to reverse it

Opinion: Government gives €1 a day per pupil while parents fork out €47million annually

A recently published OECD report ranked Ireland last out of 36 developed countries for spending on education. Photograph: iStock

A recently published OECD report ranked Ireland last out of 36 developed countries for spending on education. Photograph: iStock

 

A recently published OECD report ranked Ireland last out of 36 developed countries for spending on education. This may have shocked some parents, but it was no surprise to teachers.

Funding of Irish primary education is 11 per cent below the EU average as a proportion of GDP. As one of the wealthiest nations per capita in the world, we can do a lot better than that. Budget 2022 must begin the journey to correcting this national embarrassment.

Primary schools give the taxpayer excellent value for money. The Government contribute a miserly €1 a day per pupil while parents fork out €47million per annum to bridge the gap to cover schools’ basic expenses like heat, electricity, water, cleaning and insurance.

Central hubs

Primary schools are key, central hubs in every locality. Principals and teachers cater for a lot more than the education of their pupils. They guide children through the early stages of socialisation and inclusion. Schools are often where the first professionals detect signals that may point to additional developmental, emotional, sensory or dietary needs. They are regularly the first places where signs of challenges children face at home or in their communities are noticed.

Primary teachers are also very often the first people in a child’s life to introduce them to formal participation in activities such as arts and sport – frequently on an extra-curricular basis, for which they are not paid.

They do this willingly, but, on top of this, teachers – and school leaders, in particular – are swamped with an ever-increasing administrative burden. This is made all the more onerous by the measures needed to cope with COVID-19.

Leadership

It would simply not have been possible to adequately serve the educational, welfare and wellbeing needs of the country’s children during the pandemic without the commitment and dedication of school leaders. Government must now provide essential support to sustain them.

For the last 12 years, the moratorium on promotions has decimated middle-leadership teams in primary schools. The Department of Education’s Chief Inspector stated: “the workload of the principal and deputy principal grew while the number of teachers with paid management responsibilities declined.”

This situation is not sustainable. That’s why the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has been arguing for a return to the level of middle-management posts that existed over a decade ago. These positions of assistant principal allow schools to meet the holistic needs of our children. It means schools can support wellbeing, special education and inclusion while co-ordinating initiatives in areas such as digital learning, environmental awareness, the arts and physical education.

The Department of Education has lofty ambitions for improving the quality and developing the skills of school leadership. Without proper middle-management teams, these ambitions will not be realised.

Better outcomes

During the pandemic, the Government finally responded to our years of lobbying by giving teaching principals one day a week release from teaching duties to manage their schools.

This initiative supports teaching principals with their management duties, but it also leads to better learning outcomes due to the more consistent approach to substitution.

Government also established substitute teacher supply panels covering 80 percent of primary and special schools. This scheme must be retained post-pandemic and it needs to be extended to cover all schools nationwide. Expecting our school leaders to cover for absent teachers due to poor planning for teacher supply, risks undermining the key responsibilities being undertaken by leaders of our larger schools during the current public health crisis.

In future, when a teacher is absent, we must avoid at all costs the scenario where their class is supervised by a person with no teaching qualification or split among other classrooms, creating even more supersized classes.

Largest classes

The OECD report released last month highlighted an alarming fact: our primary pupils are still being taught in the largest classes in the EU.

Some 85 per cent of pupils are in classes of 24 or more compared to the EU average of 20. Worse, 14 per cent are in classes of 30 or more.

The OECD report states that early schooling is: “a crucial period for developing foundation skills.” Primary teachers are the custodians of the most critical period of education in a person’s life.

The pandemic exposed a decade of neglect in primary education investment, starkly illustrated by the embarrassing fact that Ireland was the only EU country that planned for social distancing in classrooms of more than 30 pupils.

Research shows that smaller classes enable teachers to give more one-to-one time, with a positive effect on a pupil’s achievement levels.

The INTO is calling for class sizes to be reduced by one pupil annually until we reach the EU average at a minimum. With overall enrolment reducing, all Government has to do is to retain the current number of mainstream class teachers. Otherwise, as they slowly recover from the pandemic, many primary school communities will lose essential teaching posts.

Investment is the only way to deliver for the country’s children if we are to realise the ambition of making our primary education system the best in Europe by 2026.

Without investment, parents will continue to stump up tens of millions of euro just to keep the lights on in schools, while their children struggle to keep up with their peers in other EU countries.

John Boyle is general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation