A headline in an article in The Irish Times on October 13th said it all: “Pupil-teacher ratio to fall to lowest level yet.” That headline really arrested me and, of course, brought me to the inevitable comparison with the budget of March 31st, 1987.
I was minister for education then, with the bad news that the pupil-teacher ratio was to rise to the highest level yet.
Now, that wasn’t in any headline, but that was the import of what was announced with the budget on that date from the Department of Education. I will always remember the circular; in fact it is printed in large letters on my brain forever, the fact that the pupil-teacher ratio was going to rise by three. That was the bad news contained in circular 20/87.
It is hoped, no matter what the economic outlook will be, the vista of the fall in the pupil-teacher ratio will continue now that it has started
Can you imagine the mayhem that created? We were new in government, and Charlie Haughey and minister for finance "Mac the Knife" Ray McSharry were determined to put a shape on the economic future of Ireland, which was at a really low level. Education and health were targeted as the fall guys for their onslaught on the finances of the country.
I was the newbie in education and what an awful way to be introduced to the teaching fraternity. I couldn't defend that stipulation of a rise in the pupil-teacher ratio, no matter how I tried. I remember so well the late Christina Murphy, who was then The Irish Times education expert, kept asking me: "But, how is this going to improve education?" Of course, there was no answer to it. It wasn't going to improve it; in fact it was going to worsen it.
Rí-rá all over the country ensued, and then both Bertie Ahern as minister for Labour and the taoiseach, Haughey, embarked on talks with the trade unions which culminated in the Programme for National Recovery (PNR), which was clarified and announced in October/November 1987.
Coincidentally, that’s exactly 34 years ago now. This was a groundbreaking trade union-government agreement, which led to huge improvement in the economic life of the country and in which both sides gave up much but acquired an economic stability for Ireland.
The unions were led by the magnificent Peter Cassells and each individual union, of course, had its own remit and its own conclusion which culminated, as I said, in the PNR. This started an economic revival right through the very late 1980s and into the early 1990s. For me, the salient point of the PNR was that the doom-laden news officially announced of the rise in the pupil-teacher ratio was quietly forgotten, tucked away among the many good points of the Programme for National Recovery. Oh, was I glad!
Bringing the pupil-teacher ratio down to the lowest level yet, truly marks a milestone in Irish education history
Can you imagine, the dire news, though announced, was quietly wrapped up in the government-trade union relationship and, in fact, never saw the light of day. The whole episode, particularly the circular of 20/87, has never left my mind; from then on, I was determined that, whatever daft notion towards education emanated from the Department of Finance, I would fight it tooth and nail.
From that time on, the teaching unions never failed to say that we had the worst pupil-teacher ratio in the whole of Europe. And now, the announcement which I have quoted above, bringing the pupil-teacher ratio down to the lowest level yet, truly marks a milestone in Irish education history. This has been planned to commence in September of the next academic year. Allied to that will be a fall in enrolment to primary schools. It is hoped, no matter what the economic outlook will be, the vista of the fall in the pupil-teacher ratio will continue now that it has started.
So goodbye to the dreaded 20/87, and hello to a future of falling pupil-teacher ratios.
Of course, the education budget contained much more than the pupil-teacher ratio. There were good inroads on special education in particular, which will be duly acclaimed.
But 34 years on from the budget of March 31st, 1987, and the subsequent Programme for National Recovery, education is, we hope, on a downward trajectory of pupil-teacher ratio. Education has truly been well served by the headline of October 13th, 2021. Long may it continue. I’m going to banish forever from my head the memory of 20/87.
Mary O'Rourke is an author and former government minister