Northern Ireland Minister for Education minister John O’Dowd faced down protesters at the Irish Natinal Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) conference on Tuesday, telling them “placards will not end austerity”.
In an address to the union’s annual conference, which represents primary teachers across the island of Ireland, the Sinn Féin Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) defended the right of people to protest, but he had a duty to “lift my eyes out of my navel and look forward”.
He acknowledged that the planned loss of hundreds of teaching jobs and the slashing of the education budget would cause “huge problems”. However, he said, the Northern Executive could not spend money it did not have.
Placards were held up by delegates with messages such as “SF + DUP = Tory cuts”.
Replying to such criticism, Mr O’Dowd said: “You are saying to us to walk out of the Executive. It won’t end austerity in the North. It will end Sinn Féin’s participation in the executive.”
If unions would not deal with the Executive it could have to face the diktat of a Conservative or Labour minister instead, he said. “What we need to do is to go home and draw up placards with the answer.”
However, INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan said party political considerations could not override the public good.
“The cuts will affect the quality of the education and outcomes they achieve for generations to come. INTO believes this budget will be central to maintaining Northern Ireland as low wage economy for at least a generation.”
She said the union was seeking “a strategic decision taken at executive level to place education at the very centre of social and economic planning in the North”.
Turning to the spending priorities of the department of education in the Republic, Ms Nunan identified three reforms that were particularly needed: smaller classes; proper support for principals and teachers; and “a fair funding formula in education”.
She said the current model of funding was “screwed up” as the department increased investment in education per child the further he or she went through the system.
“No matter how much investment we plough in further up the system, we will never solve the problems that were sown by short-changing young children.”
She also said the INTO would “not entertain” a revised model of delivering funding for special educational needs until the 15 per cent cut in recommended resource hours for children with such needs was reversed.