Primary concern: the underfunded start to school life

For every €8 spent on primary, €11 is spent at second level and €15 at third level


Irish attitudes to primary education have transformed over the past two decades. It was once seen – at best – as a necessary route to the basics of reading and writing, so that children could be prepared for the much more important business of getting a job. At worst, primary school was a glorified childminder with slightly more skill than a television set.

Since the introduction of a new curriculum in 1999, however, the sector is unrecognisable, and the importance of good education in the early childhood years has been firmly established by a large body of research. International evidence shows that investment in early childhood and primary education pays a long-term dividend, serving to reduce inequality, boost employment, improve health, increase lifetime opportunities and reduce crime.

And yet Irish primary schools receive significantly less funding than second and third level. Primary schools get 92 cent per pupil per day to cover their running costs. Second-level schools get almost double that amount. Overall, for every €8 spent on primary schools, €11 is spent at second level and €15 at third level.

A damaging situation

Sheila Nunan, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, says this funding disparity is upside-down, unfair and damaging to children’s long-term prospects.

With an election imminent, the INTO is calling for increased and targeted investment in primary education, a lifting of the promotions ban in schools and a concerted effort to tackle disadvantage and invest in special needs.

It is also seeking a commitment to reduce class sizes, especially between junior infants and second class.

“Primary education has suffered from historic underfunding,” says Nunan. “In the old days, there were between 30 and 50 children with one teacher who had chalk and a blackboard; those days are gone. Now schools need broadband, IT and tech support, sports and PE equipment and more.

“The composition of modern classes is also different, with more ethnic diversity, language diversity and the very welcome inclusion of children with special needs [who previously attended special, rather than mainstream, schools]. Children also expect to be engaged with and listened to.”

The investment in schemes to target disadvantage is also skewed. A breakdown of state funding shows that, out of €456 million, only €7 million is spent on early- childhood education, and €70 million at primary level. By contrast, some €152 million goes to further education and €158 million to third-level access.

Only half of disadvantaged children attend Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools and receive targeted resources. The other half are not in Deis schools and do not receive any extra funding.

The Department of Education is reviewing the Deis programme. Teachers say that more resources for primary education would ensure that all disadvantaged children would be reached.

The INTO has been joined in its call for greater resources by children’s charity Barnardos, which says it is a myth that education is free, given that school books, uniforms, stationery, transport and voluntary contributions put financial pressure on parents.

According to its figures, the State could provide completely free primary education for €103 million and completely free postprimary education for €127 million, at a cost of €185 per student.

This would include free school books, a removal of the voluntary contribution, free school transport, a restored capitation grant and more classroom resources, representing €230.1 million – or about 2.5 per cent – out of a total education budget of just over €9 billion.

Nunan says primary teachers are not trying to take money from second- or third-level schools.

“This is not about us eating their dinner; it is about increasing the overall education budget,” she says. “ We recognise, in particular, that there has been a terrible smash and grab at third level.”

The Minister’s defence

The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, when asked in the Dáil last year about the funding differences, suggested that there were good reasons for the practice.

In general, she said, secondary schools are larger than primary schools and have a lower pupil-teacher ratio, resulting in more classrooms and specialist rooms such as labs, workshops and kitchens.

This, she added, led to higher costs in secondary schools for heating, light, power, maintenance and cleaning.

But the Minister’s analysis does not take into account different school sizes or grants for science labs.

Aidan Gaughran, a primary teacher at St Oliver’s, a designated disadvantaged school in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, has more than 25 years’ experience in the profession. “You do, in particular, try to give infants the best start. They’re learning for the first time and have come from preschools or creches with much smaller pupil-teacher ratios.

“Research shows that, for them, the optimal class size is between 15 and 20. Above that, teachers can’t give the required attention to either the children with learning difficulties or to the brightest children. They have to teach to the middle.”

Principals know this but are hamstrung. Some find creative ways to keep infant classes lower. This often involves having smaller infant classes and then, working within their pupil-teacher ratio, merging them from second class onwards.

St Oliver’s has more than 400 pupils and about 27 teachers, and has managed to keep the infant classes below 20 pupils. But it isn’t always possible for other schools, particularly smaller schools, which may have only a handful of teachers.

Teaching methods have fundamentally changed since the curriculum was overhauled in 1999, says Nunan.

“It is much more child-centred and technology-focused, and now includes subjects such as science; and social, personal and health education. Primary schools are different and more-resource intensive places, but the funding has not caught up.”


Anne McCluskey is principal of Our Lady of the Wayside in Bluebell, a designated disadvantaged primary school in Dublin. The school has 108 pupils from a range of backgrounds. Some are Traveller children and many others are from disadvantaged families. Money is very tight and many parents have relatively low education levels. Recently, some families fell victim to the housing crisis, where their rented homes were put up for sale and they had to leave the area. As a result, enrolment numbers dropped; now, the school stands to lose a teacher in September. As the debate about school patronage and religion rages on, Our Lady of the Wayside has plenty of spare places.

“We’re at a critical state,” McCluskey says. “There has been no caretaker for the past four years. The building is more than 50 years old and there are major issues of disrepair and maintenance. Over the past eight years, like all schools, we’ve been hit by capitation cuts. Any funding we do receive is absorbed into our increased running costs.

“Across Ireland, schools have become more dependent on voluntary contributions and parent fundraising efforts, but in areas such as this, that isn’t an option. We are increasingly compromised in the delivery of a quality education and support to our students.”

The school is increasingly reliant on voluntary support and trainees to deliver basic therapeutic interventions, including a play therapy programme. Child and family support agency Tusla is helping to fund a school completion programme.

It’s not all doom and gloom at the school, however. A grant is enabling them to make significant investment in new technologies, including laptops, PCs and projectors.

Deis, which provides additional supports to disadvantaged schools, is widely seen by teachers and policy-makers as having helped children.

Recent figures from the Economic and Social Research Institute show it has led to a rise in pupil performance and that school completion rates are up. But McCluskey, a long-time and outspoken advocate for disadvantaged families and communities, believes the funding provided has been inadequate to deliver real equality of opportunity.

Greater supports and funding for primary schools would remediate the issues and slow or pause the increasing inequality in Irish society. It would bring primary teaching back to where it was before the recession, says McCluskey.

“Bringing back middle-management positions and posts of responsibility would also help. This manifests in schools as unequal conditions leading to unequal outcomes.

“Capitation doesn’t take into account the age or size of the building that we are trying to heat or light. More funding for primary schools would mean we can pay our running costs.”


  • No more than 20 pupils per class: Initiatives in Canada and the US shown that smaller class sizes lead to better outcomes.
  • Equal funding: In 2006, Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman conducted a review of research, which showed that investing in the education of young children – particularly disadvantaged children – delivers a higher economic return than investment in later years.
  • Lift the promotions ban: A paper produced by various education experts for the UK department of education says no school can turn around its pupil achievement trajectory without talented and resourced leadership.
  • Invest in teachers: OECD figures show that countries with the highest level of investment in teachers tend to have the best education systems. The INTO wants more continuous professional development, reversal of pay cuts and fair pay for newly qualified teachers.
  • Reverse cuts to special needs provision: About one in five children require additional supports in school. Reports from the National Council for Special Education have called for more information for parents and greater support for teachers.
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