Teachers need to be more flexible
ADVICE CENTRE:The speed at which the economy is contracting, as jobs are lost in growing numbers and where those still in employment are drastically reducing their spending on all non-essential purchases is creating a yawning gap in Government tax revenues and in their capacity to fund day-to-day spending.
The income projections that the Department of Finance used to set the spending parameters for each Government department in the recent Budget negotiations are already seen to be wildly optimistic in the light of taxation returns for the past two months.
It is now inevitable that within months, the Government will have to radically alter their spending plans for 2009, if our Budget deficit is not to run completely out of control. If this scenario is allowed to occur, it will trigger a total loss of confidence among international investors in our capacity to "manage" ourselves out of this crisis. It is in this light that we must reflect on the continuing protests and marches by all the partners in education demanding a reversal of the severe cutbacks announced in the Budget.
THE FUTILITY OF PROTEST?
It is hard to blame the management bodies in education, the teacher unions, who represent those who work at the coalface in the sector, and the parent representative bodies i.e. those who have children working their way through the system, for using the traditional methods of lobbying and protest that have been shown to bring about changes in Government policy in the past.
Sources, who have attended meetings with the Minister for Education, Batt O'Keeffe, and his senior officials in recent weeks have reported their surprise at the non-engagement of the Department side with the arguments so passionately presented by the various delegations to reverse education cutbacks. Reports indicate that the Minister, having listened to all the presentations, simply thanked those present and brought the meeting to a close.
These reports would seem to indicate that the Minister for Education, along with his other Cabinet colleagues, is in a similar position to the captain of the Titanic on receiving a complaint from some passengers about the quality of food at dinner on that last fatal night, following the impact with the iceberg. Ministers and their senior officials are privy to information presented at Cabinet, which indicates the gravity of the financial crisis we are now facing as a nation.
HOW TO WEATHER THE STORM?
In the present context, it is futile pointing to the fact thatwe currently spend only 4.6 per cent of GDP on our education system, one of the lowest in the OECD, and almost 1 per cent lower than we spend 10 years ago. Scandinavian countries spend twice as much on their education systems. These figures are relevant in explaining why cuts in services to the most vulnerable sections of our society have been so severe and have led to such justifiable protest.
To propose that children from socially disadvantaged families, who are attending schools not classified as part of the DEIS programme to tackle educational disadvantage, will lose their entitlement to free books, that there will be a reduction in capitation funding for Travellers and that there will no provision for increases in third-level student maintenance grants for those on low income is to hit at those who cannot succeed in education without these supports. These proposals do not reflect the values of our society and must be withdrawn, no matter how difficult the financial circumstances we find ourselves in.
On the other hand, proposals such as that to bring the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools back to the 2006-2007 level and the attempt to tackle the escalating cost of the substitution and supervision system, introduced in recent years in second-level schools and currently costing €168 million per year, need to be looked at in the light of the current catastrophic decreases in tax revenues.
As someone working in a second-level school, it is patently obvious that school management cannot run schools without recourse to a budget for paid substitution cover; to enable non-classroom-based academic, sport, and career activities to take place. On the other hand, whether the present system, which operates without any caps or limits, can continue to be funded in the current environment is highly questionable. We all value the high quality of education provided within Irish schools and colleges. Now is the time for all involved to show the flexibility required to maintain that quality, through some very difficult times ahead?
• Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor at Oatlands College, Dublin and a former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors