Breda O’Brien: Schools should be teaching instead of begging

Puny capitation grant deprives children of materials and forces staff to fundraise

A smart board replaces blackboard and chalk: if a child is interested in planes, that interest should be nurtured with toy planes, books about planes, binoculars and aviation posters. Photograph: Eric Luke

A smart board replaces blackboard and chalk: if a child is interested in planes, that interest should be nurtured with toy planes, books about planes, binoculars and aviation posters. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

As new students enter colleges hoping to learn the skills required to become good primary teachers, they might be better off brushing up on their fundraising skillset instead. Primary schools can run up to 10 fundraisers a year, everything from sponsored spelling bees to Strictly Come Dancing.

 This incessant fundraising is necessary because the funding per pupil, known as the capitation grant, has never been restored to the pre-recession levels of €200 per child.  

Second-level schools complain, with complete justification, that their capitation grant of €309 per student is utterly inadequate. But the primary sector suffers even more from underfunding, with recent increases only bringing it up to €179 per pupil, just under one euro per school day.

The grant is used for basics like insurance, heating and toilet rolls. Some primary principals speak nostalgically about the past when they were able to use the capitation grant for extras. Now, they spend their days trying to figure out what fundraising scheme they can come up with next without imposing even more burdens on the parents or the local businesses who have been asked a dozen times before.

The Catholic Primary Schools Managers’ Association commissioned a report from Grant Thornton which found that the State funds just 53 per cent of education costs at primary level.

This is an issue that unites all the patron bodies, whether they be Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, multidenominational or gaelscoileanna.

Energy and insurance costs have risen but more importantly, education has changed immensely.

Take just one initiative at junior infant level called Aistear, which is an educational strategy aimed at babies to children aged six.

Learning resources

This approach to teaching is based on following a child’s interests and questions and on building their learning around them. It flows naturally from the way children learn from play at young ages.

Play is serious business for children. The kind of focused attention you see in children at play signals, not just little people having fun, but also the development of gross and fine motor skills, problem-solving, language and social skills. 

Some materials that help children to learn in this way are cheap and easily accessible. But the Aistear resources suggest, for example, that light boxes are invaluable learning tools. Originally used by photographers to view plates, there are beautiful images online of fascinated children manipulating materials such as water beads, their faces illuminated by the soft glow of a light box. Soothing and absorbing, they allow children to explore all sorts of translucent materials in creative ways.

No school is going to invest in light boxes when they are having problems paying for light bulbs

But no school is going to invest in light boxes when they are having problems paying for light bulbs.

Learning through purposeful play can be done without a light box, for sure. Many materials are free. But again, Aistear guidelines suggest that if a child is interested in planes that it would be good to nurture that interest through providing toy planes, fiction and non-fiction books about planes, binoculars and aviation posters.

How are schools supposed to provide this? On a more modest level, even a dress-up box needs to be filled.

One primary principal I know was horrified to find a young teacher paying out of her own pocket for materials to help her junior infants have rich and creative experiences. Other schools are sending home letters to parents begging for materials.

Agents of wellbeing

Yet again, an initiative has been introduced with schools expected to manage using existing inadequate funding. 

In fairness, Joe McHugh as Minister for Education clearly favours the restoration of the capitation grant to pre-financial crisis levels.

However, he has also said he has to be prudent. But education at primary and secondary level probably has the biggest impact on children’s wellbeing aside from anything except their own parents and family circumstances.

Education at primary and secondary level probably has the biggest impact on children’s wellbeing aside from their own parents and family circumstances

It is particularly important for children who are disadvantaged. Our current system designates certain areas as disadvantaged but the majority of schools have some pupils whose families are struggling financially. 

Focus Ireland and the INTO recently published guidelines for the 27 per cent of primary schools which have some of the 2,250 children currently homeless. Children are to be provided discreetly with clean clothing or upcycled uniforms, basic hygiene supplies such as toothbrushes and hairbrushes, snacks and somewhere to nap, such as bean bags.

The fact that such guidelines are necessary is a scandal and a tragedy.

There are also lots of families who never reach the stage of homelessness but for whom the “voluntary subscription” is a major burden. St Vincent de Paul is busy bridging the gap but it should not be necessary.

Parents and other fundraising efforts subsidise primary education to the tune of €46 million every year, which is shameful when the State allegedly guarantees free primary education.

The restoration of the capitation grant to pre-financial crisis levels would cost circa €12.5 million at primary level and €13 million at post-primary level, based on current enrolment. 

The impact would be enormous. Teachers, parents, principals and boards of management could wind down some of the endless fundraising and focus their energy on teaching and learning. And student teachers could actually look forward to teaching, not constant begging.

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