Quinn faces reality check in education reform drive

 

ANALYSIS:The Minister’s room for manoeuvre is limited as the Croke Park deal means salary cuts cannot be considered

MINISTER for Education Ruairí Quinn has been cutting a dash since he arrived in Marlborough Street four months ago.

There has been a constant flow of initiatives and reform on everything from literacy standards to school patronage to the establishment of Solas, the so-called new Fás. For his senior staff it has been an exhausting if exhilarating period with plenty of good PR for their boss.

But there is also the sense of calm before the storm. “We have no choice but to make substantial cuts in the education funding as we prepare for the budget . . . the only question is who should bear the pain?” says one senior source.

To his credit Quinn has been very forthright on the issue of education spending. In advance of the teacher conferences, he told the unions in very direct terms that they were wasting their time pleading for extra resources – the cupboard is bare . And his line: “Ladies and gentlemen, Ireland is in receivership”, has become something of a mantra at education conferences in the past three months.

As a senior, experienced Minister, Quinn is also aware of his responsibilities to colleagues. “I have told Brendan Howlin I will deliver ,” he said last week.

However, this will be no easy task.

Quinn’s problem is that his room for manoeuvre is limited. While the education budget exceeds €9 billion, about 80 per cent of this goes on pay and pensions for the 90,000 staff who work in schools, colleges and in administration. Essentially, all of this is off limits because of the Croke Park agreement which rules out pay cuts until 2014. Quinn can do nothing, for example, about the 200 people in the higher education sector who are still earning in excess of €150,000 per year or about the scores of others who earn more than €100,000.

Instead, he must cast around for cuts in frontline services which will inevitably affect the quality of the educational provision to children and students.

The controversy over proposed cuts to special needs assistants has given the Minister a taste of what he might expect if he embarks on serious cost-cutting across the education sector.

The cuts have already generated huge controversy even though the potential savings for the department in maintaining the (Fianna Fáil-imposed) ceiling of 10,575 special needs assistants is relatively modest.

The concern among the Quinn team is that cuts across a whole range of education services would force the new Minister to put out fires throughout the sector. Worse still,

it could undermine the goodwill and support he has accumulated and has built up for his ambitious reform agenda over the past 100 days.

All of this explains why the department’s big idea when it comes to budget savings is to increase class size. As the McCarthy report illustrated two years ago, an increase in class size is the most ruthlessly effective means of cutting education spending – outside of pay cuts.

From the department’s perspective the savings are significant. Even the most modest increase in the staffing schedule for primary and second level schools will yield savings of close to €80 million per year. Better still, the department enjoys some political cover as the EU-IMF deal signals support for an increase in class size, unless equivalent savings can be found elsewhere.

That said, the proposed increase in class size will have a huge impact across the sector. Larger classes are bad news for schools and teachers, for parents and their children and, not least, for those in teacher training who face record levels of graduate unemployment.

The proposed increase means that Irish classrooms at primary level – already among the most overcrowded in the EU – will be even larger. At second level, fewer teachers means less subject choice and a narrower range of pastoral services. In the teacher training colleges larger classrooms simply translates into fewer jobs.

A one point increase in the pupil teacher ratio means there will be more than 1,000 fewer teaching posts in the system next year.

It does not have to be this way. But it is a familiar picture in Ireland’s chronically underfunded education system.

And things are getting worse, not better.

Last week Quinn told the MacGill Summer School how education’s share of the national cake has actually contracted in recent years. Fifteen years ago 19 per cent of the exchequer’s gross expenditure went on education, 21 per cent on health and 22 per cent on social welfare.

And the current figures? Only 16 per cent on education, 25 per cent on health and 36 per cent on social welfare. As the Minister noted, this “dramatic shift has taken place without any real discourse about our national priorities”.

Ireland still has one of the lowest levels of education spending relative to gross domestic product in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, despite all that took place during the boom years. That is why schools muddle through without adequate secretarial or support facilities, why the IT revolution has still to arrive and why a Minister with a reforming zeal may have little option but to increase class size.

In his MacGill address last week, Quinn called for a national debate on the very low spending priority we continue to give education. The hope must be that the proposed move on class size will help fire this debate.

SPENDING

4.7%

Ireland spends 4.7 per cent of GDP on education, languishing close to the bottom of OECD spending tables. The average is 6.2 per cent of GDP dedicated to education spending

27th out of 31

During the peak years of the Celtic Tiger, education spending in Ireland was the fourth lowest among 31 OECD states

CLASS SIZE

24

There are an average of 24 pupils in Irish classrooms, compared with an EU average of 20. The smallest classes are to be found in Luxembourg, with an average 15 pupils per class. Irish class sizes are among the largest in the OECD and second-largest in the EU

106,000+pupils are in classes of 30 or more

8,000children are still being educated in classes of 35 pupils or more


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