Standing up for our schools

 

AS THOUSANDS of schools reopen this week, the familiar debate about resources for our classrooms has restarted. On RTÉ radio yesterday, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn stressed how schools are not allowed to ask parents to pay voluntary contributions up front, before their child has been allocated a place. He was responding to reports that some schools are requesting up to €500 in pre-registration fees.

This is by no means the only complaint about voluntary school contributions; many parents resent being asked to stump up cash for basics like heating, gas and electricity in our schools. But the practice of seeking voluntary contributions from parents – via the ubiquitous “brown envelope” scheme or a sponsored walk – is a regrettable but embedded part of our education landscape.

Distasteful as these practices are, many schools feel they have little choice. By European standards, our schools – especially the 3,200 at primary level – remain chronically underfunded. The meagre capitation grant paid to schools barely covers day-to-day expenses. In many instances, schools have little option but to appeal to the good nature and generosity of parents.

This is happening because Ireland, despite the much vaunted emphasis on growing the “knowledge economy”, still has one of the lowest levels of education spending relative to gross domestic product (GDP) in the developed world. Ireland spends 4.7 per cent of GDP on education, languishing close to the bottom of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spending tables. The average is 6.2 per cent of GDP dedicated to education spending. During the peak years of the Celtic Tiger, education spending was the fourth-lowest among 31 OECD states.

And the scandal of underfunding is deepening. Last month Mr 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. Today, only 16 per cent goes 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”.

Mr Quinn has called for a national debate on the very low spending priority we continue to give education. Such a debate is long overdue. Is it right that 80 per cent of the €9 billion education budget is absorbed by pay and pensions? Is it appropriate that many teachers, academics and administrators are so well paid within such a chronically underfunded system? Is it time for a quantum leap in education funding as an investment in our future? In all of this, the Department of Education needs to play a stronger role. For too long it has been too deferential towards the officials in Merrion Street. Mr Quinn and his senior officials should take the lead in asserting the primacy of education.