Teachers in conference

 

THE RUN-IN to the annual teacher conferences this week has been more subdued than usual, notwithstanding serious concerns about the impact of budget cutbacks on an already under-funded education system.

For all its faults, the Croke Park agreement on public service modernisation has, at least, succeeded in providing a period of industrial relations stability across the education sector. In his address to the INTO and ASTI conferences today, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn is expected to defend his education cuts and point to green shoots of economic recovery. He can assert , with some justification, that the €9 billion education budget has been relatively well protected – when compared to other government services.

That said, the impact of these cuts is being felt in schools and classrooms throughout the State. Teachers and parents are concerned the range of subjects available to second-level students may have to be pared back because of cuts in teaching posts. New entrants to the teaching profession – who will earn 30 per cent less than their more experienced colleagues – are understandably angry. Communities across rural Ireland worry that small schools will be forced to merge or close down, despite their essential contribution to the social capital of a town or village.

Mr Quinn will be under pressure to provide reassurance on these and other possible cuts today. Delegates will also be anxious to hear more details on his ambitious reform agenda, including the report on school patronage published this morning.

The Minister deserves some credit for this and other initiatives and, not least , for his acknowledgement that we have “talked up’’ the overall quality of our education system. There are serious problems. Up to a quarter of young males are functionally illiterate. Ireland’s decline in literacy standards from 5th to 17th in the most recent OECD survey is the steepest among developed nations. On maths, Ireland was ranked 32rd of 65 countries. (Ireland’s decline since the last 2003 survey was the second largest of OECD countries.) During this week’s conferences, it would be good to hear rank-and-file teachers debate the contributing factors to this decline and their own possible remedies. Is the issue one of resources alone? Or are there more serious underlying problems?

While the education system is under scrutiny, it’s also important to acknowledge its many merits. In his Irish Times interview last week, Mr Quinn reflected on how the overall performance of the education sector compares well with other aspects of the public service. “Over one million people are involved every day in full-time education . . . and you don’t hear about trolleys in the corridors and you don’t hear about disruption. The business gets done.” It was a reminder of the many virtues of our education system. The recent Growing Up in Ireland survey pointed to another – the happiness and sense of engagement among school-going children. All of this reflects well on the commitment and enthusiasm of our teachers. They deserve more credit.