Ukrainian schools challenge exposes crisis in Irish education

Chronic underlying systemic problems a consequence of threadbare funding

‘Schools briefly experienced what it was like to have adequate funding during the pandemic, as the Government frantically threw money at the problem of keeping schools open. That funding is expected to dry up in the near future.’ Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA

‘Schools briefly experienced what it was like to have adequate funding during the pandemic, as the Government frantically threw money at the problem of keeping schools open. That funding is expected to dry up in the near future.’ Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA

 

In 2019, if anyone had suggested that schools would soon face a global pandemic followed by an influx of refugees triggered by a European war, it would have sounded more like the plot of a dystopian young-adult novel than any potential educational future.

Ironically, schools are much more likely to be undone by mundane issues such as decades of underfunding and the impact of the lack of housing on teacher recruitment than by these dramatic events.

It is not that these last two years have been easy. A friend of mine who is heavily involved in the world of primary education put it to me this way: “You felt like you were just raising your head after Covid-19 and then someone came in with a hurley and took the top of your head off.”

He was referring to March, when the pandemic certainly was not over but the Ukrainian refugee crisis was already unfolding. Nonetheless, schools have weathered the unprecedented influx of traumatised pupils better than might be expected. 

The nagging question concerns what happens when this moves from an acute crisis to a chronic one, in a system that was already under severe stress.

Lisdoonvarna

Take somewhere such as Lisdoonvarna, which has become emblematic because of the sheer numbers it is absorbing. The population doubled from 800 to 1,600 in a few weeks. The parish schools, three primary and one small secondary school, convened a meeting when the refugee crisis began. They all took deep breaths and decided that their ethos would not permit them to do anything except extend a full welcome. 

As one of the primary principals, Brian Carty, said, it is hard enough to start in a new school without starting in a new culture, a new language and a new country, never mind having been forced to flee.

Mary Immaculate Secondary School in Lisdoonvarna is a co-educational post-primary school. Before the influx it had had about 250 pupils. By the end of March it had 50 additional pupils from Ukraine, some with excellent English, some with very little. 

Meanwhile, tiny Kilshanny primary school, which used to have 28 pupils, now has an additional 25 Ukrainian children, one of whom scored four goals in a recent Gaelic match.

While the case of Lisdoonvarna and surrounding areas has attracted international attention and the principals have had to add liaising with the media to their already overflowing plates, schools all around the country have stepped up to the challenge.

In fairness to the Department of Education, it has been quick to put in English as an alternative language (EAL) support and has even supplied additional teachers. Right around the country, it has been reported, particularly by primary schools, that the application process for EAL support is easy to navigate.

Ukrainians are patriotic. They want both to maintain links and to go back. That is one of the reasons that some Irish schools are facilitating online learning through the Ukrainian National Online School, an impressive initiative of the Ukrainian government that began during the pandemic. It carries full lessons in all subjects for both primary and post-primary pupils.

The reality is that no one knows how long the disastrous, tragic conflict will drag on or how long it will take Ukraine to even begin to recover. Meanwhile, in Ireland, SVP is yet again issuing nationwide appeals to help it continue the sterling work it has done to help schools find funding for basic necessities like schoolbooks and school bags.

On one level, the integration of Ukrainians, particularly into the local education system, is a success story, a story of resilience and resourcefulness on the part of schools and local communities. On another, it has also exposed the threadbare funding that has crippled Irish education for so long.

A recent OECD report showed that at second level, Ireland’s education spending is the lowest of the 36 countries for which figures are provided. We are trailing way behind the OECD and European averages.

Recruitment crisis

The challenge of finding Ukrainian teachers follows years of a general recruitment and substitution crisis that has seen schools barely limping along while the management quietly ages from stress.

This is only going to get worse, not least because teachers cannot afford to buy houses, particularly in Dublin. To take just one example, even though the number of qualified home economics teachers graduating this year increased, you still cannot get a home economics teacher for love or money.

Schools briefly experienced what it was like to have adequate funding during the pandemic, as the Government frantically threw money at the problem of keeping schools open. That funding is expected to dry up in the near future. 

In one primary school that I know, the principal anticipates heating and electricity costs to rise by 30 per cent and essential cleaning costs to rise by 10 per cent, a total increase in costs of €13, 650. Where is he supposed to get this money from?

Schools are more than willing to be generous to those experiencing a horrific crisis such as the war in Ukraine. But you cannot draw water from a well forever where the water level has been dropping for years. 

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.