00:00 Saturday 14 April 2012  Written by Editor

Must engage constructively on education

AGAINST a background where education is acknowledged by experts as a key component of successful economic recovery, Minister for Education and Skills, Mr Ruairi Quinn, TD, brought little or no comfort in his addresses this week to the annual conferences of the teachers' unions. It is very difficult - foolish in fact - to attempt to put any type of positive political spin on the underlying reality that the minister plans to continue ongoing cuts in the sector as part of the austerity programme agreed with the EU-IMF-ECB troika and that this is part of current government policy.

Sadly, the government is struggling to come up with any creative solutions in the vital area of education. For a start, it is hamstrung by the insistence that the Croke Park Agreement will be honoured in full and this leaves little room for financial maneouvre as some 80% of the education budget goes on salaries, so - in such a context - the only way to get extra value for this money is to increase the pupil-teacher ratio.

Unfortunately, this questionable move will have a knock-on effect as increased class sizes will reduce the number of teachers required and those left will not be able to give students the same levels of individual attention as before. In smaller schools, losses of teachers will ultimately lead to closures and many rural communities will suffer as a result.

When loud enough noise was made earlier this year about the effects the increase in pupil-teacher ratios would have on schools in large disadvantaged urban areas, the minister was quick to row back on these, given the political damage that they could have wreaked on his Labour Party. No such luck, however, for small rural primary schools as the minister has not felt compelled to reverse his decision as it applies to them, in spite of vociferous protests in West Cork and other areas countrywide.

At second level, an ASTI pre-conference survey of schools revealed that some 64% of them are being forced to consider dropping subjects, while teaching hours for other subjects may have to be reduced due to the ongoing cutbacks in education funding, with some 700 teaching posts to go in 2012 - career guidance teachers having to come from within existing pupil-teacher ratio allocations.

A reduction in capitation grants by 2% in both 2012 and 2013 and a further 1% in both 2014 and 2015 will make the provision of a full range of subjects difficult and, inevitably, our growing young population will suffer. One school principal described the challenges facing second-level schools as: 'Like trying to hold back a tide that threatens to wipe out the community that we have worked so hard to build up.'

Third level education faces an even bigger crisis in funding and the USI congress was last weekend told that morale was very low on campuses around the country because after completing their courses, emigration was the only option open to most graduates. The students' union passed a motion calling for a renegotiation of the Croke Park Agreement and the absence of the Minister for Education there was taken as a snub.

The disaffection among teachers and the general disarray across the education sector is just not acceptable and Ruairi Quinn should be ashamed to be presiding over such a shambles. While he inherited a lot of the mess, he now needs to urgently initiate decisive action to bring all the stakeholders together for some constructive engagement on how to address the myriad problems in a cost-effective manner, given the severe financial constraints being faced in these austere times.

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