Government Must Reverse Harsh Education Cuts Now – Speech on Fianna Fáil Seanad Private Members Motion in Seanad Éireann

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Minister, members on all sides of this House appreciate the scale of the budgetary adjustment that has to be achieved over the next few years.

We know that the gap between state income and expenditure must be narrowed.

We acknowledge that Ireland is required to meet very challenging targets under the terms of the EU-IMF programme.

And we understand that the Government will have to make difficult decisions over the coming years.

But you do have choices Minister. The Troika has made this very clear. I met with them during their visit to Dublin last month and asked if they had insisted on the type of education cuts that you delivered last December. Their answer was an emphatic ‘No’. Ireland must achieve its overall targets under the programme, but it is up to the Government to decide where exactly cuts are to be made.

You had options in Budget 2012 Minister. Regrettably you picked the most regressive ones.

 Overall Cuts

By contrast with other budgets over the last 3 years – the distributive impact of Budget 2012 was extremely regressive. In earlier Budgets, those who could afford it paid more overall. But as the ESRI and others have pointed out, Budget 2012 hit the poorest sectors of our society as much, if not more, than the wealthiest.

On the night of the Budget, RTE’s Six One News highlighted how a family with a joint income of 150,000 Euro would be down 1,020 Euro as a result of the budget changes, while a family dependent on social welfare would lose 1,070 Euro.

Lone parents were singled out for particularly harsh treatment, as were people with disabilities.

But it was in education that the most damage was done.

DEIS Schools

Beneath the mask of a Budget which claimed to protect disadvantaged schools lay cuts which threaten to do untold damage to our poorest communities.

And behind the spin about protecting frontline services and not reducing the pupil teacher ratio lay the reality of an attack on our most vulnerable children.

Schools serving the most disadvantaged areas in the country were singled out for increases of up to 50% in their class sizes. Supports for pupils with emotional and behavioural problems were axed. And teaching resources for children with special needs in DEIS schools were also significantly reduced.

These cuts are not just incredibly socially regressive they are also economically stupid. They will undo much of the progress that has been made in our disadvantaged schools over the last ten years. And ultimately they will result in far greater costs for the State in the long run – not just in education but also in social welfare, in housing and most regrettably of all in the Garda budget.

Just after the Budget, I highlighted in this House the example of Darndale Junior National School which has been benefitting up to now from classes of just 15 pupils. When the smoke had cleared from Budget 2012, it became evident that the school stood to lose 5 of its 16 classroom teachers, with class sizes set to rise by a shocking 50% in one fell swoop.

The tragedy is that – like many schools targeted for extra resources under previous initiatives – Darndale Junior National School has made great progress in recent years. With small classes and truly dedicated teachers, they have delivered a targeted literacy programme which has been held up by the Department of Education as an example for others.

For the first time, children from one of the poorest areas of the country are reading on a par from those from wealthier areas. This is an incredibly positive sign for the future of a community that has for too long suffered from inter-generational social and economic disadvantage. This progress has been hard won. But unfortunately it can be very easily lost.

Darndale Junior National School is just one example of a school that is doing its best to improve the life chances of children from disadvantaged areas. Others in the Dublin North East area include St Josephs National School Macroom, St Francis Junior and Senior National Schools in Priorswood and Darndale Senior National School. All will lose teachers as a result of Budget 2012.

Minister, you have admitted that you made mistakes in the Budget and you have announced a review.

But two months later, schools are still no clearer about how exactly they will be affected next September.

Your department has refused to answer parliamentary questions on the number of teachers that individual schools will lose.

But I know from school principals in my own area that about 20 posts may be lost from the Dublin 17 area alone. According to the Ballymun Principals Network, a further 20 posts may be removed from Ballymun schools. The same picture is likely to be repeated in inner city Dublin and in many other parts of the country unless these cuts are reversed.

It is evident that no cost-benefit analysis has been carried out by the Government on the long-term impact of these cuts.

Indeed, not only are they socially regressive, they will cost the State far more in the long term.

Special Needs Cuts

While schools serving the most disadvantaged areas are to lose the most in terms of classroom teachers, all DEIS schools will suffer as a result of the disimprovement in the ratio for the general allocation model.

In addition, the removal of support teachers for children with emotional and behavioural problems will have negative consequences not only for such children themselves but also for their whole class as teachers will struggle to maintain a safe and calm learning environment.

The new restriction on allowing schools to combine teaching allocations under different schemes for children with special needs will also cause real problems for schools. I can’t see any rationale for this change. Perhaps you can take this opportunity to explain it to the House.

Guidance Counselling Service

The removal of guidance counsellors from our second level schools will also hit our most vulnerable young people the most.

To quote the ESRI, “young people from less advantaged backgrounds are far more reliant on advice from their school in making post-school decisions, particularly regarding higher education”.

Such young people may have little or no history of higher education in their family or even in their community. Not only may they be baffled by the range of post leaving cert options open to them, they may well need to be convinced of the value of going to college at all. Guidance counsellors have an essential role to play in encouraging such young people to reach their full potential.

More importantly, especially in the current environment, they are also provide free, confidential, one-to-one counseling support to students.

Many young people have to deal with a wide range of personal problems while they are at school – including bereavement, eating disorders and difficulties with coming to terms with their sexual orientation. Others may be living with huge problems in their home – an alcoholic parent, a marriage breakup or even physical or sexual abuse. Unfortunately for some, school may be their only safe space and their guidance counsellor may be their only confidante.

Of course, all teachers try to help their pupils as best they can. But the Guidance Counsellor is the only teacher who is specifically tasked with a this role. Many have also undertaken specialized training programmes to enable them to meet the counseling needs of their students. A service which has taken 40 years to build up will now be lost overnight.

Minister, you have claimed that you are giving schools flexibility but we all know that this is spin designed to distract from a cut in the pupil teacher ratio by the back door. In reality, schools will have to choose between offering guidance and offering a range of subjects at different levels. The Guidance Counselling service is likely to be the loser and the impact will be felt most by our most vulnerable students.

Again, I have to question the economic rationale for this cut. The 2004 OECD Report on Career Guidance & Public Policy stated that career guidance helps to “make better use of our educational resources, and to increase both individual and social returns from investment in education”. Guidance is not an optional add-on; it is an essential component of a smart education system.

Rural Schools & Postgraduate Students

My colleagues will elaborate on the impact of the Budget cuts on small schools and in particular on gaelscoileanna, Gaeltacht schools and those catering for children of minority faiths.

As our motion points out, small schools are at the heart of rural Ireland. Minister Quinn has told them that they should “consider their future”. It is extraordinary that such a statement has been made, and that major cuts in staffing resources for small schools have been announced, in advance of the publication of the Review of Small Schools that is currently underway. Senators may also be aware that the Irish Primary Principals Network has put forward very sensible proposals in relation to small schools which also don’t seem to have been given any real consideration by the Minister.

Before I conclude, I would like to highlight the impact that the complete removal of maintenance grants will have on postgraduate students. As the President of the Union of Students in Ireland has pointed out, “A student, no matter how talented, will not be able to continue in education any further than their own financial resources permit.”

Again, this decision makes no sense on social or economic grounds. Having a highly-skilled workforce will be essential for Ireland’s economic recovery. We should be doing everything we can to support students from all backgrounds to progress to Masters and PhD level and attain the knowledge and expertise that will help to maintain and grow investment and employment in this country in the years to come. Instead the Government is pushing young people onto the dole – at a far greater cost to the State. Or worse still – forcing them to emigrate. 

Conclusion

To conclude Minister, members on all sides of this House appreciate that savings have to be made. But cuts in public expenditure should be fair and they should be strategic. The education cuts provided for in Budget 2012 are neither.

The Government had choices in the Budget. Our party, in its alternative Budget, clearly set out how savings could be made in other areas that would have rendered these harsh education cuts unnecessary. You could, for example, have raised 40 million Euro by increasing the Universal Social Charge just for those earning over 115,000 Euro. But you chose not to.

Minister Hogan managed to find an unbudgeted 20 million Euro in his department yesterday to fund a U-turn on the previously announced septic tank registration charge.

The Government could find the money to make a U-turn in relation to septic tanks. Yet it is standing over cuts that will affect our most vulnerable children.

Minister Quinn has admitted that the Government made mistakes in the Budget. Now you must go further and undo those mistakes. Not review them. Not reshape them. But reverse them.

Let there be no doubt – short-term savings in education will cost the State a lot more in the long term.

We only get one childhood. Please don’t deprive children in the most disadvantaged areas of this country of the only chance they have of getting a fair start in life.

Don’t tear out the heart of our rural communities.

And don’t force our young people to go on the dole or to emigrate instead of availing of a postgraduate education.

Do the right thing and reverse these cuts now.

 

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