Business

Sunday 11 December 2016

Hard lessons we need to learn from the legacy of foolishness

Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00

The U-turn on the education budget illustrates the problems facing the Government

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TO make any sense of the recent twist and turns of the education budget, it is better to work backwards. That way, one sees a few things one might have missed going forward (and I mean that literally; not, as it so often means nowadays "in the future").

Going back along the tangled path, we learn from Education Minister Ruairi Quinn that the disadvantaged schools had made "a compelling case," that he should reverse the proposed cuts in their teaching numbers.

One can easily imagine that it would be possible to make a compelling case along these lines. It is not so easy to imagine how Mr Quinn could have missed it in the first place.

But then came the bit you might have missed while it was happening -- the "legacy" teachers. It seems that, under previous efforts to help disadvantage schools, some did get extra resources while others, with just as good a case, did not.

There are lots of legacies of that kind. The whole sorry mess in the country is a legacy: a legacy of foolishness, political jobbers and maladminstration. The legacies must be abandoned and the Coalition is struggling to do so.

There are plenty such legacies in education. Schools were often built or refurbished, not on the basis of need, but on the grounds of electoral advantage to the government of the day.

It is a mistake to see the crisis as simply a €13bn hole in the public finances, which is usually the only reason given by ministers for unpopular decisions.

It is also a crisis of what created the €13bn hole -- which was more like €20bn when the crisis broke.

That fits in rather neatly with the Exchequer's probable share of around €100bn borrowed abroad by the banks during the bubble, which washed into government coffers through tax revenues.

The borrowing, and therefore the tax revenues, have stopped, but most of the money was spent on things that have a permanent cost.

Extra resources for disadvantaged schools may well be a cost worth paying. It could even produce a long-term return through better-educated children which more than covers the cost. But it took a long time to put together a system capable of even providing a cost-benefit analysis along those lines.

There were more than eight separate schemes, as well as unequal treatment of different schools before the previous government eventually created the more comprehensive Deis system for such schools.

The legacy was that the previously selected schools held on to the advantages they already had, while getting the benefits of the new scheme. Anyone with a knowledge of Irish politics will know that new initiatives nearly always land on top of existing systems. Nothing is ever abolished.

Mr Quinn's idea was to put all such schools on the same footing. The compelling argument is that the status quo should remain just that. It is an argument that pops up everywhere: that what we have is the best possible arrangement. Just looking around, that seems unlikely.

One wonders if Mr Quinn had spelt out chapter and verse more forcefully -- particularly on the schools that remain at a disadvantage in the disadvantage scheme -- if he might have been able to head off these so compelling arguments.

Perhaps his heart wasn't really in it. His original plan to increase pupil-teacher ratios was vetoed by the Government's Economic Council -- whose members, incredibly, include Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.

On that basis, Mr Quinn has been playing catch-up ever since, because the money has to be saved. Now that he is obliged to live with the disadvantaged legacy, the government grant to all schools will be cut -- because the money still has to be saved.

If you wonder why I am banging on so much about education, it is because this is a perfect little morality play about the correction of the public finances. A correction which has at least three years to run, after which public money will be in short supply for a generation.

In such circumstances, there are two options: try very, very hard to figure out the best use for tax revenues, or figure out what is the easiest thing to do, and hang the consequences.

Education seems to be an area where this kind of message is not making much headway. There are plenty of new complaints about the cuts to basic equipment and facilities, such as heating, which will follow the latest decision.

There is less evidence of any thought about the choices that finally led to this cheapskate result, and the alternative choices that might have been made.

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