Friday 9 December 2016

In my opinion: We must drop the lie that primary schools are free

Sean Cottrell, Director, Irish Primary Principals Network

Published 22/12/2010 | 05:00

Whatever happened to free primary education? Last year, parents provided 20% to 40% of their schools' operational costs.

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Not only does this highlight the fallacy of 'free education', but when you consider that such money is from income that has already been taxed, it means that parents are subsidising the State's 3,400 schools' day-to-day running costs by up to 50%!

If that wasn't enough, the Department of Education's annual grant for schools, which is meant to fully fund operational costs, is being cut by 5%. The time has come to stop using the term 'free education'.

All schools have parents losing jobs, taking pay cuts or reduced hours. 'Voluntary contributions' are radically reduced, leaving a hole in schools' budgets.

Regardless of the economy, some parents cannot or will not contribute towards operating costs. A key value in every school is equity -- equal and fair access by all children to all learning opportunities. This means that the voluntary contribution has to cover swimming lessons, school tours, visiting theatre groups etc. A major worry now for teachers and principals is where to find money to ensure 'equity'.

This financial reality must be considered against a backdrop of other severe cuts.

The average class size has risen from 27 to 28. As this is an 'average', in reality it means there are classrooms with as few as 23/24 and as many as 32/33 pupils.

The number of Special Needs Assistants has been reduced and capped. The Government's four-year plan brings an end to the School Completion Programme, resource teachers for Traveller children, visiting teachers for children with vision and hearing disabilities and teachers of English as a second language, among other programmes.

Boards of Management will soon be directed to reduce the salaries paid to secretaries and caretakers in line with public service salary cuts. This is incredible considering that these staff are not public servants and, in most cases, are just about paid the minimum wage, unless they are lucky enough that the Board of Management can fundraise to 'top up' the inadequate grant that is meant to cover these roles.

The picture I am painting is not pretty and it doesn't take into account the financial impact of the four-year plan on principals and teachers.

Whatever the implications of reduced funding, the real damage is going to be felt by the most vulnerable children -- those with special needs, with disabilities, those without English, Traveller children and, of course, children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Having listened to numerous principals describing the challenges their schools are facing, in my opinion, the quality of primary education will be negatively affected and ultimately, standards of literacy and numeracy will suffer.

It goes against the nature of every teacher to even consider this possibility. However, if we believe that investing in education leads to improved learning outcomes, then the converse is also true. There is only so much 'making do' that can be sustained long-term.

Whether the Irish government, the EU or the IMF is responsible for what is happening to our education system, I have no doubt that the history books will record it as an act of educational sabotage.

Irish Independent

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