A DRAMATIC increase in the pupil-teacher ratio from one teacher for every 28 children to one for every 30 is on the cards for next month's Budget, the Irish Independent has learned.
The move would be regarded as the most direct and significant hit to frontline education services since the economic crash.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has previously tried to protect the number of teachers in the classroom but now has to find as much as €100m in cuts.
Coalition insiders acknowledge that it would be the most unpalatable education cut they would have to implement – and one that Mr Quinn has so far tried to avoid.
"It is a serious option, but it has to be on the table," a coalition source said.
The primary school pupil-teacher ratio "hasn't been touched in years but it has to be on the agenda", added the source.
The news comes amid increasing tensions over the Budget, with the Labour leadership increasingly angry at Mr Quinn being "hung out to dry" by Fine Gael.
The Irish Independent reported last week that there were now more than 121,00 children in 'supersize' classes of 30 or more – up 8,000 on the previous year. That's 24pc of four- to 12-year-olds, or virtually one in four of the children attending primary schools.
Any increase in the pupil-teacher ratio would kick in from next September, and sources said that it would save €7.5m in the remainder of 2014 and €22m in a full year.
It would mean a jump in what is known as the "staffing schedule" – or more generally the pupil-teacher ratio – to 30:1 from 28:1.
The €22m is the amount that the minister would have saved had he pressed ahead with a controversial plan to cut resource teachers and special needs assistants, which was ditched in June. The U-turn could eventually cost more than anticipated, possibly as much as €27m.
There is bitterness in Labour that Mr Quinn reversed the original decision after pressure from Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fine Gael but is now getting no leeway as Budget preparations intensify.
Mr Quinn defended last year's Budget measures by saying the Government had "protected frontline services to schools to the greatest extent possible", adding "there will be no reduction in teacher numbers in primary schools for 2013/2014".
He increased the ratio by two points for fee-paying schools in last year's Budget, from 21:1 to 23:1, but the new proposal would be much more damaging politically.
It is also likely to spark serious concern among Labour TDs and to cause worry ahead of next year's local elections.
Mr Quinn said yesterday he did not yet know the level of cuts he would have to bring in, and he would not know for definite until the end of this month.
"We won't, for example, know exactly how many people have retired," the Dublin South East TD said at the Grangegorman campus in Dublin, which will be home to the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) by 2016.
"The range, I am currently told, is between €45m and €100m-plus," Mr Quinn said, adding that any information on the Budget was "speculation that has no basis in fact".
"I want to protect frontline services," he added.
Schools are already seeing huge increases in the numbers of children enrolling because of a baby boom in recent years.
Options on possible cuts for the October 15 Budget are being drawn up in the Department of Education. However, coalition sources say the budgetary process is likely to be much shorter and sharper this year.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin – who is tasked with overseeing cuts – has yet to have face-to-face meetings, or bilaterals, with his cabinet colleagues.
Mr Howlin is attending a World Economic Forum meeting in China this week, and the Budget meetings will start next week at the earliest.