News Analysis

Thursday 28 August 2014

Daniel McConnell: School's back, but where are ministers?

Ruairi Quinn needs to grab our education system by the horns

Daniel McConnell, Political Correspondent

Published 25/08/2013 | 05:00

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AGENDA: Ruairi Quinn was not available for interview as his department faces swingeing cuts in the Budget

Education in Ireland is in major crisis. As this newspaper revealed two weeks ago, Minister Ruairi Quinn has to make cuts of €100m in the coming October budget to meet Troika targets.

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He can't touch 80 per cent of his €9bn budget, relating to pay and pensions as they are protected under the Haddington Road Agreement.

He has rolled back on previously made cuts so he has to find an additional €22m and he has to make payments of €40m to victims of clerical abuse as part of the redress scheme.

Given the scale of the education crisis that has emerged since last weekend, primarily around the scale of cuts now facing Mr Quinn and the likelihood of the student grant being cut, as well as a swathe of other "awful cuts" currently on the table, we asked him for an interview.

"He's not available, he's not around," came the response.

So we then asked could we have a sit-down with either Ciaran Cannon or Sean Sherlock, the two junior education ministers, to get answers to our many questions. "No one is around," came the response.

So, even though major cuts are now facing Quinn in the coming Budget, and in the week that thousands of students received their CAO offers, not one of the responsible ministers was around.

Their absence is particularly galling given the "unacceptably high" number of errors in state exam papers this summer.

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) sought to blame the major exodus of staff from the public service under the Croke Park deal for the high error count.

The SEC blamed "the rapid and unplanned departure of so many of the division's most senior and experienced subject specialists". Over the past three years 40 per cent of its staff had left, most through incentivised early retirement schemes brought in as the State tried to economise in the face of a major financial crisis.

As result, 30 per cent of current senior exam assessment managers had been appointed in the last 12 months alone, the report said.

While it is legitimate to say the exodus would have clearly had an impact on services, it is also very convenient for those who have remained to blame the system rather than take responsibility themselves for the unforgiveable calamity.

The major failure of the mass exodus was that it was a crude sweep across the board rather than being a targeted approach, which would have weeded out those who were no longer essential, as happens in the private sector all the time.

What should have happened is that such specialists, as in the SEC, should have been told their application to go was refused. The brain drain that Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin allowed to happen was outrageous.

But the other failure of Croke Park is the lack of reform that would have meant proper accountability for those who fouled up. Why isn't Aidan Farrell, CEO of the SEC, who was appointed on a salary of €128,000 in 2010, being hauled over the coals for what went wrong?

Because we don't do that here. Rather we blame the system. Give me a break. Rather than the Seanad being recalled for its farcical sitting on the issue of organ donation, why didn't the Oireachtas Education Committee convene and demand Farrell and Quinn explain themselves?

Chairwoman Joanna Tuffy should have followed the lead of John McGuinness and the Public Accounts Committee, who in 2011 had former Department of Finance boss Kevin Cardiff and his key officials in before them within 48 hours to explain the €3.6bn that had gone missing. That is proper accountability.

Yet, as a result of such failures, all the time, those who rely on the service, in this case Leaving and Junior Cert students suffer the consequences.

As we detailed last weekend, those in education face worsening standards, larger classes, cuts to special needs services while having to pay more.

Ruairi Quinn, at 67 years of age and likely edging toward retirement, has a golden opportunity to grab this broken system by the horns and implement the reforms that are so badly needed. He faces immense opposition from powerful vested interests, like teachers' unions, who regularly disgrace themselves in their neverending campaign of naked self-preservation.

But enough is enough. With such painful cuts on the cards, what we need is a truly level playing field. Taxpayers and students deserve nothing less.

Sunday Independent

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