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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Weakest pupils to lose out from Quinn's changes

Cutting the number of career guidance staff is a cynical 'saving' that will only backfire on us all, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 08/01/2012 | 05:00

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With all that has been going on in terms of budget cutbacks, the most nasty and insidious one in terms of education is making career guidance teachers part of the normal teacher allocation in schools.

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Most people have no understanding of what is involved here, so in general this change passed unnoticed. What it will mean in reality is that schools will have fewer teachers and bigger classes as almost every school will have to cut their teaching numbers from September.

At the time, the Department of Education said this was the only alternative to increasing the pupil-teacher ratio. But the net effect is the same -- almost all schools will experience an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio.

On top of the cuts made in previous years this represents another reduction of two teachers for my school, as due to the cutbacks relating to guidance teachers' hours we won't be able to replace teachers who are retiring. The same applies pro rata around the country.

By this measure being dressed up as putting career guidance teachers back into classrooms, as if they were not working already, the Government has used spin in a most cynical fashion to give the impression to the public that this was merely a better way of using teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The career guidance teachers are a necessity, especially given that they provide a counselling service to young vulnerable people.

This change should have provoked a storm of protest, but the public in general, and parents in particular, have been so battered by bad news that they feel there is nothing that can be done except bear it. Well, that is not the case at all. Education is in a shambles and a lot of it has been caused by bad decisions at central level and, of course, the Croke Park agreement.

When the agreement was being debated, I wrote in this paper that it was the deal of the century for teachers, and instead of debating it, they should have grabbed it with both hands. But that did not go down too well with many teachers who thought it was a bridge too far, and I received an earful from plenty in the profession.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost but the fear many of us in school management positions had at the time that this agreement -- negotiated between unions and the Department of Education with no school management involvement -- would end up causing long-term damage is now a reality.

The department had an opportunity to set education on the right track for the future but it made a mess of it. The unions more or less wrote the agreement, and now there is not a hint of protest from them when teachers are going to lose their jobs. The real problems for those of us trying to cobble together a timetable will come next summer when there are fewer teachers for the same or greater numbers of students.

The net result of these cutbacks will be a real difficulty in actually being able to provide the weekly 28 hours tuition, as required. If that problem is overcome the actual results will be bigger classes all round, and where schools were able to provide Foundation classes at Leaving Cert level in subjects like Maths and Irish, they are very likely to be the first casualty. Who suffers most? The weakest, of course.

Most commentators don't understand the logistics of how cuts hit schools or what they actually mean in framing a timetable. But let nobody be in any doubt that these latest cutbacks will hit hardest those who need most help.

Of course, Minister Ruairi Quinn will say that he had to make savings. But there are plenty of other ways that the €10.14m for this year could be saved, or €32m in a full year. It costs €1.17bn a year to pay teachers in the secondary sector and this leaves out the pay in the VEC schools whose figures were not available. It would take a very small reduction per head (maybe as low as 2 per cent or net 1 per cent) to keep the 500 teachers in the system that the Government wants to get rid of.

Naturally the minister and his friends don't want to start a war with their comrades in the unions, but if they want to show leadership and tell the truth this is what must happen.

This is how the necessary money can be found to protect teacher numbers. If the minister does not want to make a very small reduction in pay he could scrap the Supervision and Substitution scheme which costs €36m. At a stroke and without changing pay, the money becomes available. He could also have all in-service training outside of school time and so save a fortune on paying substitutes.

On top of that he could do the same with oral exams, pay the teachers to do them during the Easter holidays and save on the subs who must go into classes while teachers are away in other schools doing these vital tests.

And in a new Croke Park deal he could make the extra hour that was put in for meetings after school available for timetabling purposes, which would solve a lot of problems at a stroke. The bottom line is that he could save a multiple of the €32m needed if he really wanted to.

The greatest crime of all is to offer incentives to teachers to leave the profession. It makes much more sense to keep these people in than give them attractive pensions to get out. I don't begrudge these teachers their pensions at all, and we will lose two great educators this year -- who have given long and very distinguished service -- but this incentive to retire is merely a bookkeeping exercise where the Government can claim it is reducing numbers in the public sector.

It makes no social, economic or educational sense to lose so much talent and then not replace it by making a cynical cut in the career guidance allocation. It is absolute lunacy and the cost of these pensions will be a drag on the economy for decades.

At the same time the minister wants to make changes to the Junior Cert. This is certainly worth supporting, but the nuts and bolts must be put in place before making big decisions which can't be implemented in the short run. This has been put off for a while but nobody seems to have worked out what to do with a specialist teacher in something like music or art if that subject is not part of the reduced number of subjects for the new Junior Cert.

And this minister, who talks about reform and wants better standards in literacy and numeracy, should think before he acts on teacher-number reductions. They are a bit contradictory. Every school and every teacher will play their part in this new drive but the weakest are going to lose out from these changes which are not needed to be made, as my figures demonstrate.

Anyway, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test on literacy and numeracy in the past probably overestimated Ireland and now slightly underestimates our performance. I would be very surprised if this year's test does not show a big improvement in comparison with other countries.

What is happening now is that the work of career guidance teachers is being completely undervalued in order to massage figures to show a reduction in public-sector numbers. The minister has also embarked on a crusade to get the church out of primary schools, an easy target at the moment, but there is no great demand for that. Set up new schools in whatever fashion you want and let people decide if they want to leave the existing ones. It won't happen in any big numbers.

If Minister Quinn wants to show proper courage and wants real reform he is aiming in the wrong direction. By hiding behind cutbacks to career guidance teachers he is dem-onstrating no vision when he won't make cuts in the areas I have outlined in order to protect the quality of teaching.

Take on your own unions and we will see what you are made of. Career guidance was a soft target. As Marc Antony said about Brutus: "This was the most unkindest cut of all." So include me out of the minister's fan club if he continues to talk about reform but actually does the opposite.

Public sector reform has been a bit of a joke, paying people off is not reform and nobody in any job has anything to fear from greater efficiencies.

As far as education goes the minister has a choice, a real choice. He can retain jobs long term by making minor adjustments to the Croke Park deal or he can tell all the excellent young people, who I see every day doing their teacher training, that they have no future in this profession. If he persists with the budget proposals as if there is no other way, he might as well buy airline tickets for all the brilliant young people who want to be teachers.

Colm O'Rourke is principal of St Patrick's secondary school, Navan, Co Meath, and a well-known GAA commentator

Sunday Independent

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