Colm O'Rourke

Friday 1 August 2014

We should be very worried about sport in our schools

Colm O'Rourke

Published 26/10/2008|00:00

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After the storm comes the hurricane. The Government may feel that the winds will soon abate, with pensioners at least partly appeased.

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Now, though, the chill from the education sector will be felt and this will be a great deal colder as parents in particular are beginning to realise that the whole ethos of a fair and proper education system is being comprehensively dismantled.

Teachers held fire out of respect to pensioners, but it is now apparent that the changes in second level education will seriously damage classroom teaching and make extra-curricular activities either very difficult or almost impossible. It is in these activities where a lot of the learning takes place, with sport one of the main casualties.

As principal of a second level school with over 830 boys, the first shock of this budget was the increase in the pupil/teacher ratio from 18 to 19. Some think this means that class size goes up by one so what is all the fuss? However, this is just the mechanism for getting at the number of teachers.

At the old ratio, 18 into our enrolment of 830 gives you 46 full-time teachers, 19 into 830 and the number drops below 43.6. This would mean the next three teachers who leave will not be replaced. The practical effect of this is that small classes, which were created to help students struggling in Irish and maths at Junior and Leaving Cert level, would not be possible. It would discriminate completely against those who find school most difficult.

In very specialised areas where there may be only one or two teachers, such as art or music, a teacher leaving or retiring could not be replaced. The effect of that could be to wipe that subject off the school's curriculum altogether. Other changes in reducing book and subject grants and grants to Travellers will reduce our budget substantially. The increase in the capitation grant paid to schools from the department does not even cover the rate of inflation.

The book grant is used primarily to help those on Social Welfare. With that number increasing and the book grant drying up, the cuts again hurt the lower income families most. There is absolutely no social kindness evident in these proposals. The budget should protect the weakest -- in this case they will pay the biggest price.

For many, the changes to the substitution scheme will cause serious alarm among sporting organisations. At present, a teacher taking a team away for a game will be covered by a sub who gets paid. The system works well. Games, field trips, trips to the theatre and all other educational outings can be covered to ensure the maintenance of good order in schools while students benefit through learning in a more varied way.

Of course the Department of Education will argue that there is an existing system to cover that but it shows how little practical knowledge they have of the daily workings of a school if they think that system is adequate. On one day alone last week in St Patrick's Classical School in Navan, there were two groups at the local theatre, another on retreat while there were also Gaelic football and rugby games taking place.

This is what school is about on a daily basis: teachers busy educating in the proper sense of the word. With two teachers absent on the day through sickness, there would have been absolute chaos with consequent health and safety issues if paid substitutes were not available. The guru who came up with this idea must believe that education is classroom-based only; otherwise who could possibly think this is a workable proposal?

I am glad to see the GAA making their views known. As the biggest sporting organisation, they have most to lose and the flawed approach to cutbacks calls into question the whole commitment to a healthier society.

As studies show less and less exercise by young people, higher levels of obesity and general poor health, these proposals will make it far more difficult, if not impossible in some cases, for teachers to take on the role of providing games and healthy exercise. Not only that but what about the broader learning value of sport: loyalty, friendship, discipline, self-sacrifice, motivation, commitment? These are all the good qualities we like to see in young citizens while at the same time learning about diet, healthy lifestyle choices and the dangers involved in smoking and excessive alcohol.

If there is a better way to teach young people about life than through involvement in sport, then I have missed out on it. My experiences are that those with a healthy lifestyle are generally those who are high achievers academically while schools would be dull, boring and much more difficult to run without the spirit engendered by team games. School is a much more cheerful place on many of the dark winter days if there is a game to look forward to. And the teachers get as big a kick out of it as the students.

So it is not overstating it to suggest that these proposed cuts are a direct threat to the GAA as many of the traditional schools will have to take a very serious look at their capacity to release teachers. The days of leaving classes to their own devices while a teacher went to a football game are thankfully long gone.

It also seems extraordinary that while there is a direct penalty to education and sport in this budget, there is no extra tax on alcohol, apart from a minor increase in wine.

I am not a member of any union and always feel wary of large-scale agitation, but in this case the teachers' unions are absolutely right to oppose these cutbacks. So are the parents, the GAA and other sporting organisations. If implemented, these changes will signal a massive and fundamental deterioration in what education is really about.

If I had to pay more direct or indirect tax, I would not complain, but to cut a sector which is working fairly well and protects the most vulnerable is cynical and very worrying in that it shows people making big decisions who do not understand either the consequences of their actions or any appreciation of the important things in life.

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