Tuesday 25 October 2016

John Walsh: Quantum leap is needed to fund education

John Walsh

Published 06/04/2015 | 02:30

The education system has suffered as a result of the cuts that have been inflicted over the past few years
The education system has suffered as a result of the cuts that have been inflicted over the past few years

It's time for the Labour Party to reclaim education as a major spending priority. It's time to invest in the future. And what better way than through pumping more resources into our schools and colleges?

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The system has suffered as a result of the cuts that have been inflicted over the past few years.

The previous Education Minister Ruairi Quinn had to bite hard before he sanctioned them but he had no option as he was part of a Government struggling to prevent the economy toppling over a cliff.

Now that it's been pulled back to firmer ground, some of the more drastic decisions can be unwound. But the education system needs more than that - it requires a quantum leap in funding.

It wasn't just education that suffered in the past few years. So too did the Government parties and particularly Labour, which saw its three seats in the European Parliament disappear and the number of local authority Labour councillors whittled to a third.

The cuts in education were not, of course, the only or even the major reason for what Joan Burton called the "shellacking" in last May's elections.

The mishandling of the announcement of water charges, the succession of damaging rows surrounding the Justice Department and Alan Shatter, the sense of drift after exiting the bailout, cuts in health and education all contributed to an annus horribilis for a Coalition which now seems to have found its mojo again, helped by a rebounding economy.

Every sector that depends on public funding, every organisation worth its lobbying salt is making its pitch for a greater share of the spoils from the increased tax revenues.

And educational bodies should be fighting their corner and shouting 'over here' in a much louder voice than they are at present.

Their case is unanswerable. A small, open, exporting economy like Ireland needs a highly literate and numerate workforce with the necessary skills to adapt to a rapidly changing work environment.

Of course, preparation for work is not the only purpose of education, which also has to prepare citizens to live morally in a multi-cultural society. But, in an increasingly globalised world, Ireland needs a steady supply of skilled people to grow indigenous industry and help attract footloose inward investment. Otherwise the competitor countries will eat our lunch.

The reality is that more investment in education is needed anyway, just to keep up with the increasing enrolments. An extra 900 new classroom teachers and 480 new resource teachers will be required next September while the once sacrosanct 'cap' on numbers of special needs assistants (SNAs) has been well and truly breached with a total of 11,330 full-time SNA equivalents by the end of this year.

But we should be aiming for more - a substantial leap in funding is needed to equip our primary and second level schools and provide urgently needed new facilities at third level which has suffered the worst cuts.

Education's share of the national cake is actually below what it was two decades ago when it received 19pc of the exchequer's gross expenditure while 21pc went on health and 22pc on social welfare.

Health inflation put its share up to a quarter of the budget and social welfare jumped as unemployment rose while education's shrank to 16pc. It has edged back to 17pc but that's still not enough.

This dramatic shift in spending priorities took place without any real debate as governments lurched from crisis to health crisis without any real control over spending in that area.

Education is easier to handle and easier to cut. It's time for Labour to cry halt and demand greater investment for all our futures.

John Walshe was special adviser to Minister Ruairi Quinn

Irish Independent

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