Sunday 22 April 2018

Nurses don't bake cakes to pay for heating - why must schools?

In my opinion... John  Boyle

INTO president John Boyle
INTO president John Boyle

Budget day is still five months away but planning for the funding of vital public services has already started in Government departments. Across the public service, spreadsheets are being prepared, lines of expenditure scrutinised and demands for increased spending considered. In this sense, education is little different from defence, justice, health or agriculture.

But where education funding does differ from most other public services is that the Department of Education knows, when it comes to primary schools, it can part-fund our schools and rely on charity to keep the show on the road.

This doesn't happen in other departments. Can you imagine gardaí organising sponsored walks to pay for petrol for a patrol car or concerned citizens gathering to pack supermarket bags to pay for the local station to be painted?

Nurses don't hold raffles to fund the cleaning of hospitals or to pay for a fill of oil to heat the wards on which they work. Yet each and every year, primary schools have to find money to meet day-to-day running costs. It's an extraordinary state of affairs that visitors from other countries find hard to believe.

There's one reason, and one reason alone, why schools have to take on fundraising activities - and that's Government under-funding. At primary level, Government gives schools less than €1 per pupil per day for school running costs. That goes nowhere near meeting the real running costs such as heating, light and electricity, cleaning, insurance, office expenses and classroom equipment.

To keep the doors open for the full school year, schools take on charity walks, readathons, race nights, golf classics, social evenings for parents, raffles, cake sales, sales of work, 'Guess the Score' in sporting competitions, book sales and school lotto, and charge for concerts, school plays or shows. And that's only a selection of the fundraising activities primary schools undertake.

That's how schools make sure they can meet the real costs. It doesn't mean they are coining it. Even with this level of income generation, they need to juggle finances carefully.

This year, schools have bought heating oil on credit from a local supplier. This year, schools have had to schedule and sequence payments to creditors to make sure that finances stay above water for as long as possible.

Primary schools are being subsidised by parents, local communities and teachers. Every parent, grandparent and neighbour who has filled out a sponsorship card knows it.

It is the equivalent of imposing a local education tax by stealth on parents and families, something that is completely unacceptable.

School running costs should be fully met by the Department of Education. Relying on parents to make up the annual shortfall has to stop.

Education is not a charity and it is time the state funded the real costs of education. The challenge for the Department of Education this year is to provide significant funding increases for primary schools. The current minister has repeatedly outlined his hope to make Irish education the best in Europe within a decade. Wishing the ends without providing the means is fantasy, pure and simple.

The primary PE curriculum includes swimming, but Government doesn't fund pool, swimming coaches or transport costs. Indeed, most primary schools do not have an indoor PE facility, unlike second level.

Art is a required subject in primary schools, yet parents are required to fund every brush, piece of paper and drop of paint, unlike at second level, where funding for materials and art rooms is the norm.

Science labs and material grants support are features of second level science. Primary schools don't get a red cent from Government to deliver a science curriculum. Government doesn't even provide the cost of a tin whistle to a music curriculum which seeks to develop musicianship. This year, in preparing budgets for primary schools, it's time to put the fairy tale of Government funding to primary schools aside and look at reality.

An additional €30m would, at a minimum, return school funding to where it was before the austerity cuts of the last decade. This is the very least that is required.

If that was delivered in October's Budget, there would at least be a basis for discussing how Europe's fastest-growing economy can deliver Europe's best education system.

John Boyle is president of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO)

Irish Independent

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