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Why next month's Budget must deliver smaller primary classes


Emma Dineen

Emma Dineen

Emma Dineen

'You know as well as I do that the youngest children, and those with the greatest level of need, benefit from smaller classes," so the Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan told nearly 1,000 primary school teachers earlier this year at the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) annual congress in Ennis.

In next month's Budget the minister will have a chance to turn rhetoric into reality. The minister is right on this issue (something not often heard from a trade union leader). I hope she manages to convince her Cabinet colleagues that class sizes do matter, especially when it comes to young children.

We spend the first few school years learning to read and the rest of our lives reading to learn. Children that have a good reading level by the age of eight will continue to achieve well in school.

The reasons are simple. In smaller classes, teachers can help children who are struggling and give them enough time. They can spot children who have difficulties faster and do something about it. They can work with parents as well as children and, as we know, parental support and influence is a key factor in educational outcomes.

Thirty years of research shows that smaller classes benefit younger children. All the research shows that no class of young children should have more than 20 pupils.

The province of Ontario in Canada took this research on board. Over a four-year period, primary classes were reduced each year until 90pc of primary classes had 20 or fewer pupils and 100pc of primary classes had 23 or fewer pupils.

At present less than 10pc of Irish primary classes have fewer than 20 pupils. In fact, one in five has more than 30 pupils! We have the largest classes in the Eurozone and, for the last few years, have had to battle hard to stop them getting any bigger.

We now have a chance to tackle overcrowded classes and give children a better start in school. With the state finances beginning to improve we can at last look at investment rather than increasing austerity.

There is no better investment than in education and it must start at the very bottom.

Every cent spent on primary education is an investment in children at the time when they can lay down educational foundations that will stand to them throughout their lives.

Investment in primary education is investment in secondary education, in further education and in higher education.

Ensuring every child reaches his or her potential in primary school will have positive lifelong benefits, from better employment prospects to improved health and greater equality.

Investment in primary education is an investment in all of society, in every citizen.

Not everyone will go to university. Not everyone will complete secondary education. Yet every child in Ireland will attend primary school.

What they experience there will have an impact for life.

Budget 2016 can begin to turn the tide and make a positive impact on children's lives.

That's why INTO has launched its Stand Up for Primary Education campaign to look for smaller classes in the Budget.

Children get one chance at primary education. We owe it to them to make it a good one.

Emma Dineen is president of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation

Irish Independent