John Boyle: '500,000 pupils in primary schools deserve better'
As the nation emerges from recession, the damage is all too evident in schools across the country. If we are to retain our standing in the world and deliver a high level of primary education, now is the time to invest and secure our future.
Our primary education system makes it to the top of the class on a regular basis. International studies prove what parents around the country already know to be true - primary teachers in Ireland are among the best in the world.
Teachers rank among the top three most trusted professionals in Ireland and the academic standard of entrants to the teaching profession in Ireland was considered by the recent Sahlberg report to be in the same league as some of the best in the world.
But a quality education system cannot survive, let alone thrive, on praise alone. We need to put our money where our might is by investing in our teachers, our primary schools and, by extension, in the futures of our children.
Primary schools are the poor relation of the education system and fare badly compared to both second and third level. There are more than half a million children attending primary schools in Ireland and they deserve better.
During the recession, schools grants were cut by 15pc. These grants are supposed to cover the basic running costs of a school but, in many cases, fall pitifully short.
The Catholic Primary School Management Association found that parents are having to cough up over €40m a year to support basic school costs. We wouldn't expect our local GP clinic or garda station to host bake sales or bring and buys to pay the electricity bill, yet a constant cycle of fundraisers has become commonplace in our primary schools.
Primary school funding is less than €1 per pupil per day - far below international counterparts, and below the rate paid at second and third level. Unfortunately, for schools trying to balance the books, a heating or electricity bill doesn't ask whether eight-year-olds or 18-year-olds are benefiting from the utility. The cost of running a school is the same regardless of the age profile of the pupils.
When it comes to classes, size really matters. Individual attention and support becomes challenging the larger a class becomes. We need to cap classes at 20 pupils to ensure that children don't get crowded out of Irish education. Smaller classes have a particularly positive impact on younger pupils and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The projected demographic profile in our primary schools is changing, as the babies born in the boom of 12 years ago move on to secondary school. This offers a great opportunity to reduce our primary class sizes to EU average levels if the Government is willing to seize it.
Change is inevitable and our primary education system, like everything else, is constantly evolving and adapting. Improvements and progress are to be welcomed, but change needs to be managed and well-communicated.
It's easy to see schools as the salve for all that ails society, including, among other things, obesity, digital addiction and climate change. The intentions are good and a testament to the high value placed on the influential impact of teachers, but in the past few years, we have seen a seemingly endless stream of new initiatives and programmes introduced in our schools. This has led to frustration among teachers and principals who must still try to teach the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. I'm hopeful that the recently established Primary Forum on Workload will provide an opportunity to address these challenges and make the workload on our teachers and principals more manageable.
We have left the recession behind and we have great teachers, but we need to value them and invest in them. Minister Joe McHugh has called the pay inequality for teachers recruited since 2011 "unfinished business", while it's a matter of ongoing concern that primary principals are paid significantly less than their counterparts in post primary schools. It's time for these issues to be addressed. Let us look to the future and be ambitious. Our children deserve nothing less.
John Boyle was recently appointed General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO).