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Parties outline education vote-grabbing proposals

Promises of increased grants and freezing student fees take a back seat in political debates, writes Katherine Donnelly

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School classroom. Stock picture

School classroom. Stock picture

School classroom. Stock picture

Bonus points for honours Mandarin in the Leaving Cert - the first exams are coming in 2022 - may seem an unlikely vote-grabber, but it is among the pre-election promises from Fianna Fail.

With crises in housing and health, education is not getting much attention but the parties have outlined their priorities and, alongside issues such as funding and class size, there are some unexpected proposals, such as bonus points for Mandarin. Below is a flavour of manifesto pledges, some more specific than others, from the bigger parties, on a range of topics.

PRIMARY CLASS SIZES

When the UK leaves the EU this week, Ireland will have the largest primary class sizes in the EU.

Fianna Fáil: Reduce pupil:teacher ratio (PTR) from 26:1 to 20:1 by 2025 (costed at €86.4m), and aim to bring average class sizes below EU average.

Fine Gael: Reduce the PTR further.

Greens: Reduce PTR (also at second-level).

Labour: Reduce class sizes to EU average by 2025.

Sinn Féin: Reduce PTR to 20:1 by "phasing out public subsidies for private schools".

SCHOOL FUNDING

Austerity-era cuts to grants have not been fully reversed and a recent survey found that parents in primary schools alone were forking out €46m a year in voluntary contributions and fundraising.

Fianna Fáil: Boost grants to pre-2010 levels and beyond to end practice of voluntary contributions (costed at €20m - no timeframe given).

Fine Gael: Increase grants by five per cent a year over the next five years (costed at €60m).

Greens: Reinstate grants to pre-2010 levels and end voluntary contributions for all schools.

Labour: Make primary education genuinely free of charge.

Sinn Féin: Increase core funding and legislation to end voluntary contributions.

Books/Uniforms/ Buses/Homework/ Facilities

Fianna Fáil: Prioritise investment in school sports facilities; €5m 'Edible Playground' grant to connect children with how food is grown.

Fine Gael: Free books for all primary schools phased in from 2022; abolish the charge to parents for School Transport Scheme and extend it so pupils can attend their next nearest school as well as nearest school; examine feasibility of introducing free public transport for under-18s still in education.

Greens: "Nationwide book schemes"; explore phasing out homework in primary schools.

Labour: Free school books at primary (costed at €20m in first year); uniform grant.

Sinn Féin: Free school books for all children; €140 Back to School Bonus Child Benefit Payment for every child (costed at €173m a year); legislation to ensure uniforms are affordable.

INCLUSION/ SPECIAL NEEDS

More than 500 children with autism and other special needs are in receipt of a Home Tuition grant because they don't have access to a school place. Many others are on reduced timetables.

Fianna Fáil: Five-year forecast of demand for special needs places in school catchment areas; legislation to ban inappropriate use of reduced timetables.

Fine Gael: Work with patron bodies, management and staff in providing support and training required to provide special classes; review July Provision to make it more inclusive.

Greens: Fund specific resources, particularly SNAs.

Labour: Continue to expand provision of SNAs.

Sinn Féin: Reduce waiting times for assessments/resourcing supports; 500 more SNAs and 450 more resource teachers than required for demographics; initial panel of 200 speech and language therapists for schools.

TEACHERS' TWO-TIER PAY SCALES

Fianna Fáil: Establishment of a pathway towards an end to pay inequality as part of steps towards new public service agreement.

Fine Gael: Unfinished business "that we want to sort out" in new €2bn new public sector pay deal.

Labour: End inequality through the next public sector pay deal.

Greens: Eliminate pay inequality.

Sinn Féin: Fast-track end of two-tier pay scales

STUDENT FEES

The annual student charge/fee stands at €3,000.

Fianna Fáil: Freeze fees.

Fine Gael: Freeze fees.

Greens: No specific proposal in manifesto.

Labour: Progressively reduce education costs, starting with €500 cut in student charge in 2021 (costed at €40m in full year).

Sinn Féin: Abolish student charge (costed at €243m).

STUDENT GRANTS

Fianna Fáil: Increase grants by 20pc (costed at €34m); restore post-graduate grants (costed at €44m).

Fine Gael: Five per cent increase in income threshold for grants.

Greens: Extend to more students.

Labour: Increasegrant in line with rate of inflation and reduce distance threshold for non-adjacent rate from 45km to 24km.

Sinn Féin: 10pc increase in grants.

HIGHER EDUCATION FUNDING

Austerity-era cuts in core funding have not been restored. At 40pc of what it was a decade ago, universities warn it is threatening the quality of education and is responsible for the deterioration in student:staff ratios they blame for their slide down global rankings.

Fianna Fáil: Increase core grant by €100m a year, pending outcome of EU review of Cassells Report on funding. New Department of Higher Education and Research, but hasn't said what department it wuld replace.

Fine Gael: Awaiting outcome of EU review of Cassells Report and caveat that additional resources "dependent on economic growth and steady management of the public finances".

Greens: Funding third level and further education "to prepare students for the society and economy of the future."

Labour: Develop an implementation strategy to increase university funding.

Sinn Féin: Ensure adequate funding provided.

Irish Independent