Wednesday 22 November 2017

It's time there was an agreement on how to adequately fund primary education

Peter McCabe

With good reason, Article 42.4 of Bunreacht na hÉireann states the State shall provide for FREE primary education. Research shows that children who have access to a properly funded primary education will lead happier lives as children and grow to be an asset to the society in which they live. Yet despite knowing this, primary education in Ireland is not on a financial par with education systems across Europe.

In the 21st century, the Department of Education expects boards of management to run schools on a shoestring budget. Having tried unsuccessfully to manage a school on such a shoestring for the past eight years, I have become weary of lurching from one grant to another, never quite sure when the next one might land in the bank account.

The DEIS school where I work is 'adequately funded' according to both this Government and the previous one. Yet my overworked, voluntary board tells me regularly to hold off making payments. These include payments for the basics such as heat, light, water and oil. God forbid that the photocopier would break down or the whiteboard projector bulbs blow.

I also know that I am not alone and that many more primary schools are really struggling to make ends meet. Many are overwhelmed financially, their schools on the edge of a financial cliff.

There is no longer a Summer Works Grant or Minor Works Grant. There is a decrease in the capitation grant and the Book Grant. Boards of management countrywide are spending valuable time drumming up ways to generate additional funding. For example, I now bring coins collected in school to a local business as the bank charges for taking coins.

Principals have had meetings with bank managers to make the case for running an overdraft. I was astounded to hear of a school with an overdraft of €40,000. Oil prices have risen by 33pc over the past few years while grants have been reduced. Nowadays, it is not unusual for a school to ask a charity to help with the heating or water bills.

It is high time there was agreement on how to adequately fund primary education.

Patrons used to make a local contribution to school running costs but discontinued this. Is it time for that contribution to be restored and for management bodies to play their part more fully? Can the department not frontload funding into primary schools before the start of the school year so that each board can put a financial plan in place?

One principal told me of sleepless nights because funds are now completely depleted. Another described putting off paying bills while another lamented having ICT equipment because of the maintenance bills. Parents associations are bag-packing, selling Christmas cards, holding raffles, cake sales and book fairs just to keep their schools above water.

The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future issued a prescient warning in its report entitled 'What Matters Most' saying societies that do not succeed in education have little chance of success in a global economy.

Peter McCabe is principal of St Columbanus NS, Loughlinstown Co Dublin

Irish Independent

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