| 5.1°C Dublin

Concubhar O Liathain: For the sake of our future we must swim upstream

'ONLY dead fish swim downstream." This was the Finnish proverb quoted by John McKenna, co-author of the Bridgestone Guides to fine dining in Ireland, and an unlikely revolutionary.

A native of Northern Ireland now living in Durrus in west Cork, when he spoke last Monday night at a public meeting in Dunmanway to protest against proposals to impose cuts on small rural schools, his proposal was as revolutionary as his opening proverb was apt.

His most revolutionary message: there is an alternative.

When Finland faced its economic crisis in 1991, instead of cutting funding to education it invested more in schools and pupils. Now Finland spends 7 per cent of its GDP on education and boasts an education system widely acclaimed to be the best in the world. Those who graduate from Finnish secondary schools are likely to be more numerate, literate and multilingual than their counterparts internationally. Finnish educators spend their time travelling the world telling others how they transformed their education system and their country.

McKenna's message wasn't lost on the parents and teachers attending this meeting, one of a series held this past week in locations throughout Ireland as the campaign to halt cutbacks which would see many small rural schools lose teachers -- and face possible closure --began to gather momentum.

Of 56 schools in west Cork, more than 40 will either lose a teacher or miss out on recruiting a teacher to which they would have been entitled under the current criteria. As one teacher put it, if you think it's bad this year, just wait until next year. This underlines the fear that these cuts will increase in frequency and intensity.

For these people, the cuts proposed by Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn and his coterie of highly paid special advisers are an attack on not alone their schools but on their communities. Until now the age of austerity brought to us by the letters Anglo and Fianna Fail and numbers beyond our comprehension has not touched most of our lives, though it has lightened our pay packets.

But once our children are being asked to pay for the follies of Sean Quinn and his ilk, then parents are roused to anger.

There was a great deal of seething resentment and scarcely repressed rage in evidence last Monday night. The teacher who complained about the difficulties of helping children with special needs of varying ages and demands, and then being told that she may have to cope with an extra class, made a telling point. "There are rules restricting the number of pigs that can be kept in a specific space, there are rules about the number of chickens, but there appear to be no limits to the number of children that can be fitted into a classroom," she said.

The principal of Scoil Naisiunta Chuil Aodha Barr d'Inse -- the school I went to myself and which is now attended by my children -- pointed to agriculture as the best performing sector of the economy and wondered aloud about the mixed message being sent to the bedrock of that sector, the farmers, by the proposed cuts.

Other parents spoke about moving to country idylls in west Cork, not for the views but for the prospect of a better education for their children. They believe that rural schools with smaller class sizes and teachers plugged into their communities are the best guarantee of a better education. To say they're angry about this cherished goal being denied them after all their efforts would be an understatement.

They're not wrong about the impact of teachers on their children. In a study quoted at the meeting by McKenna, undertaken by Harvard academics Raj Chetty and John M Friedman and Columbia University's Jonah E Rockoff, involving 2.5 million schoolchildren, they arrived at a number of conclusions. Students who had better teachers -- or, in the parlance of the study, high value added teachers -- are more likely to progress to third-level education, earn higher salaries, and live in better neighbourhoods and are less likely to have children while they're teenagers.

The parents who attended Monday's meeting didn't need a Harvard study to confirm what they already know: that children in smaller schools are more likely to be taught by a high 'value added' teacher. They're also more likely to stay closer to home or return

home when they themselves are about to raise a family.

While those on the side of small rural schools have Harvard studies and international examples to back their cases, the apologists for the Department of Education proposals have unworkable ideas to save a few cent here and there.

For instance, Fine Gael TD Jim Daly proposed to amalgamate schools by locating the senior classes -- three, four, five and six -- in one school and the junior classes in the other school building. The junior and senior schools would have one principal. The immediate result of this would be to increase the burden on parents ferrying their children to schools throughout the area. With the price of fuel increasing, the concern isn't merely financial but safety on roads, which are already being neglected by cash-starved local authorities.

According to John McKenna, the alternative to the appalling vista of ageing people-carriers hurtling around country roads is to make a choice now. He urges us to invest in our children and our future. Let's invest in them in the hope they will lead this country back to recovery. Schools are not money pits. They're investment opportunities. They're not contracts for difference, but contracts which can make a difference.

Whether the Minister for Education and his civil servants are in the mood for a philosophical debate about the future direction of education in Ireland is a moot point. They say they want educational reform, but all they are proposing is cutbacks.

They should sit up and take notice after last Monday night's meeting. The atmosphere at the rally was alive with the possibility of a real rural revolution. In the coming days and weeks, this rural revolution will be bringing its radical message to the streets of Dublin and the gates of Leinster House.

There is an alternative. We are not dead fish. We're no longer swimming downstream. For the sake of our children, our country and our future, we need to change direction and swim against the current.

Sunday Independent