This time I'm going to defend Mary Hanafin. Last time I wrote about education it was to criticise her decision not to give any money to new private schools, which to my mind is an attack on parental choice and self-defeating to boot.
However, with regard to water charges it is hard to see how she was going to be able to give schools a direct, financial dig-out. The Department of Education received only a small boost from Brian Cowen in the latest budget and there are many calls on the additional sum she was given.
In addition, the EU has forced this on the member states and in any event, the buck should stop not with her, but with the Department of the Environment, and even more so with the local authorities.
School water charges vary hugely around the country. For example, one school in Cork city with 600 pupils has to pay more than €12,000 a year in water charges, while another in south Dublin with 400 pupils pays only €400 -- that is, €1 per pupil per year.
Therefore, the real villains in this sorry saga are those local authorities which are charging ridiculous amounts for water, and not the Education Minister.
The local authorities, let's recall, were also the villains with regard to the Balbriggan schools debacle. Even though they knew that the population of the area was growing rapidly, and were warned by the existing schools that they could not cope with demand, provision was still not made for new schools in the area -- meaning that an emergency school had to be established which, in the event, catered mainly for African children. Cue inflammatory talk of "educational apartheid".
On that occasion the Catholic Church and the whole denominational system was put in the hot seat. This time it's the Government, including the Education Minister. On both occasions the finger of blame should have been pointed first and foremost at local authorities and only then at other relevant parties. Fortunately for the local authorities they make for much less sexy headlines than the villains we all know such as Government ministers, or the Church.
Incredibly, the water charges fiasco is also being used by some to target our present school system in toto, just as the fiasco in Balbriggan was. Now, as then, we are being told that the answer to all our problems is more -- much more -- state intervention, a total state takeover of our schools, in fact. The faith of some people in the State is simply touching.
Would someone please explain to me how exactly a state takeover of our schools would have solved the present problem? State schools would have more money, you say?
Well, if money is the problem just increase the capitation allowance of the existing schools. Problem solved. On the other hand, if the State simply doesn't have the money to pay the water bills, then it wouldn't have the money even if it both ran and funded the schools.
The real question, you see, isn't who runs our schools -- that is, the State or some third party such as the Church or Educate Together. The real question is the amount of funding the schools receive and the answer is, not enough. Whoever runs our schools obviously has to have at least enough money to pay basic bills like water and electricity.
At present, schools make up their funding shortfalls by raising money from the public, by organising raffles, book sales, quiz nights etc. This is increasingly regarded as absurdly archaic and poor use of a principal's time. I see the argument, and it is incontestable that schools should have more money. However, there is also an argument to be made that the present system of funding has some definite advantages.
First of all, let it be said that schools are not required to raise hundreds of thousands each year from their local communities. It is generally more like €10,000 or €20,000. Except in poor areas, that has to be achievable. Given its achievability, the requirement that schools have to go fundraising has two things going in its favour. The first is that it more firmly connects the school with the local community. The school belongs to them and not to the State. When the State both funds and runs something, it automatically becomes more remote.
The second advantage is that it greatly increases the likelihood that the money schools do receive from the State and the community towards their running costs will have the last drop of value extracted from it. Given the colossal and scandalous waste of taxpayers' money in the public sector, that is something not to be underestimated.
In fact, a state takeover of our schools would almost certainly make them worse, not better.
The amount of money wasted would rise exponentially, and quality would decline. The State should take something over only when there is absolutely no alternative.
As for the idea that the water charges debacle should prompt such a move, well, that is simply laughable.