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Teachers, be honest about your intentions

The united public face against the cuts in primary teacher provision is gratifying; to have the teachers so selflessly defending their small pupils, and co-operating with parents and churches in a determined onslaught to prevent a slide in education standards, must give us all hope for the future.

After all, Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe has ensured that, overnight, our children will go from being the most advantaged, privileged, philosophically mature youngsters in Europe to being neanderthal morons, unable to cope with society.

Without the selfless campaign of the Into, we might even reach a situation in the future where one in five of our children would leave school unable to read or write. Oops, sorry. That's the case now, not a doomsday future scenario resulting from an increase in the pupil:teacher ratio from one teacher to 27 children to one teacher to 28 children.

Putting it bluntly, in marching on the Dail, in shouting loudly about the vulnerable in our society, the teachers know they are on to a good thing. Say it loudly enough, belligerently enough and often enough when emotions are high, and people are numbed into believing something: reason goes out the door.

Heaven knows, I'm no admirer of the Irish education system. We virtually ignore the humanities, leaving the low achievers in the education system without a value structure and a fallback position in adult society when they fail to become high fliers in business and the professions. History and philosophy, the two cornerstones of education (they give people the ability to analyse and find context) are treated with increasing contempt.

Education is supposed to serve people and make them whole, not train them to serve a Government-structured module of society -- as is the case with our so-called "magnificent education system".

If the teachers were marching on the Dail to say that, we might get somewhere. If the parents thought beyond the points system, we might get somewhere. But the mindless, rancid demonstrations of recent days have merely proved that our education system has failed utterly: products of a decent system would have done more than react with knee-jerk expletives and terms like the Into's John Carr's "education sabotage".

Yes, it is appalling that we should have 28 children to every teacher at primary school level. But the proposed cuts have merely dis-improved an already inadequate structure very slightly. It is not educational Armageddon.

A truly comprehensive and well-structured primary education system would ensure that no child, whether as bright as a button or a slow learner, whether fit and healthy or physically handicapped, would be in a class of more than 12. A truly comprehensive education system that believed in getting the priorities right would ensure that, if necessary, it would be third level and beyond which would suffer hardship in hard times: to prioritise college and university education to the detriment of primary school structures is the ultimate in discrimination.

And that is without even mentioning the fact that one in every five people who comes through our "education" system does so without learning to read and write.

So just what are people demonstrating about? Why have the public swallowed the politically motivated spin that last month we had a superb education system, and this month it has been reduced to the ashes of non-achievement?

The minister is right when he says that his decision will make the system take one step back in order to (hopefully) take two steps forward when the economy improves; but the steps are on a road which is far from being motorway standard in the first place.

Actually, it's possible to postulate that the teachers have orchestrated their protests in order to distract attention from the fact that there is to be a three per cent increase in the education budget over the next year. Because if the public do their sums, they will realise that the increase, when most other departments have suffered a decrease, is being entirely swallowed up by a monumental increase in teachers' salaries.

That is due to a benchmarking process entered into during the "good years," for which there was supposed to be a quid pro quo. But teachers do not work longer or more intensive hours since benchmarking, and they certainly are not delivering the goods: one in five adults functionally illiterate.

According to Paul Rowe of the admirable group Educate Together, the "wealthy got off comparatively lightly" in the Budget. Rowe, an obviously articulate and intelligent man, should know better than to come up with the "solution" implied by such a remark. He knows that "wealthy" is a comparative term.

And even if every person who earns more than €100,000 a year in this country were to be taxed at, say, 60 per cent of his or her earnings, it would still not be enough to provide a proper education and health system that is free to all. There just aren't enough high earners.

There is one way we can have an education system and a health system that are comparable to those in the northern European countries: we can pay for them through our taxes. That means that every wage earner in the country is taxed at 55 per cent of his or her income -- only those on the minimum wage being exempted.

How many of those storming the Dail during the week are prepared for that as a reform? How many hypocritical members of the Labour Party who screamed in outrage when the medical card was introduced for everyone over the age of 70 ("privilege for millionaires"), and are now screeching at its withdrawal, would support such a reform?

Indeed, asked during the week if he would agree that teachers should accept a pay cut, rather than the comparatively massive increase scheduled for them this year, John Carr of the Into had the brass neck to say that salary reduction is not the way to finance services. This is a man who represents teachers, supposed to be the intellectual elite of our society: and he can't add or subtract. Services can be paid for without anybody paying for them, it seems.

Education is something that is very dear to my heart; I would accept an increase in my tax bill if it gave the children of this country an unparalleled quality of education.

How many people are prepared to say the same thing, unequivocally, in good or bad times? And how many people are prepared to analyse all the howls of outrage and see through to the one real nugget from the teachers: some of them will be out of their cushy jobs as a result of the cutbacks. That's what they're demonstrating about. And they're entitled to; but they should have the basic honesty not to hide behind children.

And the parents of the vulnerable children are the truly gullible ones if they believe these men and women who close their doors behind them at three in the afternoon, and take off for two months in the sun each summer, leaving their "leaders" to splutter ungrammatically and inarticulately on their behalf in the media.