Lack of funding in primary schools has left us bottom of the class
Last week a Government spokesperson gave a short but brilliant master class in the art of spin.
Responding to (accurate) claims that Ireland was the worst in the class when it came to spending on primary schools, he helpfully pointed out the quoted figures were a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Therefore, they are not an accurate comparison with other European countries, as the huge impact of the multinationals in Ireland skews our GDP to an extraordinary degree.
So far, so accurate, but then he reassured us we were, in fact, spending above the average for education as a percentage of Government spend. We might not be top of the class, but we were above average. Kudos to the Government.
Again true, but not the whole truth. We have the youngest population in Europe, with 40pc of our population under the age of 30, and children account for more than one in five (22pc) of the population. Children form 13.1pc of the German population, 13.7pc in Bulgaria, and 13.9pc in Italy. This means we should be spending a great more on education (and probably less on health).
So how do we really compare to our peers? A few months ago the Nevin Institute compared Irish education spending with that in the 10 leading European countries. It found Ireland spends in the region of 80 to 82pc of the average on primary and lower secondary education. Well below our peers.
Ireland spends €7,220.70 per primary pupil per year, Finland spends €9,266.80, Sweden €10,938.80 and Switzerland spends a whopping €18,566.10.
Guess what's different about September in Switzerland? There are no debates about voluntary contributions in the Swiss media.
When you cut out the spin and massaged statistics, what all of this boils down to is that hard-pressed parents are digging deep to support their local schools, and Irish principals are world leaders in fundraising.
In the sober words of an accountant who works with a number of schools: "From my experience there is no doubt that if a primary school does not have a proactive fundraising committee of some sort, then the result for the year is ... any cash reserve is quickly depleted." This creates "stress and hardship for primary schools at a time when their focus should be on settling the children back in to a new school year".
There is no way you can run a school on the 92c per pupil, per school day provided by the Government. Buy a child a Snickers bar and you've blown the day's budget. Buy a child a sliotar and you've not only blown the budget for the week, you're in deficit. The fact is most of us spend more on the daily coffee and Danish on the way to work than the State provides for the running costs of schools.
To be fair to the Department of Education it would privately agree, and it fought a valiant but unsuccessful rearguard action to protect the primary budget from ministerial cuts.
The Irish primary system is working, it's doing a superb job mainly due to the quality and the commitment of the people who teach in, lead and support the management of local primary schools. We need, and more importantly our children need, principals and teachers to be focused on teaching and learning, not fundraising. If the Government wants to cut the cost of going back to school for parents, the answer is simple - increase the investment in schools and restore the capitation grant to €200 per pupil.
Restoring the capitation grant would cost roughly €16.5m, a rounding error in overall Government spending terms. To put the figure in context, the Dáil saved €17.4m by not sitting due to the election and formation of the Government (if Leinster House hasn't spent the saving, we can find a good home for it).
Restoring the capitation grant would be a real boost for schools and real boon to parents feeling the financial pressures of the return to school. If the Government wants a targeted measure to help young families, restoring the capitation grant would be a great way to do it. It would also give a FG minister the opportunity to undo a Labour cut.
Primary schools are the indispensable element of the education system. The skills you learn in primary school are skills you will use all your life. We shouldn't be short-changing the next generation by failing to make the modest investments needed to fund the running of our schools. If we want to create a republic of opportunity, we have to invest in the seed capital of primary education. As for the Government spin doctor, I think he's missing his vocation. He should really try criminal law. He has a genius for defending the indefensible. Because no one can honestly defend Ireland's underinvestment in primary education.
Seamus Mulconry is general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association