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Move 'puts school subjects at risk'

Schools will be forced to drop subjects if proposals to increase class sizes to save money go ahead, it has been warned.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland said the education sector was already seriously underfunded and could not afford further cuts, branding it a nonsense.

Department of Education officials are examining a range of cost-cutting proposals ahead of December's budget, including adding an extra child to each class.

But Pat King, ASTI general secretary, said children would suffer.

"At second level, schools will be forced to drop subjects, that's how it affects second level," Mr King said.

"It's not just larger classes, it means principals, teachers will have to say, 'what subject can we do without', and they'll look at subjects like physics, biology, languages."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said there was no plan to increase class sizes.

"Nothing is decided at this stage and all areas of education are being looked at in the context of budgetary process overall," she said.

But under the planned comprehensive spending review, every Government department must find areas where savings can be made.

Under the terms of the Croke Park agreement, teachers' pay cannot be touched, despite accounting for 80% of the Department of Education's budget.

It is understood officials are examining other areas of expenditure to shave from the department's 9 billion euro budget, including increasing the classroom teacher-pupil ratio by one.

But the Teachers Union of Ireland warned increasing class sizes would cause irreparable damage to the education sector, echoing warnings that subjects could be dropped.

The current pupil-teacher ratio is one teacher for every 19 pupils in secondary schools, and one for every 27 in primary schools.

Annette Dolan, TUI deputy general secretary, said the union would campaign strongly against any Government proposals to hike the pupil-teacher ratio but stopped short of threatening industrial action.

"We are clearly of the view that this is a completely retrograde step," Ms Dolan said.

"If you increase the pupil-teacher ratio even by one, that is not putting one extra student in the class, what it is doing is cutting the range of subject options, making class sizes bigger, giving less focus and attention to weaker students in the classroom.

"Ultimately it's the students that lose out."

Ms Dolan said it would wreak "irreparable damage on the education system".

"Most gallingly, physics and maths are exactly the subjects that we must actively promote if the education system is to have any role as a driver for economic recovery," she said.

"An increase in the PTR (pupil-teacher ratio) would do untold damage to this aspiration.

"Students at second level have only one chance. Weaker students need more support in smaller class groups, not less support in bigger groups. An increase in the PTR would also have repercussions for the integration of those students with special educational needs."

Government sources have suggested that if teachers feel strongly about maintaining class sizes, they could voluntarily offer pay cuts as a way of achieving savings.

But Mr King said teachers' pay had already been severely cut, with new teachers starting on a salary approximately 30% lower than two years ago.

Sinn Fein's education spokesman Sean Crowe accused the Government of "another U-turn".

"This cut represents another U-turn from Fine Gael and Labour who when in opposition argued correctly that larger class sizes not only affect the quality of teaching but make it more difficult to concentrate on children with special needs," he said.

"This proposal comes at a time when the Government is slashing special needs assistants. We already have some of largest class sizes in Europe with 100,000 in classes of more than 30 pupils."

Fianna Fail said the proposals were a retrograde step.

Brendan Smith, the party's education spokesman, said: "The news that the Department of Education and Skills intends to undo the progress made over the last decade and increase class sizes is a retrograde step and entirely contrary to the interests of our education system.

"Not only will children's education suffer as classes become more crowded but we will also see a negative impact on the employment of young teachers."

© Press Association