Budget 2016: Class sizes remain the biggest issue

Jan O’Sullivan’s education budget for 2015 is over €8bn, not including capital spending of another €500m.

While she is sure to enjoy a good share of any increase in overall government spending next year, it will not be easy or possible to satisfy even some of the competing demands for those spoils, of which these are some of the most prominent.

1: Primary class sizes:

The highly-public maybe-they-know-something-we-don’t Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) budget campaign points to research evidence supporting the benefits of working with smaller classes, while Ireland’s are among Europe’s highest.

Ms O’Sullivan’s difficulty is that maintaining current pupil-teacher ratios alone will require about 600 more teachers at primary level just to keep pace with rising numbers of children.

Jan O’Sullivan
Jan O’Sullivan

That said, the knowledge of the issue among parents through years of campaign-ing by INTO and others could make the likely €18m-a-year cost (and just €6m for the portion of 2016 it would take effect) of a one-point improvement in pupil-teacher ratios, just the kind of good-news-for-all investment that any Labour minister would be foolish to overlook. But the further additional cost of extra classrooms, and possibly 900 extra mainstream teachers a year through the end of this decade, at least, to keep up with school populations would leave little else to spend out of increased Department of Education spending, without cutting elsewhere.

2: Guidance counselling:

This issue unites all groups lobbying for second level, following the removal of guaranteed minimum guidance provision in every school from 2012. While schools have autonomy to keep guidance counsellors strictly in that role, the effective increase in second-level pupil-teacher ratios (PTRs) has seen half of them spending most of their week teaching curricular subjects instead.

The ESRI and others suggest the effects are probably felt disproportionately by disadvantaged students and those who should benefit most from their counselling and pastoral duties. However, it is unlikely that schools will be restored their former allocation of guidance counselling.

Budget 2016: Class sizes remain the biggest issue

Expect, if Ms O’Sullivan’s overall funding allocation permits, some extra teaching allocations for the 720-plus second-level schools. But school boards will probably be left to decide how any extra staffing is to be used, without ring-fencing guidance counselling hours.

3: Third-level funding:

An elephant in the room in all the Government’s plans is the falling quality of third-level education — which college bosses skirt around but don’t want to explicitly admit for fear of losing students and the funding that each one attracts from the department.

Not only are lecture halls getting more packed, and access to libraries and student supports becoming more limited, the extra sums paid each year in fees by students are not reflected in colleges budgets, as the same figure is deducted from what the Department of Education provides.

Even if Ms O’Sullivan manages to push the current expenditure budget for higher education institutions back over the €1bn mark this year, it still leaves a need for a meaningful — and brave — political move to balance capacity, quality and affordability.

Don’t hold your breath for any such decisions this close to a general election, and maybe not afterwards either.

Budget 2016: Class sizes remain the biggest issue

4: Student grants:

The minister’s 2015 allocation of €328m for student grants is already proving insufficient to meet the level of demand, such is the level of student growth, with any benefits of an economic rebound not yet reflected in household incomes. Even with cuts to grant amounts and exclusion of postgraduate students from eligibility in recent years, this bill is likely to grow even more as colleges continue to squeeze in more learners. Some level of increase is inevitable, as the minister prepares to seek Dáil approval soon just to pay out this year’s grants to all those who qualified.

5: School funding:

While the INTO points to majordifferentials between the amount-per-pupil which primary schools receive compared to second-level, the associated running costs are also much different — even between different second-level sectors, some schools have to cover insurance and caretaking from their day-to-day grants, while others do not.

The amount paid to all schools for general running costs like utilities, insurance and teaching materials has been cut by 6% for every pupil across the board over four years. But while these costs are acknowledged by the minister as a growing burden on schools, any reversal will probably be moderate. Parents needn’t expect the so-called voluntary contribution demands to end any year soon.

Budget 2016: Class sizes remain the biggest issue

6: Schools’ middle management:

Not since 2009 has there been an automatic entitlement for primary or second-level schools to replace holders of special duties posts who leave or retire. Those extra responsibilities earn holders varying allowances, but the indiscriminate loss of certain roles and particularly ones of a pastoral nature, have been felt hard by most schools at this stage.

Industrial action is already in place by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, and a similar ban on doing unpaid duties is looming from the Association of Secondary Teachers, in an effort to pressure the Government to restore these middle-management structures. But in the absence so far of any detailed discussions of an alternative system to one in which nearly half of all teachers previously held one of these posts, changes of any significant scale are unlikely.

7: Special needs education:

There will probably be much lauding of the fact that extra special needs assistants and teachers are being employed to cater for children who would barely have been accepted into mainstream schools. But while demographic pressures are forcing these increases, there have long been calls for full funding of 2004 legislation that would give automatic entitlement to appropriate education and other services to allow children fully participate in school.

Instead, children with diagnosed disabilities continue to receive 15% less weekly individual resource teaching time than they would have had between 2005 and 2011. Any shortfall that schools wish to make up has to come from their allocation of learning support teacher hours, which in turn has an effect on services for pupils with more moderate learning difficulties.

Bar a very significant — but unlikely — increase in investment, Budget 2016 will still see children, parents and schools simply fighting for a fairer share of what remains a limited pie — which even a planned new teacher allocation model will not really address.

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