Protection of class sizes could see cut to third-level budgets

The protection of class sizes in schools could come at the expense of third-level budgets when Education Minister Ruairi Quinn unveils his spending plans for almost €9bn this evening.

Despite spending €149m less than expected up to the end of September, he is unlikely to have a giveaway budget. But with €55m of the underspend attributed to fewer-than-anticipated retirement lump sums paid out, there may be more room for manoeuvre than expected in late summer when he suggested up to €100m of cuts might be needed at his department.

A requirement to appoint hundreds more teachers for an estimated 10,000 rise in primary school enrolments will quickly eat up any saving on pension payments. But it will be enough to justify leaving staffing schedules, and hence class sizes, alone.

After intense lobbying by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), the Government knows the public is well-enough informed on the issue to make it a potential political headache but also understands the impact on subject choice of any further staffing cuts at second level.

If Mr Quinn sticks by previous plans, schools will have their budgets cut by a further 1% next year, in addition to combined cuts of 4% over the last two years. But the INTO says these and the loss of the minor works grant have already seen annual funding to keep schools with 100 pupils operating falling by almost €10,000 — over one-third — since 2009.

Also flagged in previous budgets is another €250 rise in the student charge for third-level undergraduates. The speculation, however, is that students could see grants cut again or face tougher eligibility income levels, or a combination of both.

And despite coping with more students with fewer staff over the past five years, political sources suggest the third-level sector will face yet another cut to its funding in 2014. While such a move will raise questions from the universities and institutes of technology about threats to standards and quality, the minister is likely to insists on greater efficiencies from academics and college managers.

Even if the Department of Education trumpets this evening that frontline services have been protected, Mr Quinn will be quickly reminded of diminished middle management systems in primary and second-level schools, and of their reduced ability to cater for students’ mental health and general welfare.

He may have received Cabinet approval to retain current levels of special needs provision, but keeping the same numbers of resource teachers and special needs assistants will not appease schools and families as far more children need these supports at the same time as a staffing cap remains.

For parents, a measure to ease the cost of books by encouraging more schools to run rental schemes is expected. But it could be offset for thousands of families if there is an increase in school transport fares.

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