EDUCATION Minister Batt O’Keeffe “took no joy” in deciding spending cuts which will see class sizes increase and significant reductions in English language support teachers next year.
But he told the Dáil last night that it was “simply the best that could be done in the circumstances”.
Mr O’Keeffe said teachers” salaries will cost the Government an extra €300 million next year meaning cuts in education spending were needed in the budget.
The budget was described as an “act of social vandalism” by Labour’s education spokesman, Ruairi Quinn, who put forward a motion in the Dáil calling for measures leading to bigger class sizes to be reversed.
The Government is expected to win a vote on the motion today.
Mr O’Keeffe said education cutbacks will only last two years but Mr Quinn said “for some they will be a life sentence”.
Mr O’Keeffe accused the opposition of dishonesty on the matter and “stirring up” worry among families. He said the budget decisions mean class sizes will go back to 2007 levels.
“Are you honestly saying to the Irish public that the primary school system will be in crisis next year because we are proposing to allocate mainstream classroom teachers to schools on the same basis as we did in the 2006/2007 school year?” he asked.
He said the average class size was 31 pupils when Mr Quinn’s party was last in Government: “Was there a crisis then, deputy?” he asked.
Fine Gael’s education spokesman, Brian Hayes, said: “You are in office but not in power. You are a puppet of the Taoiseach in the Department of Education.”
Mr Hayes also called for a pay freeze for all teachers who earn more than €50,000 per year.
Mr O’Keeffe said an increase of €302m in the education budget for next year is “a real achievement in the current economic climate” but added “I am not going to pretend that this amount is sufficient to maintain the current level of service in all respects”.
Mr Quinn said classrooms are already overcrowded and will be more so as the population grows: “We have 450,000 primary pupils in our overcrowded schools. In 12 years time we will have as many as 650,000 according to the Central Statistics Office.”
Fine Gael’s spokesman on integration, Denis Naughten, said cuts in language support teachers will fuel segregation and every school child will suffer.
“The cap on language support teachers not only means that those students with poor language skills will suffer, but, in conjunction with increased class size, it will also result in teachers allocating inordinate amounts of time to some students and the rest of the class suffering.”
Mr Naughten said there are 48,000 “newcomers” in Irish schools representing 160 different nationalities and 60% of these do not have English as a first language.
Mr O’Keeffe said: “Schools that require language support will still be entitled to get it. However the budget measures will mean that the level of that support will be reduced from a maximum of six extra teachers per school to a maximum of two teachers per school, as was the case before 2007.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved