INTO Conference: Parents cleaning schools in bid to save costs due to funding cuts

The annual congress of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation heard how teachers are being lured abroad with attractive packages and parents are acting as cleaners to save costs. Joyce Fegan reports 

INTO Conference: Parents cleaning schools in bid to save costs due to funding cuts

Parents cleaning schools due to cuts

“If you add it up since the cuts have come in since 2011, it’s €28,000 altogether for a school of 200 pupils,” said Niall Crofton, principal of St Brendan’s Boys’ School in Birr, Co Offaly.

Mr Crofton was referring to cuts in government capitation grants, used for day-to-day running of schools, while speaking at the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) annual congress: “It’s your light, your heat and your water charges that have come in since 2011. That might be €1,000 or €2,000 a year.

“The parents’ associations are increasingly asked to do fundraisers and then we’re asking for voluntary contributions from families. You find yourselves chasing families even though you shouldn’t be.

“Their [the families’] priorities would be to keep their family home and food on the table and you don’t want those kids to feel any different than the child beside them.”

Examples of how the funding cuts have affected parents and teachers include schools buying heating oil on credit: “I would know schools that have parentscoming in cleaning the school at night time. Teachers are going to the shops to buy pens, markers, paint out of their own pockets because there isn’t enough money in the capitation grant to cover it.

“Other situations I know are of schools in financial trouble and the diocese would have to come and bail them out. You see schools that are turning down the heating. Say they would have had the heating on for five hours a day in the winter and now they’re down to three and a half hours a day to try and cut costs. Children are getting cold, staff are getting cold and it’s all just trying to meet the budget that the Government has given us and it’s not adequate.”

The principal made the point while wearing a superman suit at the INTO congress, referring to how teachers work hard and receive platitudes but what they need is support to carry out their work.

Mr Crofton said he wore the suit in memory of a five-year-old student of his, Tommy Kelly Shaw, who died of cancer this year.

“We did a superhero day where all the families, all the parents, all the kids and all the staff dressed up as superheroes. It was to show our support for Tommy, he dressed up as Spider-man. The only thing we could do as a community was say: ‘we’re there with you, you’re our superhero’. It was the day of his life, I have to say,” said Mr Crofton.

“I guess when I had the suit I thought you know what, wouldn’t it be a fitting way to preserve Tommy’s memory and get something good out of it for the kids of Ireland.”

His comments came on the same day as an announcement that Education Minister Richard Bruton is to issue a circular to schools to be mindful of costs on parents.

The head of advocacy for Barnardos, June Tinsley, described that announcement as “completely insufficient” and that it did not recognise the Government underfunding of schools. Barnardos has previously recommended that it would cost €103.2m to guarantee a free primary education for all children in Ireland.

Teachers being lured abroad by pay deals

This is happening at the same time as an acute shortage in substitute teachers here.

“There is a concern about the very active foreign recruitment that’s going on. The first we came across it was last year in the colleges of education,” said Síle Nunan, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).

“We had sent somebody to address the students in their final year, just around life as a teacher, and discovered that a number of recruiting agencies were very aggressively recruiting, from Dubai, UAE [the United Arab of Emirates], Canada and the UK,” she added.

“The offer in terms of the UAE is going to be salary with very little tax or no tax, accommodation and very often flights. It attracts younger teachers, it attracts them in terms of salary. Middle and older teachers might say: ‘I can do that for a few years if I’m trying to buy a house’.”

“Irish teachers could walk into a job anywhere, they’re well-recognised in terms of the quality of their qualification and that.”

Principal teachers, as well, have been recruited, she added.

Ms Nunan revealed how the INTO had itself received an email from a recruitment agency based in Hong Kong.

“When I got it, I was a bit taken aback. The email said: ‘We are a recruitment agency we’d like to meet with you to talk about packages we can offer teachers’.”

When asked for a figure on the number of teachers who have left, spokesman for the INTO, Peter Mullan, estimated that it is “in the thousands”.

Ms Nunan said that with the current shortage in substitute teachers, the Government needs to pay attention to this “brain drain” of emigrating teachers.

“A lot of this is driven by salary, a lot of this is driven by attractive packages. It’s something the State has to pay attention to if they’re going to invest in the training and education of teachers, they don’t really want to be having a ‘brain drain’ out of the country at this point in time.

“It’s been very acute this year, they should be sitting up and paying attention because if that continues into next year it gets worse.”

Irish primary schools need approximately 800 to 1,000 substitute teachers every day in order to cover sick leave and training days.

However, principals are finding that they cannot locate any substitute teachers even after more than 30 phone calls to a list of former or retired colleagues.

Balance needed in choice of schools, says Bruton

Balance is needed when it comes to the choice of primary schools that Irish citizens have, says Education Minister Richard Bruton.

“I want to broaden the choice of schools, and we all know that the education system that we have inherited with 96% denominational schools is not the one we would choose if we starting out from here,” he said.

Mr Bruton was addressing the annual congress of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, where he was the first Fine Gael education minister in approximately 30 years to do so.

“There is a demand for greater diversity, greater choice, greater opportunities for those who don’t come from particular denominations to get expression from within the education system,” he said.

Mr Bruton said a number of steps are being taken to address this need for balance so that all students are treated with respect. “I’m taking a number of initiatives to promote a transfer of schools to improve the way in which pupils, who don’t come from a denomination, are respected within the school, to promote ways in which parents in their local area can get access to their local school even if they aren’t of the denomination of that particular school.

Síle Nunan, general secretary of the INTO, in her congress address saidstated that the minister’s position has always been the stance of her union.

“We’ve had the solidly held position in favour of promoting inclusivity in primary schools including supporting a variety of measures to achieve this.

“We have strongly argued on the need to examine the provisions of the Equal Status Act particularly that which allows schools to discriminate on religious grounds. We have been crystal clear that this provision needs to be deleted from the legislation.”

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