Government defends education cutbacks amid protests

The Government tonight stood firm by controversial Budget cuts in the education sector despite the protests of 10,000 angry teachers, parents and pupils outside a Dáil debate on the issue.

The Government tonight stood firm by controversial Budget cuts in the education sector despite the protests of 10,000 angry teachers, parents and pupils outside a Dáil debate on the issue.

Unions, Opposition parties and bishops have called for a reversal of the measures which they claim was attack on children in every classroom in the country.

Last week's unprecedented demo by thousands of pensioners outside the Dáil helped lift a ban on automatic medical cards for over-70s, but Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe tonight defended the cuts in his Department's funding.

"The Government has to make extremely difficult decisions and choices across all public services and education is no different," he told the Dáil.

Mr O'Keeffe accused Opposition parties of scaremongering and causing confusion by making outlandish claims about the Budget cuts.

He added: "Much drama and quite frankly hysteria has been whipped up about protecting our children's future and the impact on class sizes."

The embattled minister, who spent last week on a trade mission in China, cancelled at least two public engagements in Dublin today and tomorrow.

Earlier in the Dáil, Labour's education spokesman Ruairí Quinn likened the cuts to "social vandalism" and added: "It is an attack upon our children, the most vulnerable in our society. It is an attack on our future because our children will be the generation who will guide us into old age."

Outside the Dáil, ASTI vice president Joe Moran told the crowd that the cuts were mean spirited and misguided.

"Second-level schools are already cash-strapped and experience large class sizes and inadequate resources on a daily basis. Despite this international studies show Irish students and schools performing well.

"This is a precarious balance, high achievement from basic resources. But there is a tipping point and the proposed cutbacks are that tipping point."

Opposition TDs joined hundreds of protesters who held up banners such as: 'Hands Off Our Classes', 'The Most Unkindest Cut of All' and 'BATTman is Robin us'.

Demonstrators also sang their own version of Pink Floyd's 'The Wall', chanting: "Hey Taoiseach. Leave Those Kids Alone".

Earlier, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the cuts in education were necessary to help improve the country's deteriorating economic situation.

"We will continue with our investment in education next year and they years ahead, and in better times we will accelerate that investment," he told the Dáil.

He added: We have a current Budgetary deficit which will have to be addressed and further strategic decisions will have to be taken. Any suggestion to the contrary is not being honest with the people and whatever the popularity stakes, I will be honest with the people."

Opposition leader Enda Kenny suggested that a pay freeze on incomes above €50,000 in the public sector could save up to €400m.

The Dáil debate on the Budget's education cuts opened tonight and will be voted upon tomorrow afternoon.

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