Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has warned that small schools cannot be immune from budget cuts.
The Minister received a frosty response from some delegates as he delivered an address at the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) annual conference in Killarney this morning.
He was heckled during parts of his speech and around 20 INTO members held up signs calling for small rural schools to be protected.
However, Minister Quinn said small schools cannot stand still or never have their staffing levels changed, nor can teachers be immune from budget cuts.
He outlined the budget constraints he is facing, saying that funding of the education system cannot be talked about in isolation from the overall financial and budgetary context.
"Despite the good progress we have made in reducing spending, the gap between taxes and spending is still a staggering €18bn each year," he said.
Claiming that a deficit of this size "threatens the very existence and solvency of our state", Minister Quinn said that it was "precisely because our finances are in such a weak position that only the EU, ECB and IMF are willing to lend to us".
"No other lender is willing to take the risk with Ireland," he said.
"That is a measure of how far this country has fallen."
Minister Quinn said that the unallocated deficit in the education budget for 2013 is €77m, and €147m for 2014.
"€77m I have to find by the time the next budget is published in December 2012," he told the INTO delegates, to some catcalls from the crowd.
"€77m which I’m asking your union to help me find in the education sector."
Members of the audience challenged Minister Quinn to "do his job", to which he retorted "why don't we do our job together".
"There are no easy solutions," he said.
Minister Quinn said the Government fully recognises that small schools are "an important part of the social fabric of rural communities".
"They will continue to be a major feature of our education landscape," he said.
"However, this does not mean that small schools can stand still or never have their staffing levels changed to something that is more affordable and sustainable in difficult and challenging times.
"Teachers in small schools cannot be immune from the requirement that is being asked of all public servants to deliver our public services on a reduced level of resources."
Responding to Minister Quinn's comments, INTO General Secretary Sheila Nunan said budget cuts to small schools have to be reversed.
Calling for the publication of a value for money report on these schools, Ms Nunan told delegates that teachers carry out a vital role in society.
"That's the foundation on which they built literacy and numeracy and all the other skills, attitudes and knowledge that children acquire in primary schools," she said to rapturous applause.
"And that, Minister, is why we are opposed to Department cuts to disadvantaged schools, and that's we are opposed to cuts to small, rural schools."