Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has come under fire from teachers after warning that small schools could fall victim to further cuts.
Two of the country’s main teachers’ unions have warned that Government cuts to the public sector would breach the Croke Park Agreement, which could lead to industrial action.
Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) general secretary Sheila Nunan hit back at Mr Quinn, who said the education sector does not understand the seriousness of the financial crisis.
“We get it. There is no lack of comprehension in this room or in the schools represented about the economy,” said Ms Nunan in an address at the annual INTO congress in Co Kerry.
“We absolutely get it, Minister. We do not need to be reminded of the economic woes of the country or the incompetence of the previous government.”
Ms Nunan said the Croke Park Agreement had helped establish peace between the Government and the public sector, which would be lost if the pact were broken.
The deal was made in 2010 promising no further reductions in workers’ pay rates from 2010 to 2014 and no compulsory redundancies.
In exchange, public servants agreed to be flexible in their work to change the way the sector runs, to help improve how it works while reducing costs.
Mr Quinn was heckled by placard-waving protesters at the conference when he announced there are limits on the number of teaching posts the Government can afford to fund.
He also pointed out that 80% of the current education budget is allocated to pay and pensions.
“This Government has protected education as much as it can,” said Mr Quinn.
“Far greater reductions in the number of public servants are being made in other sectors relative to those in schools. But there are limits on the number of teaching posts we can afford.”
The Labour Party TD told the crowd he has a dilemma of having to find €77m in time for the year-end budget to make up the education deficit for 2013.
“When I hear appeals at this congress or elsewhere for reversals of budget measures or calls for increased investment in education, it worries me that the gravity of the fiscal crisis is still not fully understood,” he said.
Mr Quinn said that while the Government recognises the importance of small schools in the community and particularly in rural areas, cuts may be unavoidable.
“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,” he went on.
“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.”
INTO is the union for primary school teachers. But Mr Quinn took a similar stance at the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland congress in Wexford this afternoon, where he continued to discuss budgetary pressures.
He also indicated reforms to the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams, suggesting a move away from rote learning.
“One of the criticisms of our second level system has been the emphasis on recall and rote learning, rather than real understanding and competence,” the minister said.
“Every June, the media commentary on both the Junior and the Leaving Certificate is focused on whether or not the exam was ’as expected’, and whether or not it deviated from the norm expected by students, parents and teachers alike.
“This discourse is symptomatic of a culture of ’teaching to the test’ which many, myself included, believe needs to be changed.”
He added that particular emphasis would be placed on scientific subjects and mathematics in the Leaving Certificate, as well as increased focus on practical investigations.
Mr Quinn will speak again at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) conference tomorrow.
Echoing Ms Nunan, TUI general secretary John MacGabhan said all bets would be off if the Government breaches the Croke Park Agreement.
He also argued that cuts in education are continuing to affect the most vulnerable and schools that are already disadvantaged.
“If the Government departs from the commitments not to cut pay or to make members redundant, then all bets are off,” warned Mr MacGabhan.
“Allowances are an intrinsic, indivisible, part of teachers’ pay. Teachers’ pay is protected by the Croke Park Agreement. A cut in teachers’ pay would constitute a breach of the Croke Park Agreement.”
He said cuts could result in some schools losing subject options, while students with specific education needs and those from poor backgrounds are particularly at risk.
Meanwhile, Mr Quinn is currently considering a new report on the future of primary education, which has called for reduced emphasis on religion in national schools and encouraged greater inclusion for pupils from diverse religious backgrounds.
The report was compiled by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, which was established by Mr Quinn.
It has also recommended how different Catholic schools all over the country might be divested.
Parents who wish to have their children educated in schools that are purely Catholic will be given the chance to have them transferred.