Quinn: Changes to education will reflect modern Ireland

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has insisted any shake-up in the sector will reflect modern Ireland.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has insisted any shake-up in the sector will reflect modern Ireland.

The Labour Party man has come under fierce fire from teachers’ unions after announcing that small and rural schools could face cuts.

But he said he will negotiate any changes before they come into effect.

“Every young person is entitled under the Constitution to access to primary education irrespective of where they live,” said Mr Quinn.

“I will honour the Constitution, but I will do so in the context of the second decade of the 21st century and not by referring to a time which is long since passed.”

He said rural schools were once needed so children could walk to school but, now that transport has improved, young people can easily travel slightly further afield.

“The face of Ireland has changed and we have to reflect that change,” Mr Quinn told RTÉ.

“But at the end of the day, the education system will be delivered – albeit in a different context.”

Mr Quinn will address delegates of the Teachers’ Union Ireland today, where he is expected to discuss the provision of guidance counsellors in schools and education to traveller children.

He was criticised yesterday when speaking at the annual Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland conferences.

He said many in the education sector fail to fully understand the gravity of the financial crisis and the fact that cuts are unavoidable.

But delegates argued that cuts could be in breach of the Croke Park Agreement - a Government pact made in 2010 promising no further reductions in workers’ pay rates from 2010 to 2014 and no compulsory redundancies.

Mr Quinn has also come under fire from a member of his Labour Party's coalition partner, Fine Gael.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames argued that the minister was guilty of ripping the structure of Irish life with his proposals that could see small rural schools amalgamated.

She called on Mr Quinn and the entire Fine Gael-Labour Cabinet to have a rethink of the proposed education sector reforms, saying that failing to do so could result in fewer young people living in the countryside.

Ms Healy Eames said that, while she understands the Government has a budget deficit to plug in the education sector, money could be raised from elsewhere.

“He is ripping at the structures of rural life,” the Fine Gael Senator went on.

“There are ways to find the savings elsewhere in the system. This policy of ripping up the face of Irish rural life should be way down the rankings.”

Meanwhile, Mr Quinn announced plans to carry out an audit on education resources across the country.

The Inventory Project will see the Government take a number of regular traditional provincial towns and do an inventory of what resources they have.

“In many cases, the Department of Education has not got on a single sheet of paper what the educational infrastructure resources are of town A, B or C,” said Mr Quinn.

“No rational planner, no business organisation would contemplate making changes unless it knew what the actual physical resources and manpower resources were in that situation.”

He said an audit to establish this would ensure the greatest productive use of what educational resources are currently available.

Despite announcing only yesterday that small schools could face cuts and teachers lose their jobs, Mr Quinn outlined plans for a new scholarship scheme for disadvantaged pupils.

The Government will hand out a total €120,000 this September to 60 Leaving Cert pupils from Deis schools who hold medical cards. They will each receive €2,000.

The number of children receiving the bursary will continue to rise over the next three years, with around 350 students a year benefiting by 2015.

“I believe this is the only equitable manner of distributing the limited funds we have available for bursaries – focusing them on the students who most need our support,” said Mr Quinn.

The bursaries will be awarded regionally and will also be determined by students’ Leaving Cert results.

They will completely replace any existing scholarship schemes and will only be available to students undertaking mathematics or scientific subjects.

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