Not quite top marks yet — but a good start for education minister

It's easy to be comprehensive when you have such a pot of money at your disposal but, distractions aside, Norma Foley's announcement of the back-to-school roadmap was a much-needed personal success.
Not quite top marks yet — but a good start for education minister
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Education, Norma Foley, speak to the media at today's press conference on the government's plan to reopen Ireland's schools. Photo: Julien Behal

You’d have to feel sorry for Norma Foley.

She has endured some stinging criticism since becoming Education Minister.

And then yesterday, her big announcement about getting a million kids back to school was overshadowed by another Blueshirt blunder.

I mean the controversy about people having their pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) taken off them if they left the country.

A cynic could be led to believe it was a classic Fine Gael stroke in order to scupper Ms Foley’s 'big day' but, in truth, it was just another self-imposed gaffe by this luckless Government.

Leo Varadkar, the mouthy Tánaiste — who has a habit of “talking too much” as he says himself — stirred things up on Sunday when he spoke of the need for such people to be actively looking for work.

Then Social Protection Minister, Heather Humphreys, set the cat among the pigeons at lunchtime with a scattergun interview confirming the rule changes.

The Cabinet, meeting at Dublin Castle, dragged on, and eventually, when they did come out, the press conference about the roadmap back to school inevitably switched its focus to the withdrawal of the €350 a week payment to those who have lost their job because of Covid-19.

As for the plan itself, there is an old saying, 'if in doubt, spend a few quid'. 

And clearly, that is what the Education Minister Norma Foley is hoping in terms of its plan to get schools open for all one million of the country’s children.

And not just 'half-open' she said. They will open, fully but with a few changes of practice — but she was adamant it will be “as close as normal.” 

The stakes could not be higher.

She revealed that a budget of €375 million is being made available to ready schools, including funding for over 2000 additional teachers to help with physical distancing and class sizes.

The numbers are eye-watering and while there is no doubting the ambition of the plan there are concerns as to how realistic it is.

Where will all these extra teachers come from?

Ms Foley said she feels there are enough aspirant teachers on substitute panels at junior level. And while it may be more of a challenge at second level, she is confident that the places will be filled. 

She did say that all of the new teachers will be Garda-vetted before they begin or have access to the classroom and Ms Foley noted that there is a suite of measure to meet any additional costs for schools which may arise.

The new government has had a bruising start to its existence and is hoping this detailed roadmap will allow our 4,000 schools re-open.

Even though it will not mean a return to normality, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it will be a significant milestone.

He knows there are parents and pupils all over the country who baulked at the previous suggestion of returning only one day a week so he has personally intervened to ensure the plan announced is credible and politically-proofed.

As a former teacher himself, he said the roadmap will be backed by substantial resources and investment: “The measures which we are announcing today are the product of intensive work over the past month. 

"It is a comprehensive range of measures, backed by major new resources."

“The combination of extra staff, extra funding, clear guidance, and new supports will help every school to adapt to its own needs. 

"There's a lot to be done in implementing this roadmap, but it is a major piece of work, which can ensure that our schools reopen at the end of next month,” Mr Martin added.

It was an important day for Ms Foley too, given the rocky start to her ministerial career. She needed this to go well — and, by and large, she succeeded.

I suppose it is easy to be comprehensive when you have such a pot of money at your disposal. She announced funding for this, funding for that.

Funding for additional supply panels at primary level; funding for more than 1000 additional teachers at post-primary; funding to provide relief deeds for teaching principals at primary; funding for schools' daily cleaning arrangements, and to purchase supplies and hand sanitiser, as well as funding for enhanced supervision.

She acknowledged there will be some with latent concerns: “Some students, and indeed school staff may feel anxious about the return to school. 

"I acknowledge this will be a time of change, with new rules and routines to learn in order to keep everyone safe. Throughout this pandemic we have been in this together. Now, we will learn this together."

Union reaction was in the realm of cautious welcome — a testament to the size of the package on the table and the amount of head-wrecking negotiations that clearly gone on behind the scenes.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) General Secretary, Kieran Christie, said that while teachers will work with the Government, it is essential that the health of both students and staff is fully protected.

Time will tell if Ms Foley’s efforts will succeed and if the country will actually begin back on the road to normality for all in a month’s time.

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