Special needs teachers – Education is not electoral carrot

PARENTS and teachers alike will find it hard not to be cynical about the timing of Education Minister Noel Dempsey’s announcement that he intends creating an extra 350 special teaching posts to cater for primary school children with learning difficulties.

It’s the election, stupid. That’s the raw political reality behind an initiative that is clearly part of a rolling Government campaign aimed at milking the good news factor in the run up to local and European elections.

That said, however, it would be churlish not to welcome this decision unveiled at yesterday’s session of the INTO Congress. It represents a positive step towards clearing a backlog of almost 7,000 pupils who need special teaching.

It means, for instance, that children with mild learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, will not have to undergo psychological assessment in future. Those with more severe difficulties will continue to need this form of assessment.

The initiative will have a profound impact, a point underlined by Mr Dempsey when he addressed primary teachers.

As evidenced at the INTO session in Tralee and at the ASTI congress in Killarney, the new style of ministerial participation in the annual round of teacher meetings has not succeeded in altering the old confrontational landscape.

Of particular significance was Mr Dempsey’s negative response to demands by teachers that Government honour its promise to reduce the size of primary classes. Effectively, the Government is reneging on yet another main plank of its raft of general election promises.

In its unashamed bid to hold onto power at any cost, the outgoing Coalition assured voters, if it was returned to office, no Irish child would be in a class of more than 20 pupils.

Yet no sooner were the Government parties back in power than this electoral nicety was conveniently consigned to limbo, along with a litany of other dishonoured pledges. In Ireland there are lies, damned lies and election promises.

The inescapable conclusion, for the foreseeable future at any rate, is that the average size of primary school classes looks set to remain at 24.5 pupils, a level considerably higher than that of most developed nations; it compares with an average class size of 15 pupils in Luxemburg, and with 18 in Italy while across OECD member countries the average is 22 pupils.

The extent of overcrowding here is graphically seen in schools up and down the country where more than 30 children of four years of age are regularly crowded into classrooms.

Despite Mr Dempsey’s insistence on the excellence of this country’s education system, it is a highly unsatisfactory scenario. In contrast with their better-off peers in other countries, for thousands of Irish children the chance of getting off to a good start in school is being thwarted.

Undoubtedly, parents will support the ongoing campaign of INTO general secretary John Carr, who says the organisation will not let up on its drive for smaller class sizes.

Only when the Government tackles this problem in a realistic and meaningful way will voter cynicism diminish.

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