An irresponsible attack on further education

A counter-productive hike to the pupil-teacher ratio will lead to further inequalities, says Gerard Craughwell

SUCCESSIVE education ministers have spoken with passion about tackling disadvantage, ending inequalities in our education system, and ensuring a level playing field for all.

However, Budget 2013 was a black day for anybody involved in further education in Ireland as a result of the unjustifiable cutback in the staffing of further education and post-Leaving Certificate courses (FE/PLC). These courses are provided in dedicated colleges, post-primary schools, and in a variety of education centres. Now, at a time when the educational attainment of the population is a national economic priority, it beggars belief that the Government has inflicted such an irresponsible cut on the FE/PLC sector by worsening the pupil-teacher ratio by two full points.

The pupil-teacher ratio determines the number of teachers available to provide courses, so this cutback amounts to a huge reduction in frontline staffing levels.

The sector is a first-choice education option which offers more second-chance education opportunities to citizens than all other providers put together. This cutback will take the legs from underneath a sector that for many years has been operating under an artificial “cap” on student places on courses funded by the Department of Education.

Further education colleges found themselves unable, in conscience, to turn away applicants who needed a second chance or upskilling educational opportunity. The students in PLC courses are frequently the unemployed and most disadvantaged citizens in our communities.

In practice, this has led to a situation by which these colleges cater for scores of students more than those for which they are funded. As such, the sector was already under-staffed before this latest retrograde cut.

The increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, from 17:1 to 19:1, will lead to a loss of about 200 whole-time teaching posts. It will result in as many as 500 non-permanent teachers losing their jobs or a significant proportion of their hours.

It makes no sense to consign so many highly qualified teachers to the dole. It will result in a double cost to the social welfare bill — potential students will be denied places on courses and will remain on the live register where they will be joined by their potential teachers.

Furthermore, it makes absolutely no sense to cut from the education system those teachers with critical expertise who devise and deliver innovative, labour market-focused courses. This cut in the budget is not just anti-education, it is anti-jobs.

With the unemployment rate coming close to 15% and the youth unemployment rate (those under 25) at 25%, now is not the time to cut a sector specially equipped to retrain and upskill this section of the population.

The students on these FE/PLC courses are typically second-chance adult learners. I was one myself.

They are those with no formal skills or qualifications, many of whom were lured out of education during the Celtic Tiger era, but who now realise that a secure, financially independent future rests on obtaining marketable qualifications.

They are those who are qualified in areas where there are no longer any employment opportunities, who need to upskill and retrain. They are those who were stay-at-home parents, who now have grown-up families, and who wish to train or upskill in order to re-enter the labour market.

They are the unemployed, who wish to retrain or upskill to re-enter the labour market or start their own businesses. They are students who were not ideally suited to mainstream education, because, in many cases, it did not address their particular interests and aptitudes.

An increase in the pupil-teacher ratio will mean many new, cutting-edge courses will have to be axed: Courses in cloud computing, music technology, and green energy, for example.

The cut in staffing will inevitably have a hugely detrimental effect on the diversity of courses offered to students, with an inevitable negative effect on their employment prospects. It will undo years of innovative development in the sector.

Unfortunately, this is not the only budgetary measure which will hurt the sector.

The programme for government promised to expand eligibility for the back to education allowance. However, instead, students are to suffer a reduction in training allowances.

Participants in VTOS, Youthreach, and Fás further education courses, who move from jobseekers’ payments, will no longer have their payments increased to a maximum of €188 per week. Instead, the standard maximum rate for those under 25 years of age will be €160 per week. Capitation rates in FE/PLC colleges and VTOS, paid for running costs other than teachers, are also being reduced by 2%.

From Jan 2013, the €300 back to education allowance will be discontinued for new and existing participants. These cuts, coupled with the €200 fee introduced in the last budget and increased commuting costs, will put second-chance education or upskilling out of the reach of many who most need and want such opportunities.

It is time for Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to realise he cannot expect FE/PLC teachers to continue to design and deliver innovative, specialised courses while he decimates the sector and further demoralises young teachers.

This budget measure is counter-productive. It will lead to further educational inequality and societal division. Now is the time for all who seek quality and diversity in education and equity in society to make it clear that this is an intolerable cutback which the minister and Government simply must revisit.

* Gerard Craughwell is president of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland

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