VICTORIA WHITE: Children have been forgotten in State’s action plan for education

There’s one big problem in the Government’s Action Plan for Education which aims to make Ireland’s education and training service “the best in Europe by 2026”: the children have been forgotten. writes Victoria White

Yes, capital investment in school buildings is going up by 70%. Yes, the Government is planning to build 42 new primary and secondary schools by 2022. Yes, PE halls will be “state of the art” and there will be science labs and technological training facilities here, there and everywhere.

There will be more teachers and more special needs assistants. There will be funding for ancillary staff. Just don’t ask about the funding for the kids themselves.

There are, as Education Minister Richard Bruton says, “huge demands out there”. The Government can’t be expected to restore, let alone raise, capitation funding for the kids, now can they?

They must. The cutting of our already derisory capitation funding at the time of the crash was a disgrace. The failure to restore capitation funding at a time of recovery is a scandal.

It is a scandal which hasn’t really caught fire and that is another scandal. Am I over-using the word “scandal”? Probably. It’s just I can’t get over the figures.

Capitation grants for primary school kids plunged from €200 per child per year in 2010, to €170 per child per year in 2015.

They have never been restored. Meanwhile, the Irish National Teachers’ Union reckons parents contribute about €46m a year in so-called voluntary contributions, bun sales, bun fights, and “Guess the name of the goldfish” competitions.

At least I always got the goldfish’s name wrong, unlike my friend, who ended up with suspected pike swimming through her kitchen.

Me and my friend and her pike were never the issue, though. The issue is the people who end up asking the Vincent de Paul for the voluntary contribution. And that’s before you look at the cost of books (€88) and trips (€48) and lunches (€124) and school supplies (€52) which should be free but are so expensive. They push 17% of parents into debt every year, according to this year’s figures from Zurich Insurance. Those who can get credit that is. My gut twists when I think of the kids who must be out there trying to make excuses for missing books or uniforms or trip fees.

The situation at secondary level makes still fewer headlines but is just as dire, with 28% of parents applying for loans to fund it.

Yes, capitation funding per secondary student is higher than for primary kids at €296 a year, which goes to show how little the Government understands the needs of primary schools.

However, the secondary grant stood at €345 in 2009.

Therefore, €49 has been taken off every secondary school kid in the country and not a cent has ever been restored

It demonstrates the fact that the State still does not accept it has a duty to provide free education at secondary level, that one whole year of the secondary cycle has never been properly funded: Transition Year (TY).

I have just been presented with a bill for €500 for my child to do Transition Year at her local school. I have already paid out €240 for her first TY trip. I understand the requests. It is not the school’s fault they have to make them. I am confident that a kid whose parents couldn’t pay would be facilitated.

It shouldn’t really get to that point, though, should it?

In research carried out by the Irish Second Level Students’ Union which is available on the Department of Education website, concern about the cost of TY is the first reason cited by students for not doing the year.

There is evidence that some students are only permitted to do TY when they have paid a fee, and though I am confident there isn’t a headmaster or mistress in Ireland who would hold a kid back for non-payment, parents may hold their kids back out of embarrassment.

Students from higher professional backgrounds are more than twice as likely to do Transition Year than students whose backgrounds are semi-skilled or unskilled.

There are multiple reasons for this but the financial reason should be taken out of the equation by the Government. Educational researcher Aidan Clerkin found in his study of Transition Year, that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and educationally challenged kids gained still more from TY than kids with fewer challenges.

Children have been forgotten in State’s action plan for education

That makes it all the more horrific that some schools only grant participation in TY to the most academic and the most applied kids.

You might say that’s better than taking the names of those who can do TY out of a hat, which apparently also happens.

Both practices are appalling, but surely discriminating on academic grounds against the very kids who might gain most from TY is as low as it gets?

I understand the schools’ desire to use participation in TY as a carrot to drive good performance, but they should not be allowed to do so.

They could argue back, with some justification, that resources are scarce and are being spent on kids who they know will apply themselves to TY.

How can we allow this situation to continue? TY has been in place since 1974 and has been in most schools for decades.

Participation means, on average, 26 extra CAO points, in research which focuses on gender and school type, but not fully for age.

The research hasn’t yet been done which audits the wider gains from participation in TY, but Aidan Clerkin quotes research showing over 90% of teachers agreeing that TY increases kids’ confidence, social awareness and social competence.

TY isn’t a wacky pilot project anymore. Either the Government believes in it or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, TY should be abolished. If it does, TY should be available free to all who wish to do it and funded adequately at a rate far above the cut rate of €95 per student per year currently allowed.

How can we prepare to invest €116bn in a massive capital plan with the stated aim of making our education and training service “the best in Europe” when we won’t fund the kids themselves?

Surely that takes one stated aim of the plan, creating “a fair society” completely off the table?

It’s like investing in state-of-the-art hardware without investing in software at all.

Oh sorry, the teachers and secretaries and cleaners and special needs assistants are software too and they are being invested in. They can vote. They can pay taxes.

Building schools and PE halls generates tax too, as well as boosting growth and employment statistics.

Kids are invisible. And that’s why you can’t see them in the Government’s Action Plan for Education.

€49 has been taken off every secondary school kid in the country and not a cent has ever been restored


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