Yesterday’s announcement by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn that 106 primary schools and 43 secondary schools will be built and that significant extensions will be provided for 114 other schools within five years is indeed welcome news.
Eight special schools will be built, while four others will be extended in a programme with a price tag of €1.5bn. Apart from the great social benefits of creating up to 100,000 school places, 15,000 construction-related jobs will be generated. These jobs are very, very welcome and the commitment to education — the only real, long-term response to our current difficulties — is a declaration of intent we should all support.
The sum of €1.5bn, even spread over the course of five years, is a considerable one if seen in the context of the €9bn-plus a year education budget. The difficulty in funding projects such as these is highlighted by the fact that 80% of this €9bn or so goes on staff costs. This 80% is ring-fenced by Croke Park until 2014, meaning Mr Quinn has discretionary control over just 20% of his budget.
Unfortunately, even mentioning those figures has become divisive, as a public sector that imagines itself under siege feels unloved and prickly.
Conversely, anyone in the private sector who heard Mr Quinn on RTÉ yesterday addressing the issue of teachers who had taken up to 260 days of sick leave in a year will be amazed that the issue is only being dealt with now. This is not to suggest any wrongdoing on the part of the great majority of teachers, only amazement that the dishonest minority — as in the private sector too — have not been confronted before now. The Oireachtas has heard in recent weeks that sick leave across the public sector costs over €550m a year. The great majority of this — €448m — covered certified sick leave, but uncertified leave still cost €63m.
This is just one of the issues facing the education system and is not by any means the most important. How our schools and colleges evolve to serve society and the idea of a rounded education, and the pace of that evolution, is much more important.
Many issues need urgent attention: grade inflation; access to third-level education and the adequacy of our preparation for that challenge; school patronage; rising illiteracy rates; the place of languages other than English or Irish in our schools; the huge cost of presiding over the slow and seemingly inevitable death of Irish as a living language; teachers teaching maths without holding a primary qualification in the subject; how we assess schools’ performance; enrolment policy; and whether private schools should get State funding.
Even the briefest consideration of these issues will demonstrate that all of us, and our children in particular, depend on them being resolved quickly. Change has come too slowly and unless it is more easily achieved, the €1.5bn investment announced yesterday may not realise its potential.
Maybe it is time for another round of benchmarking — benchmarking with the very best international standards and practices in education, how educational change is managed and increasing the pace of that vital change. After all, the money has already been paid.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved