I commend my colleague Deputy Jonathan O’Brien for bringing forward this very comprehensive motion on education.
The current recession is a time when everything possible should be done, not only to maintain our support for education, but to enhance it. There will be no true recovery without the empowerment of people through education, in particular the empowerment of those in our society who are disadvantaged. A good education system can help to overcome disadvantage and to break the cycle of generational economic deprivation.
Far from breaking that cycle the austerity policies begun by Fianna Fáil and continued by the current Government are accelerating it. This is reflected in the increased numbers of people applying for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. More people are seeking help from a fund that this Government has reduced both last year and again this year.
Decent standards in our education system are simply not sustainable if this Government continues to cut education spending as they have done since they came to office. Anything in the order of the expected €100 million cut in 2014 will be a further very damaging blow to the educational services for children across this State, with the least advantaged pupils and families being worst hit.
There is a real concern now that this Government’s approach will result in a further increase in the pupil teacher ratio in primary schools. With an average of 26 pupils per teacher in this State, we have the second highest pupil teacher ratio in the European Union.
Are we to turn the clock back decades to when we had most classes with well over 30 children in our primary schools? Already a shocking 23.5% of primary school children in mainstream schools in this State are in classes of 30 or more. And the numbers have increased in recent years.
Minister Quinn states in his amendment that the Government has just published an action plan to combat bullying in schools. That is commendable and I welcome it. However, as the Irish National Teachers Organisation has pointed out, the challenge to combat bullying is made all the more difficult by increased class sizes.
I welcome the formation of the National Alliance for Primary Education comprising management, parents, teachers and principals, aiming to halt Government plans to cut primary education in this year’s budget. The new Alliance includes the Church of Ireland Board of Education, Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, Educate Together, An Foras Patrúnachta, Gaelscoileanna, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, Irish Primary Principals Network, National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education and the National Parents’ Council (Primary).
National Alliance has stated that any attempt to bluntly cut primary education
is a direct attack on children and their constitutional right to education. They
are urging the Government to leave primary education alone and they question
how schools can equip today’s generation for tomorrow if they are drained of
All TDs will by now have received National Alliance for Primary Education postcards with the message ‘Children Shouldn’t Pay – protect primary education – protect our future’. I fully endorse that message and that campaign and I urge Ministers Quinn and Noonan and Howlin and an Taoiseach to act on it.
For all pupils the cuts represent a threat to their education and to their future. But this is definitely the case for pupils with special needs. All pupils have the right to have their needs assessed as early as possible and to have the additional resources they require allocated to them. Obviously there are limited resources but every effort must be made to put in place the resource teachers, hours and special needs assistants that pupils require.
As the motion states, the Government should increase the number of teaching resource hours and end the cap on special needs assistants in order to match the needs of a rising school population and break the cycle of deprivation, marginalisation and educational disadvantage through the promotion of fairness and equity.
The Government must address the two-fold challenge for special needs education; firstly, the immediate requirement to increase resources for these pupils in the forthcoming Budget; and secondly, the need to reform the current system of allocation of resource hours which, it is generally agreed, is not equitable.
Iarraim ar gach Teachta tacú leis an rún.