That Dáil Éireann:
— further education and training, FET, is a hugely important sector that provides an important educational pathway for unemployed, disadvantaged learners and second chance learners to access specialist labour focused courses and to secure employment;
— the FET sector has a crucial role in providing education and training for people that the traditional education system has failed and this has been unfairly targeted and cut in budget 2013;
— budget 2013 will cut up to 500 positions from this vital service and will increase the pupil-teacher ratio and reduce the training allowances for further education and training scheme participants; and
— the cuts to the FET sector are socially and economically regressive affecting the unemployed and the most marginalised learners in our education system; and
calls on the Government to:
— reverse these regressive and unfair cuts as unemployment is at 14.6% and youth unemployment at close to 30% and these people need the opportunities that the further education sector offers so that they can re-enter the labour market;
— ensure that no courses will be cut from the FET sector, all student applications will be dealt with and no teaching posts will be lost;
— commit to tackling educational disadvantage and putting it at the centre of Ireland’s education policy;
— publish any impact assessment that was carried out by the Department of Education and Skills into the impact of the cuts on the provision of courses within the FET sector; and
— commit to carrying out an impact assessment in relation to all future decisions on changes to staffing schedules so that the quality of services to students will not be jeopardised.
I will share time and will take just ten minutes to commence. This Fianna Fáil motion objects to the cuts in further education and to post leaving certificate training colleges introduced by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, in the budget and calls on him to reverse them so as to ensure the sector is protected and can continue the valuable work it has proved it can do in the past. I welcome the many representatives of the teaching profession and from the post leaving certificate and further education sector to the Visitors Gallery. The turnout demonstrates the importance of this sector and the danger the cuts imposed by the Minister in the budget pose for the sector and its capacity to carry out its work in the future.
On the morning the Minister introduced these cuts, he intimated he was satisfied with the cuts being introduced. Unfortunately, in the €90 million saving being made in the education budget, the greatest burden falls on the further education and training sector. Fianna Fáil fully understands the constraints and pressures of the economy. Some €21 billion was removed from the national budget when Fianna Fáil was in government, up until 18 months ago. In our pre-budget submission, we prioritised the education budget and suggested three areas in which we should ensure no cuts should be made - education, mental health services and disability services. We found the money that needed to be found elsewhere. We believe the future of this country, as has been stated so often in the past, depends on education. Education is important for our future economy and to developing the potential of our population. The focus must be on education to ensure the country gets back on its feet and that we maximise the potential of our people.
Unfortunately, the approach taken by the Minister and the Government has been to make cuts to the education budget. The cuts to further education we see in this year's budget follow on the policy of the previous budget introduced by the Government. Last year, the Minister introduced cuts to the DEIS schools, removing teachers from them. Afterwards, the Minister said he did not fully realise the impact the removal of those teachers would have and admitted that move was a mistake. However, that was only admitted after severe, prolonged pressure from schools, parents, teachers, the wider community and Government backbenchers. Only then did the Minister admit he had made a mistake.
Last year also, the Minister introduced cuts at second level to career guidance posts. These posts are crucial as it is important to have qualified counsellors to work with students, particularly at a time when students have more issues than they have ever had. At the time, the Minister said these cuts would not have an impact and that he was empowering second level schools to make their own decisions. A survey published this week indicates that the number of one-to-one hours spent by guidance counsellors with students has reduced by 50%.
With regard to SUSI and the reform of the student grant system, the Minister said SUSI would be a prime example of public service reform. When I brought a Private Members' motion before the Dáil on 12 November, it was long clear SUSI was a shambles. On that day, the Minister's initial comment before he came into the Dáil was that he did not fully understand why grants were not being paid on time. These few examples show that with regard to the measures the Minister has taken previously, he did not fully comprehend their impact.
Unfortunately, the same is true again with regard to the cuts being made in this budget, specifically to further education and post leaving certificate courses. The Minister does not, for example, understand and appreciate the impact that increasing the pupil-teacher ratio from 17:1 to 19:1 will have. If he did, he would not make some of the comments he has made in response to this motion. The Minister's counter motion demonstrates the fact that he does not fully appreciate the impact this cut will have. He says at the outset of his motion that "considerable efforts were made to protect front line education services" in preparing for the budget. I have no doubt the people in the Visitors Gallery would beg to differ with the Minister on that. The Minister also notes that "in raising the pupil-teacher ratio for post leaving certificate courses to 19:1, the Government brought it to the same level as that which applies in all free second level schools". He goes on to say that "PLC courses are for adults who have completed formal second-level education and that the current pupil-teacher ratio of 17:1 is in fact more favourable than the pupil-teacher ratio in typical free second-level schools." This is the Minister's justification for the measures and cuts he is introducing to this sector in his budget.
Let us call this cut what it is. It is a cut to front-line services that will decimate the further education and training sector. Hundreds of jobs will be lost and thousands of students will be affected. I plead with the Minister not to insult the many teachers listening to what the Minister has to say tonight by telling them that he is simply bringing the colleges of further education and training into line with second level schools. It is disingenuous and misleading to say that, somehow, these schools have been operating under some sort of preferential pupil-teacher ratio and that they are being brought into line with second level schools. We all know this is not true. Further education and post leaving certificate colleges are not the same as second level schools. The reason they are there is to fill a niche for students that could not be filled at post primary level. They are not the same as second level schools.
The truth is that the cut being introduced by the Minister will bring about a 10% reduction in the number of teachers teaching on the front line. It will amount to a whole-time equivalent of 200 front-line posts.
Many of the courses provided in the post-leaving certificate and further education sectors are niche courses that depend on specialist teachers, many of whom are brought in from the professions and the business community to impart their specialist knowledge and expertise to the students participating in these courses. As many of the teachers in such roles are not permanent, they will be hit hardest by the cut being introduced.
I will elaborate on the impact of what the Minister is doing. In effect, many schools will not be able to continue to provide the courses they are providing, the cutting-edge teaching skills of many staff will be lost and only the more regular courses will be retained. If the Minister had taken the time to conduct an impact assessment of what this approach would mean, in advance of its introduction, he would have seen the impact the withdrawal of teachers would have. If he had consulted the people involved in the sector and listened to them, he would have heard that more than half of the courses in many schools would be affected. When a module is removed from a course following the withdrawal of a specialist teacher, it affects the whole course. In many cases, it affects the ability of the college to offer the course.
I appeal to the Minister to listen to the contributions that will be made during this debate and understand the impact of what he is doing. Perhaps representatives of national schools in every community in the country are not contacting him about this cut, but that does not mean it is right. He should not need to be subjected to massive pressure from the parents of national school pupils in order to realise he needs to reverse what he is doing. I suggest that when he was preparing for last month's budget, the only impact assessment he undertook related to the political impact the budget would have on him, rather than the impact it would have on the education sector. In the light of the political opposition he encountered when he introduced other cuts in the past, it is likely that he considered the measures he could introduce on this occasion that would lead to the least political backlash. I suggest he sat down to assess how many would be chasing his tail if certain cuts were made. That can be the only rationale for his decision to target a sector that looks after many of the most disadvantaged students in society. These students need the support of the existing number of teachers if the current number of courses is to continue to be provided. I ask the Minister to listen and see the sense in what we are saying. He should realise that what he is doing will decimate this sector and do irreparable damage to something that has taken years to build up. He must make savings elsewhere in the national budget to free up the funding needed to protect the educational services on which so many students depend.