That Seanad Éireann, recognising that cuts in education expenditure pose a major threat to the quality of education and have serious consequences for the future of our children and young people, calls on the Government to review all its education cutbacks because of their serious implications for the quality of the education service and in particular for those pupils who are educationally and socially disadvantaged.
I welcome the Minister to the House for this debate. This is the first opportunity we have had in the lifetime of the present Seanad to have a major debate on education, and I am delighted that the Minister is able to be here for it. I am confident that the debate will be useful and constructive and I hope that we will persuade the Minister to restore all education services to previous levels. I hope that in turn the Minister will persuade the Government that the cutbacks have serious implications for the quality of the education service, and that when the Book of Estimates is published we will see an allocation of finance for education that will indicate that the Government are committed to ensure that there is no erosion of the quality of the education service, and that we will also see that the Government are committed to provide for the needs of those pupils who are educationally and socially disadvantaged.
Education cutbacks mean real deprivation for students and potential students, but I think they mean more than that. A denial or cutback in education or training is not only a disaster for the individual but it is also a great disaster for the health of the economy and for the future development of the nation. I would like to quote from the Foreword in the Ninth Report of the National Council for Educational Awards, July 1983, addressed to the Minister. This is what the Chairman, Dr. Tom Walsh, had to say:
Investment in education, in the broader context, should be viewed in the longer term as an investment in the future development of the nation and all its people. It is my view that such investment will contribute substantially to the wealth of the nation and its people, young and old. It will pay rich dividends to individuals in a personal, professional and cultural context and therefore to national life in societal, economic, developmental, entrepreneurial and cultural terms. Even in times of recession, investment in education should be maintained at current levels at least, if we are to sustain the system at its present quantum and quality, without contemplating greater access to, or higher participation rates in Higher Education. To fail to do so, is to abandon the greatest mechanism for realisation of human potential. It is education that shapes the creator and the marketer, the entrepreneur and the employer, the planner and the implementer and in so doing ensures all of them a useful and fruitful life.
This country has the lowest per capita spending on education of any country in the EEC. I would like to tell the House what the Vice-President of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, Mr. J. J. Connolly, had to say in an article entitled “Education Cutbacks” in Tuarasgabháil, the monthly bulletin of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation which is circulated to the Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas. In that article, which is a report of a speech Mr. Connolly made to a meeting of north Dublin teachers on 20 October he said that figures published recently showed that whereas Denmark spent £1,182 per school-going inhabitant and Britain spent £749, the Republic of Ireland was at the bottom of the spending league with only £532 per capita. He went on to say that the primary sector in particular, with over 600,000 pupils, has been starved of financial support. Each pupil at primary level costs the State £440 as opposed to £748 at secondary level, £922 in vocational schools and £2,040 at third level.
The Minister may say, as she has said in the past, that the percentage of gross national product being spent on education in this country compares favourably with the percentage of the gross national product which is spent on education in other countries. I would like to point out that the percentage of the population in this country in full-time education is considerably higher than in any of the other EEC countries. This is the only country in the EEC with an increasing school population and the Government have a duty to provide the best possible education service for these young people.
The facts are, however, that the quality of the education service at every level is being adversely affected by cutbacks. The cutbacks will reverse the major progress that has been made in education over the last two decades. The principle of free education is rapidly being eroded, and the movement that we have seen over a number of years towards equality of opportunity in education has been halted. With growing levels of unemployment and poverty in society, it is essential, and it never was more essential, that the level and quality of the education available to all children be maintained and improved. Unfortunately, however, this is not happening, and the hardest hit by the cutbacks are the pupils who come from the most deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds, and indeed from the most deprived and disadvantaged areas. Our primary schools still have the largest class sizes in western Europe. The latest statistics available show that there are more than 70,000 pupils in classes of over 40. Again, it is in the deprived and disadvantaged areas that the problems are most acute. It is true to say that those deprived and disadvantaged areas exist not only in Dublin but in Cork, Limerick, Galway and many other areas throughout the country.
I would suggest that the Minister establish a working party to identify schools situated in deprived areas, or schools which serve children who are economically and socially deprived, and that a special programme of aid for such schools be established. It is also vitally important that a curriculum suitable to the learning needs of such children should be drawn up and implemented.
At an INTO press conference last week as reported in The Irish Times of Wednesday, 23 November, Mr. Morgan O'Connell, president of the INTO, called for special measures to compensate children in such deprived areas for their educational and social disadvantages. He suggested that every pupil in such deprived schools should be counted as two for the purposes of allocating teachers. He pointed out that it was impossible with the large classes that exist at present to make very much progress in these schools and that the good pupils suffer as well as the others because they are all held up all the time. A suggestion made during the course of that press conference was that a home school liaison teacher should be allocated to such schools. Such a teacher would keep in contact with the parents of the pupils attending those schools, because there is a need for a teacher who can visit the homes, contact the parents and build up a liaison between the families and the schools. I would like to endorse the call. I believe it makes sense and would be a very constructive approach towards achieving a solution, or achieving some progress towards a solution, to that major problem in our educational scene.
At that same press conference, the scale of the social problems facing schools in such deprived areas was outlined. The press conference was told of a school in one particular disadvantaged area in Dublin where children came from a background of broken homes, drugs, unemployment, overcrowding in the home, where they had to work at delivering papers, where there was gang warfare, vandalism, lack of parental control and so on. In many schools in these disadvantaged areas, the children come from homes where the parents are unemployed, where there are single parent families and many other social problems.
Children coming from such backgrounds are enormously disadvantaged when it comes to education. The problems in these deprived areas can be dealt with only through the establishment of a programme of aid which will take cognisance of the educational needs of the pupils. There should be special staffing ratios in these schools and specialised training for the teachers who teach in them. Extra facilities and equipment need to be provided in such schools. My information is that, in some of them, the children have not even such basic requirements as books.
There should also be the provision of adequate assessment and psychological services and, of course, remedial teachers too. Throughout the primary sector generally there is a totally inadequate provision of remedial teachers to aid and support the weaker pupils and those with learning difficulties, and especially the handicapped. Adequate remedial education is an essential part of the education service. There is an overwhelming case for giving the highest possible level of support to the weak, the handicapped and the disadvantaged. This can be done only by providing adequate remedial education services.
In regard to the educational services for the handicapped and disabled pupils, integration has been very much mooted in recent years. Integration can be undertaken effectively only if adequate accommodation, equipment, staff and support services are available. In the case of physically handicapped children attending ordinary national schools and children in special classes in ordinary national schools, the Department of Education grants should not be less than the grants paid in respect of their counterparts in special schools. At the moment only the £17 capitation grant is paid in respect of such pupils.
The decision to phase out the schemes for the provision of caretakers and clerical assistants will have adverse effects on the quality of the educational service at primary school level. Such personnel are essential for the proper care and maintenance and efficient running especially of the larger schools. There is considerable evidence to suggest that, where caretakers have been provided, there has been a significant reduction in vandalism in schools, especially in the disadvantaged areas.
As far as the maintenance of primary schools is concerned, the £17per capita grant from the Department, together with the £4.25 local contribution, are totally inadequate to meet the operating costs of most primary schools. Indeed, many boards of management are finding it extremely difficult to stay in a break-even situation, and some boards of management have incurred considerable debts. In many schools the per capita amount is sufficient only to meet the heating, cleaning and lighting costs. It is not adequate to cover the other costs, such as the cost of painting, minor repairs and all the other operating costs, including the cost of providing equipment and materials.
The annual conference of the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association was held this year in my own county, Roscommon, in the Elphin Pastoral Centre. It was attended by the Minister and there was a call for an increase in the capitation grant to £24. In connection with the capitation grant, I was given particulars of a certain school in Dublin with an enrolment of 350 pupils. In 1982 the total grant amounted to £7,437. The insurance cost £3,000. The cleaners' wages cost a further £3,000. Cleaning equipment cost £700, leaving a total of £737 for the maintenance, security, lighting, heating, telephone and the provision of school materials and teaching aids. Heating and lighting costs amounted to £7,600, while the other costs amounted to £5,000. This school was expected to raise some £12,000 over and above its local contribution in an area of very high unemployment.
That case is reflected in many other schools throughout the country. It underlines how totally inadequate the capitation grants are to cover the operating costs of the schools. In some schools in middle-class areas funds are being raised by parents and by the community to buy equipment and to meet the shortfall in operating costs. This, of course, leaves the poorer areas at a disadvantage. Children in the middle-class areas — and I suppose that is a minority of the areas in the country — through the efforts of their parents and because of the fact that their parents are able to pay, are in a position to have the equipment and the facilities which they require. This leaves the children in the poorer areas at more and more of a disadvantage vis-á-vis their counterparts in the middle-class areas. There is a constitutional obligation on the State to provide free primary education for all our children. The quality of that education is becoming increasingly dependent on the ability of parents to contribute towards the cost of maintaining and equipping their schools. Again, this is rapidly eroding the principle of equal opportunity in education at primary level.
I should like to refer to an election questionnaire which was sent out by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation to all the political parties prior to the last general election. The first question in that questionnaire was: "Will your party guarantee to promote equality of educational opportunity?" The reply from the Minister's party was: "Yes, Fine Gael will guarantee to promote equality of educational opportunity." Arising from that question, there was a second question: "If so, will you maintain as a minimum existing levels of educational provision?" Again, the reply from the Minister's party was: "Yes, Fine Gael will maintain existing levels of educational provision having regard to an examination of their cost effectiveness."
I suggest that equality of educational opportunity is disappearing, and is being eroded, because of the fact that the deprived and the disadvantaged are suffering through the inadequacy of educational provision. One of the most tragic consequences of the cutbacks, or the inadequate provision for education, is that hundreds of young, qualified teachers are unemployed while their professional skills are urgently needed in classrooms throughout the country. Levels of unemployment among the 1983 graduates of the colleges of education are the highest ever. Estimates put the figure at something in the region of 500. When this number is added to the number of graduates who have remained unemployed since last year, we are talking about a number in the region of 700 teachers.
The reason why all those young people who are highly qualified are unemployed is that no new teaching posts have been created by the Department this year, over and above those required to cater for the increased intake into schools owing to growth of population. The only other teaching posts available to 1983 graduates arose from retirements. Many of these young teachers will remain unemployed throughout the year because the Department of Education have not improved the staffing arrangements and provided teaching posts for them.
In this connection I should like to point out that the number of teachers trained for national schools is determined by the Department of Education. Each year the Department determine the number of students to be admitted to the colleges of education. The decision is taken in the light of anticipated teacher demand, the projected growth in primary school numbers and the commitment to reduce the serious overcrowding that exists in schools. I have already pointed out that there are in excess of 70,000 pupils in classes of over 40. It can be said that the problem is not that we have too many teachers but that we have too few jobs.
The single most important factor in determining the quality of the education service is the size of the class in which the children are educated. If class sizes are big, especially in the socially disadvantaged areas, the children suffer enormously. For many years we were making progress towards the elimination of large classes but, unfortunately, as a result of the cutbacks, this progress has been halted. It is a tragic and a scandalous waste of resources that so many young qualified professional people who are urgently required in our classrooms are in the dole queues.
I want to move on to the cutbacks as they affect second level education. Before doing so I should like to refer to the totally inadequate provision for in-service training for teachers at both primary and second levels. I understand the Minister recently received a report on the whole question of in-service training. In that report there is a statement to the effect that the level of financial provision for in-service training in the Republic of Ireland is approximately equal to what was provided in Northern Ireland ten years ago and amounts to far less than one-hundredth of 1 per cent of total educational expenditure.
The problems teachers have to cope with are increasing every day. Teachers have to cope with problems arising from disadvantage and drug abuse. They have to deal with problems arising from homes where there is unemployment, and so on. The development of proper in-service training and education for teachers, not alone in the methodology of teaching, curriculum development and school administration, but also training in coping with the problems of pupils with special needs, is more essential now than ever. The cutbacks at second level could be described as discriminatory, inequitable and shortsighted. They strike hardest at the poor and the educationally deprived.