I raise the need for the Minister for Education and Science to implement the programme for Government relating to class sizes in both primary and secondary schools, reducing pupil-teacher ratio to the appropriate level of 24 pupils per teacher.
I salute the teachers of Ireland for their recent concentration on the pupil-teacher ratio. It was refreshing to witness the union conferences at Easter and to see that the teachers of Ireland have put pupils first. The pupil is, thanks to these teachers, centre stage. There was a time when people might have been forgiven for thinking the unions did not put the pupil before their interests. It is time to acknowledge this has been done by all the teachers' unions, and let us salute and applaud them.
As the Minister is well aware, the problem is that the Government has broken its agreement in the programme for Government to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 20 or below. This a very serious matter for the future of the nation. The Minister is aware that former Minister, Mr. Donnacha O'Malley, is rightly credited with being the creator of the Celtic tiger. That is not because he spent an enormous amount of money on business but because he went on the plinth out there one day in 1967 and announced that secondary education would be free. If the Government does not regard education and the need to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to an acceptable level of 20 or below as imperative, the economy and the pupils will suffer in years to come. It is short sighted of the Government not to take the measures it has promised. It is a betrayal of the teachers and future generations.
Every survey I have seen in the UK and US has found that the higher achievement of pupils is directly related to reduced numbers in classes. This is particularly important at primary level. Every survey I have seen has found that if one does not educate people at primary level with a low pupil-teacher ratio it is very difficult to compensate later by reducing class sizes at secondary level. It must permeate throughout all classes and all parts of the educational system. We must start young and continue it. The Government's failure to do this is a betrayal of future generations and teachers.
There are great practical problems with overcrowded classrooms and the Minister is well aware of that. Our reputation in Europe is falling fast. The Minister may correct me, but I think we have the second worst pupil-teacher ratio in Europe, second to the UK, which compensates to some extent by putting assistant teachers in some classes. This leads to overcrowding and a bad reputation for the Irish educational system. We are under-funded not just in primary and secondary education but these are the crucial areas about which the Government has made promises on which it is reneging. If classrooms are overcrowded, education will suffer and the environment in which pupils are educated will suffer. There will be fewer offices for teachers. As a result we have many schools being established or extended into Portakabins where facilities are less than optimal. Education and health suffer and safety issues raise their heads. We are running into a situation which is indefensible in terms of the long-term care of children and teachers.
Above all, if the Minister damages or destroys the morale of the teaching profession, this will be reflected on the pupils. This is happening. We have a noble teaching profession which has decided the pupil must come first. The Minister and the Government are saying they have decided otherwise and pupils are not a priority. This kicks in the face of people who have a vocation and who are prepared to practice that vocation for the good of the pupils of Ireland. Motivation will suffer, stress will accelerate and the quality of education will deteriorate. I plead with the Minister to listen to what the teachers say and acknowledge it as a bona fide attempt to improve the education of this country and the lot of our pupils and to immediately take measures to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 20 or below.