That Seanad Éireann
investing in education will be crucial to Ireland's economic recovery;
prioritising resources at children from disadvantaged areas and those with special needs at an early stage is not only imperative from an equality perspective but also has the potential to deliver considerable cost savings to the State in the long-run;
small schools are at the heart of rural communities and also play a vital role in fostering Irish-medium education and supporting minority faiths;
is deeply concerned that Budget 2012 contained a wide range of regressive cuts to education services, which included:
the removal of teachers from, and a consequent increase in class sizes in, schools serving some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country;
a significant reduction in supports for children with special needs;
a major disimprovement in the staffing schedules for one, two, three and four teacher schools;
an end to the provision of dedicated guidance counselling allocations to second level schools;
a decrease in supports for third level students, including the complete removal of maintenance grants for new entrants to postgraduate courses in 2012/13;
acknowledges that savings must be made in current expenditure but believes that there is a fairer and more economically-strategic way to secure such savings; and
calls on the Government to reverse these short-sighted cuts in the interests of promoting equity of access to education and prioritising expenditure in areas likely to be of major benefit to our society and economy in the long-term.
Members on this side of the House appreciate fully the scale of the budgetary adjustment that must be achieved in the next few years. We know the gap between State income and expenditure must be narrowed and acknowledge that Ireland must meet very challenging targets under the terms of the EU-IMF programme and that the Government will have difficult decisions to make over the coming years. There are choices, however, as the troika made clear during its recent visit. Along with other colleagues from Fianna Fáil, I met the troika and specifically asked if the sort of education cuts delivered by the Government in December had been made at its request. The answer was an emphatic "No". Ireland must achieve its targets under the programme but it is up to the Government to decide where exactly cuts are to be made. The Government had options in the budget but regrettably it picked the most regressive ones.
By contrast with other budgets in the last three years, the distributive impact of the budget was extremely regressive. In other budgets, those who could afford it paid more overall. As the ESRI has pointed out, however, the most recent budget hit the poorest sectors of society as much as, if not more than, the wealthiest. On the night of the budget, RTE's "Six-One News" highlighted how a family with a joint income of €150,000 would be down €1,200 as a result of budget changes while a family entirely dependent on social welfare would lose €1,070. Lone parents were singled out for particularly harsh treatment, as were those with disabilities.
In my view, however, the greatest damage was done in education. Under the mask of a budget that claimed to protect disadvantaged schools lay cuts that threaten to do untold damage to our poorest communities. Behind the spin about protecting frontline services and not reducing the pupil-teacher ratio lay the reality of an attack on our most vulnerable children. Schools serving the most disadvantaged areas in the country were singled out for increases of up to 50% in their class sizes. Supports for pupils with emotional and behavioural problems were axed and teaching resources for children with special needs in DEIS schools were also significantly reduced.
These cuts are not just incredibly socially regressive, they are also economically stupid. They will undo much of the progress that has been made in disadvantaged areas over the last ten years and ultimately will result in far greater costs to the State, not just in education but unfortunately also in social welfare, housing and, worst of all, in the Garda budget.
Just after the budget I highlighted in this House the example of Darndale national school, which has been benefitting up to now from classes of just 15 pupils. When the smoke had cleared from budget 2012, it became clear that the school stood to lose five of its 16 classroom teachers, or nearly one third, with class sizes set to rise by a shocking 50% in one fell swoop. The tragedy is that, as with many schools targeted for extra supports under previous initiatives, Darndale junior school has made incredible progress in recent years. With small classes and truly dedicated teachers, it has delivered a targeted literacy programme that has been held up by the Department as an example for others. For the first time, children from one of the poorest areas of the country are reading on a par with those from wealthier communities. This is an incredibly positive sign for an area that has, for too long, suffered from seemingly entrenched intergenerational social and economic disadvantage. This progress has been hard won and, unfortunately, it can be lost very easily.
Darndale junior school is just one example. Members from all sides of the House will have their own. Other schools in the Dublin 17 area have been getting positive results from extra resources, including those in Macroom Road and Priorswood and also Darndale senior national school. When I visited St. Laurence O'Toole's boys' school in Sherriff Street with my party leader and Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick, I saw the same effect, namely, the achievement of very positive, concrete results owing to extra resources. A national evaluation of the DEIS initiative, which was recently published, highlighted the positive impact of extra resources. It is a shame to put this in jeopardy.
The Minister has admitted he made mistakes in the budget. Labour Party backbenchers — I am not sure about those in Fine Gael — have been telling their local schools they feel their pain, have the ear of the Minister and have convinced him to see the error of his ways. They state there is nothing to be worried out. I have been on national television with people who have made the same claims, yet, two months after the budget, schools still do not know where they stand, nor do they know how they will be affected next September. The Minister has refused to answer with any precision questions tabled in the Dáil. He has refused to give details on individual schools that will be affected. From school principals in my area, I have learned that over 20 teachers will be lost in the Dublin 17 area, including Darndale, Priorswood and the Macroom Road area. The same picture is to be seen in Ballymun. I have no doubt this trend will be repeated in other deprived areas of the country, not just in inner-city Dublin, Limerick and Cork.
It seems clear that the Department did not carry out any cost-benefit analysis of the cuts. Did it weigh the short-term savings in the next couple of years against the long-term cost not just in education, but also in other areas? I appreciate fully that the cuts must be made but they should be fair and strategic. The cuts in respect of DEIS schools, in particular, fail on both grounds.
Schools serving disadvantaged areas are likely to lose out most as a result of changes to the supports for special needs pupils. The removal of support teachers for children with emotional and behavioural problems will have negative consequences not just for the children themselves, but also for their peers. Teachers will struggle to maintain order and a calm, positive learning environment in the classroom. Perhaps the Minister of State will outline the rationale behind the changes to the system for allocating learning support and resource teacher posts because I fail to see how he will achieve anything other than massive inconvenience for schools by not allowing them to combine posts from different allocations to have a permanent teacher. I have heard no rational explanation for the changes. Perhaps the Minister of State could fill us in today.
Guidance counsellor cuts will affect the most vulnerable or, to quote the ESRI, "young people from less advantaged backgrounds who are far more reliant on advice from their school in making post-school decisions and particularly decisions in relation to higher education entry". Such young people may have little or no history of higher education not only in their families, but also in their communities. Not only may they be baffled by the range of post-leaving certificate options open to them, they may also need to be convinced of the value of proceeding to higher education. In this regard, guidance counsellors have a major role to play in tackling early school leaving and encouraging young people from poorer areas to aim for the top and fulfil their potential. Most important, in the current environment, they also provide free, confidential, one-to-one counselling support to students. Many young people, unfortunately, must deal with a wide range of personal problems at their school, including bereavement and eating disorders, which we have discussed in the House, and also difficulties in coming to terms with sexual orientation. Others may be living with considerable problems in their homes, such as an alcoholic parent, marriage break-up or even physical and sexual abuse. For some, school may be the only safe space, and a guidance counsellor may be the only confidant. All teachers try their best to help their pupils and all would be like to extend a listening and supportive ear, but the reality is that the guidance counsellor is the only person in the school who has the hours and training to be able to support students with sensitive problems requiring counselling.
As with other cuts made in the education budget, the Government has tried to sell the cut to guidance counselling as a positive development. It stated it is giving schools flexibility in the use of their resources, but the reality, as everybody knows, is that schools will have to decide whether to provide counselling support or high-level maths, physics or other subjects. Unfortunately, the reality is that the guidance service is the service that will be lost.
My colleagues will touch on the impact on rural schools. As the motion highlights, schools are at the heart of rural communities. They constitute the fabric of localities all over the country and hold people together. Small schools are a vital lifeline, particularly for those of minority faiths. The impact of the cuts will be felt particularly in gaelscoileanna, which tend to be smaller schools.
The motion refers to the cuts affecting postgraduate students. It is not only deeply unfortunate and socially regressive but also economically foolish to be depriving some of our brightest young people of the opportunity to receive a postgraduate education at this time. It is not only invaluable to them but it is what the economy needs. If we are to get the country back on track, we need people with the highest possible educational attainments ready to take up job opportunities when the recession ends. I do not understand the economic rationale for what is occurring.
This side of the House accepts that cuts must be made.