We hear a lot these days about how the key to solving Ireland’s economic woes lies in building a “knowledge economy.” Fianna Fáil’s education minister, Batt O’Keefe, was a big fan of throwing this phrase around. And, as in so many other ways, Fine Gael and Labour have continued Fianna Fáil’s empty rhetoric.
How odd, then, that both Fianna Fáil and FG/Labour have continually advocated policies that have done serious damage to the Irish educational system. Class sizes in primary schools have risen continuously over the last five years and 85% of primary students in the Republic are now in classes of 20 or more, well above the EU average. The teacher-pupil ratio is a basic indicator of a quality education system; the conditions now existing in Irish schools are clearly detrimental to the standards of primary education. Primary-school-aged Irish children are already starting out at a disadvantage, and last week’s budget did nothing to improve this. The INTO rightly called the recent budget “flawed and misguided.” As they point out, the government’s cuts in funding are doing serious damage to some of the most basic educational programmes, including literacy, numeracy, and anti-bullying.
And this only continues into second level. The far-reaching cut-backs which both Quinn, and his predecessor O’Keefe have been recklessly pursuing since 2008, have done much harm to the quality of second level education. Here too classroom sizes have risen exponentially. The TUI and ASTI even warned in 2011 that subjects such as Physics and Honours Maths may not be offered in many schools due to hiring freezes and underfunding of necessary teaching facilities. Last week, rather than heed this warning, and make serious investment in the very educational system they claim is key to ending the current economic crisis, the government has continued a policy of cutting services and doing nothing to improve teacher-student ratios.
At third-level it’s the same story. Under the recent budget, grants are to be cut between €300 and €1500 and there will be a 3% reduction in the income thresholds used when calculating entitlement to student grants in 2013. While the so-called registration fee, in reality a tuition fee by the back-door, is to be raised by €250. Not only is this a complete repudiation of Minister Quinn’s and Tanáiste Gilmore’s infamous pre-election promise to not raise fees, it also shows up the lie that is their government’s meaningless cant about ‘knowledge economies.’ All of these together represent yet more barriers to further education for working class families.
Meanwhile, under the same budget, elite private schools will continue to receive massive government subsidies, something even Labour back-benchers are clamouring to end. If there is to be a “knowledge economy”, it would seem only those from the ‘right’ background need apply!