What Price Education?
By Mark Conroy at May 21, 2009
"I am totally depressed as I believe a huge amount of work has been totally undone ... support structures to assist the most vulnerable have been undermined, which will mean that discipline and pastoral care structures will be affected"
- Principal, boys' secondary school, Leinster
The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) has published a report into the effects that the cuts to education, announced in Budget 2008 (and reaffirmed with the April Budget of this year), will have. Most of these cuts will not become noticeable until the new school year, when it may be too late to have them reversed.
Having fought for so long and for so hard to get the conditions in our education system to the level they are at (a level still at the bottom of OECD reports for European countries), the government is now doing away with many progressive structures. Like the principal above, many teachers are "totally depressed" at this situation. Like most of the cuts announced, those who will be most severely affected are the poor and the vulnerable.
In its introduction, the ASTI claims, "the combined effect of the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio and the cutbacks on funding to schools has caused great uncertainty as to whether schools can continue to provide a curriculum to meet the needs of all students in the coming year". For the report, the ASTI sampled 20 schools as a representation of the many schools in the country. Whilst the sample is very small, the results are very similar in each school, giving rise to the thought that the sample is, at least, fair and representative. The report states: "Irrespective of school type, there is clear evidence that all schools are facing serious challenges and will have to make stark decisions in relation to subject choice, fundraising, and how to ensure that the most needy students are looked after". Figures that come out of the research show:
- All schools will have less teaching staff from September. In the schools surveyed, the figures are between 1 and 4.6 - the average being 1.62. The latest figure on the ASTI website is 2.6.
- 75% of schools will be raising the "Voluntary Contribution" that parents are asked to make to the school. Since schools needed to ask for this prior to the Budget cuts, it shows that our education system was never properly funded in the first place.
- 85% of schools are going to introduce charges for specific activities.
- 45% of schools will reduce subject choice for Junior Cert.
- 65% of schools will reduce subject choice for Leaving Cert.
- 75% of schools will reduce the range of extra-curricular activities that the school provides.
- 85% say the cuts will affect the school's "capacity to provide a broad and balanced education".
The report details replies from seven of the 20 sampled schools. If we take the schools together and group the replies under common headings, the picture that emerges is not pretty.
The Impact of the Education Cuts on:
"Only for the sacrifices of the staff has it been possible to continue all activities," says the principal of "Rowan Secondary School" (not the school's real name). This may change in September, when all cuts are in place. Other schools have not been as fortunate as "Rowan". "Oak" says that since January, "first year students have not had any field trips". The same for "Sycamore" ("field trips [have been] greatly restricted"). Subjects are also likely to be restricted or dropped: "Rowan", art and music; "Willow", art; "Beech", "less scope for cross-curricular work"; "Oak", music and technical graphics; "Sycamore", "students will not be able to choose two languages"; "Elm", "have already applied for concessionary hours to allow business studies to remain on the curriculum"; "Hazel", music and technical graphics.
"Rowan" have been able to continue a full curriculum so far this year, thanks to "the cooperation of teachers", but "in the full school year [starting September] this will be more difficult". At "Sycamore" the principle says that "teachers aren't free to do extra work to prepare students for practical elements of examinations". "Hazel" says that "very weak and very high ability students will have to be in the same class". As with Junior Cert., subject choices are going to be restricted: "Rowan", "classes in Spanish, religion, and physical education will be affected"; "Willow", music and home economics will be dropped, and smaller classes to help the weaker students "will go"; "Beech" will "definitely not be able to provide agricultural science in Senior Cycle, despite serving a large farming community", physics or chemistry will also have to go; "Oak", design and communications graphics, accounting, and music; "Hazel", physics or chemistry "are likely to be dropped".
Loss of Teachers
As stated above, the cuts announced in Budget 2008 and the April Budget will affect the restless many in our society more than the prosperous few. The education cuts are going to mean fewer resources available for special needs students (those with learning and/or language difficulties). "Hazel" school stands to lose two non-permanent teachers. The principal says, "these teachers are currently working with international students and traveller students". At "Beech" school, the loss of two non-permanent teachers will also mean fewer resources for special needs students as "one of these is a qualified resource teacher who assists special needs students". "Oak" school is a DEIS school and, so, is entitled to a Home-School-Community Liaison (HSCL - something that the government in former years has promised to ALL schools). With this teacher retiring this year, and the new pupil-teacher ratio, the school "is likely to lose its only qualified physical education teacher". "Sycamore" is, again, losing teachers that help with students with special needs. Also, as they are losing four teachers, this will "result in reduction in school guidance and counselling" and "physical education will not be available to sixth years". The two teachers that "Elm" will lose are the school's only French teachers so there is "total uncertainty as to how the school will provide a modern language curriculum in September". The disadvantaged are under attack also in "Hazel". The school had "because of [a] large number of disadvantaged students ... provided small withdrawal classes with resource teachers. These will no longer be possible". As the school is not a DEIS school, it will lose its HSCL.
Abolition of Grants, Impact on Families
Like the other areas being considered here, the abolition of grants to schools will most affect those who need them most - the poor, the vulnerable, foreign students, and travellers. The impact of the budget cuts will also be most acutely felt by these students' families. "Rowan" school will "have to introduce charges for specific school activities and increase the amount of the voluntary contribution". The school will also need extra support for the book rental scheme and "the supports for traveller children". "Willow" school says the abolition of grants will have an "immediate effect to the quality of learning". Here also, the Board of Management (BOM) will have to find funds "for disadvantaged students". Some families have already contacted the school to see if some charges can be waived. The same is true in "Beech" school - the BOM will need to increase the voluntary contribution. This school, too, has had families calling to see if some of the charges can be waived, an especially grave concern given that "a number of cheques made out to the school bounced ‘arising from cash flow problems of parents'". At "Oak" the abolition of grants will "most definitely" reduce opportunities for practical work. Of course, the BOM are going to need to raise the voluntary contribution, and, of course, parents have been calling to the school about "financial difficulties". The school is going to need to "allocate more money to the school fund to assist students from disadvantaged families". At "Sycamore" school, the principal says, "the traveller students in the school will be very affected - I know that the four traveller girls in 5th year will not return in September". The voluntary contribution is to be increased. Straits are dire at this school, where "increasing numbers of families have been in contact ... requesting help in many areas". The disadvantaged are the worst hit at "Elm" school because of the abolition of the library grant, which has a "huge demand because of disadvantaged students". The pity is, these are not isolated cases, this is occurring in every school across the country.
Quality of Life in School Today
Whilst it is accepted that teachers "have been enthusiastic and eager to keep things at a high level" ("Rowan"), morale among staff is dropping: "this will be hard to sustain in the long term" ("Rowan"); "We will have to make do, but the whole experience is dispiriting" ("Willow"); "Teacher morale is low, due to the combined effects of the cutbacks and the desire to provide the best possible service for students" ("Beech"); "Teacher morale is low ... Overall, I am depressed at the inability to provide a full range of subjects" ("Oak"); "Staff morale is low ... staff who [have] willingly offered to help at times [have] questioned whether they should continue to do so" ("Sycamore"); "It is a very difficult time to lead a school" ("Elm"); "Teacher morale is good, but will suffer" ("Hazel"). One wonders how these cuts are going to help to build "the knowledge economy" if there is this level of dissatisfaction amongst teachers, students, and families.
Bob Dylan sang to us, saying that "the times they are a changing". They are, but from what shambles of a system in to what monstrosity of a machine. These cuts are a disgrace, an utter and unfair disgrace. A disgrace to our students whom we owe so much to, a disgrace to our teaching profession, which already suffers so much, and a disgrace to our society at large, which stands to lose so much from them. I don't know of any teacher who is looking forward to coming back to school next September, whatever you might say about morale presently. The general thought seem to be, as the principal of a boys' secondary school said in the report: "If I was at retirement age now I would retire. This attack on my school's ability to provide the best possible education service has dented everyone's morale". Indeed.