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The education cuts… And as ever we are told there is no alternative… October 31, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

As reported on the Oireachtas website, Minister of Education Batt O’Keefe responded to the debate last Wednesday night as follows:

Before I comment on some of the outlandish claims made this evening, and the scaremongering that has gone on in the past two weeks about the claimed impact on schools and children, I want to first go back to one basic premise as the starting point for any reasonable or rational discussion on this issue. We must accept that the dramatic changes in world economic circumstances, changes that are challenging Governments the world over, require decisive action. Or are we to pretend, as some seem intent on doing, that somehow here in Ireland we can carry on regardless?
The budget was about striking a balance between setting an appropriate level of public expenditure, making measured changes to taxation and setting an appropriate level of borrowing. It is simplistic and dangerous to pretend that expenditure on public services could be allowed to grow as though domestic and international economic conditions were as healthy as they were in recent years. Those on the benches opposite are being outrageous with the people when they offer—–solutions that enable them to avoid putting forward difficult options for keeping expenditure under control.

I find this a most interesting line. “Simplistic and dangerous”… eh? Why so? Let me refer once more to our financial sector which is currently underpinned by state guarantee (although a vague one at that) and may well, if Vincent Browne is correct, have to be part nationalised as has been done in other states. I think the comparison is instructive. We are told about the centrality of financial market and institutional stability to the well-being of our economy. This is true, however much one might wish that we lived in a different economic context. And so when said financial market and insitutions encounter near-catastrophic difficulties every sinew of the state is stretched to support them. To the point where guarantees that might potentially bankrupt the state are given – and for an example of how eventual bankruptcy might operate in future look at the plight of plucky little Iceland, learning the hard way that rhetoric about independence only goes so far in this world, particularly when allied with a peculiarly smug self-satisfaction centred on financial acumen – and hey, does that attitude sound familiar…

But in the Dáil yesterday there were some interesting straws in the wind from Fianna Fáil that speak of a particularly hard-nosed approach. Consider the following from Cork Fianna Fail TD Michael McGrath who said that

…conventional political analysis suggests that the departments of social welfare, health and education should be protected from cutbacks.

But he claimed this analysis ignores the fact that these three departments account for 78 per cent of current gross Government expenditure. “The reality is that it is impossible to bring the Government finances under control without addressing these three departments,” he said.

And so it begins. Having had their brush with political destruction the FF Deputies are newly enervated. The inevitable attacks on basic provision appear.

Now throughout my childhood I was repeatedly told that education was the bedrock of our future prosperity. That was true, and remains so today. Yet somehow the idea that we can continue to fund expenditure on it in a context of a growing population is ‘simplistic and dangerous’.

Let’s also remember that the situation on the day prior to the Budget wasn’t one of an education system basking in the fruits of the boom. If anything quite the opposite. Funding was parsimonious and intermittent across all sectors from primary to third level. Large scale projects did reasonably well, day to day spending much worse. My direct experience of the latter attests to constrained or shrinking budgets since the turn of the decade, and my not entirely indirect experience of the former and indeed secondary education supports the points being made by those working in those areas.

It is difficult to point to the most retrogressive elements of the Budget as regards education… would it be the cuts in the free book scheme and library funding? How about class size increases? The – now admitted – loss of at least 1,000 primary school teaching posts in a system which was already significantly underfunded across decades and at a point in the education cycle of a child when such losses will have the greatest negative outcomes. One of the more painful sights of this week was seeing John Gormley, a man whom I have considerable time for, wilt under the questioning of Brian Dobson on RTÉ News when asked how he could stand over cuts that would see a cohort of school children suffer significant impacts on their education, whatever about the future educational situation.

What is the answer to that question? How is it somehow correct to sacrifice the potential and prospects of a child today for supposed educational jam tomorrow? And the reality is, that for all the talk about protecting the most vulnerable in our society, there is no answer.

But then, how can Batt O’Keefe seriously defend the idea that any cut in education is not worthy of serious critique, and that his rhetoric of ‘outlandish claims’ and ‘scaremongering’ does not reflect well upon him? Cuts mean that someone, somewhere, and in these instances we are talking about school children, will find some service or provision missing or time that previously existed to assist them no longer available. In societal terms the implications of that truth deserves a response a little bit more nuanced and considered than furious hand-waving… particularly a hand-waving which on the one hand summons up the spectre of global financial crisis to keep us in line and on the other seeks to minimise the effect of those cuts.

Let’s look at one of those implications. The Irish Times gives a useful overview of one area, that of language support teaching. In a context where there has been a significant, and welcome, influx of newcomer students the necessity to ensure that they attain a good standard of English is obvious. The Irish Times noted how the present situation where a school can have one language support teacher for every 14 newcomer students up to a total of 6 teachers. The Budget imposes a ceiling of 2 support teachers.

The impact of that on all students is predictable.This makes something of a mockery of the idea that the Minister puts about that these cuts merely indicate a return to a pre-existing status quo. These are challenges that have developed across the decade, there is no way to return to the pre-existing situation.

But remember the Minister of Education tells us that it is ‘simplistic and dangerous’ to argue that there are other ways to deal with the financial crisis.

He went on last Wednesday night to argue that:

We have heard suggestions that there are easy alternative taxation measures that can somehow solve all these difficulties. This is populist nonsense. Let us remind ourselves that in the mid-1980s we followed the route of high taxation and significant borrowing, and we had difficulty recovering from that folly. We also should remind ourselves that it was by pitching the burden of taxation at an appropriate level that we made Ireland attractive for foreign direct investment and enabled private enterprise to flourish.

And this morning, what do I read but reports that the Taoiseach has made similar statements to business ‘leaders’.

Speaking at a business round table organised by the Economist magazine in the Conrad Hotel in Dublin, Mr Cowen said: “Our day-to-day spending exceeds our revenue coming in by over €1,000 for every man, woman and child in the State. Ten per cent of the cost of every teacher, doctor and nurse is paid for from borrowing.

“This will have to be paid back by future generations of Irish people. We cannot simply borrow our way out of trouble or return to the days of punitive tax rates . . .,” he said.

So – for example – reinstating the extra percentage point on the higher rate of tax although it would immediately net us somewhere around €400 plus million (when cut that resulted in €480 million in lost revenue, but I’m a reasonable man and I accept economic activity may have diminished in the interim, although how much remains to be seen) is somehow beyond the beyond, is somehow ‘punitive’. A strange definition of punitive…

But then this is in the context of a government, and commentariat that simply cannot accept that taxes should go up as well as down – dependent upon circumstance.

And the Minister is – of course – the man who thought that…

“If I was to withdraw State funding from fee-paying schools, that would have a catastrophic effect. The issue is not under examination.”

Crazy talk, to even examine dealing with state support for the private sector – eh? Whereas cutting services to the most vulnerable in our flagging state system… Well, here’s some more crazy talk…

The Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) has some thoughts on what the impacts of this are going to be on families. They make for sobering reading, not least because they contextualise the cuts in terms of their impacts on school children and their families.

At the march we heard:

The ASTI’s vice president Joe Moran [call] the Budget mean-spirited and misguided and that that it would affect every young person in second-level education. Mr Moran said Ireland comes 27th out of 29 OECD countries when it comes to spending on education relative to the country’s wealth.

And in yesterday’s Irish Times a piece by Sheelagh Drudy, professor of Education at UCD, which while comparing Finland and Ireland pointed up a staggering disconnect between political rhetoric and actuality in the context of education:

OECD education figures show that Finland consistently spent a higher proportion of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education than Ireland from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s – even as it was just emerging from its very serious economic crisis.

In 1990, Finland spent 5.96 per cent of GDP on education, compared to Ireland’s 5.2 per cent; in 1995, it spent 6.3 per cent, compared to Ireland’s 5.2 per cent; in 2000, it spent 5.6 per cent, compared to Ireland’s 4.5 per cent; and, in 2005, it spent 6 per cent, compared to Ireland’s 4.6 per cent.

And the contention that we sit at 27 out of 29 OECD countries in relation to expenditure on education relative to GDP would appear to be true. Because if you go to the OECD site you will be able to download some irritatingly macro-laden Excel files which indicate that – for example – in 2004 (for which the latest figures are available) expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP was 4.6% , as against an OECD average of 5.7%. And this in a context where the number of students enrolled in all areas of education as a percentage of the total population at 24.4% was higher than the OECD average of 23%. And here’s the funny thing, this was during the so-called ‘boom’.

Indeed the OECD in its 2006 Report on Ireland [The policy brief with main findings can be downloaded here, note that it is in PDF format] stated:

Ireland has continued its exemplary economic performance, attaining some of the highest growth rates in the OECD. After a remarkable decade, per-capita income has caught up with and overtaken the EU average.

Yet spending on education remained mired at the bottom of the OECD tables.

So what we have, essentially, is a Government which seeks to defend cuts in a system already in a poor state by contrast with other states, despite our relative prosperity.

And let us note some of the OECD’s thoughts as regards an answer to “What needs to be done in the education sector?”:

Maintaining high rates of productivity growth will also entail continued efforts to upgrade skills. Reforms at all levels of the education system are needed. At the earliest stages, pre-school attendance is low while classes are large and of short duration. International experience shows that integrated systems, which combine pre-primary education and crèche-based day-care, have higher quality for children and provide greater parent satisfaction. Priority should therefore be given to reducing class sizes, extending sessions and creating seamless pre-school and day-care facilities at the same location.

In secondary schools, too many youngsters are leaving without upper-secondary qualifications. They are doing so not because of a hot job market – their employment performance is worse than their counterparts in other OECD countries – but because of inadequate help for students who are struggling. There is a shortage of remedial or catch-up classes and the special programmes that are available focus on children from disadvantaged backgrounds rather than those who are having learning difficulties. Overall, Irish 15 year-olds are good at reading but only average in maths and science. Recent changes to primary school curricula should help in this respect.

I refer to all this because it provides a reasonably objective and dispassionate view of matters. And moreover, if one reads further down one will find suggestions as to funding of third level which I would very much disagree with. So this is hardly an analysis coming from an unvarnished left of centre perspective, but is no less worthy of consideration for all that.

And the thoughts of those on the ground are instructive. As the IT noted on Wednesday:

At post-primary level, the student-teacher ratio has been raised from 18 to one to 19 to one. The Department of Education believes that this will result in 200 fewer teachers in the system. The TUI says 1,200 teaching posts will go.

Is that ‘scare-mongering’? it would appear not.

Principal of Castleknock Community College John Cronin agrees that the department has miscalculated and says the impact of the increase will be huge.

“The naivety of them to think that this increase is a simple matter of an extra student in each class is unbelievable,” he says. “They simply do not understand how a secondary school works.”

Which would appear to be the situation. And as also noted in the IT report:

Cronin is set to lose four teachers.

“It will impact on class size, of course. We have an open enrolment policy so we have students with special needs such as Down syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome. This will certainly affect the quality of their teaching and learning. We will try to minimise the effects, of course, but there is only so much we can do.”

And there’s an iron logic to this. Because with teacher numbers going down the capacity within a school to teach a broader range of subjects diminishes. Bad news for those, apparently, central to our future economic progress such as science.

Worth remembering too that this is from a Fianna Fáil that time and again said that it would reduce the pupil teacher ratio.

One of O’Keefe’s favourite lines, when he’s not talking up the apocalypse, is that the cuts will merely bring us back a year or so… and the follow-on of this is the priceless ‘one step back to take two steps forward…’. But we didn’t start at a position where cuts in education can be absorbed in the way he suggests.

Look, I can go on, but what’s the point? This shabby Budget introduced by a curiously inept government has exposed a void at the centre of our polity where the nostrums of the centre right, hidden somewhat by years of economic growth, are coming into sharp focus once more. If you don’t know about these issues or want further detail look here

As ever the problem is that for far too many in our political class the belief is that we run an economy first and last and always and that the society which that economy is meant to serve is near irrelevant, to be bought off with the continual reiteration of low taxation. Note what O’Keefe said on Wednesday night… In order to maintain existing jobs and create replacement jobs for any that are lost, we cannot discourage private investment by taxing it out of existence…

Again, is he really suggesting that one or two per cent on the higher rate of tax would result in such an outcome, or that a properly graded progressive tax o higher incomes would do likewise? It is widely accepted that at the time the government introduced the one per cent cut there was a strong lobby against the proposal both inside and outside government. So his words ring very hollow indeed.

I hate overblown rhetoric, I really do. Ten years of listening to talk about the last two governments being paragons of neo-liberalism does that to a person. But I think it fair to say that we’re seeing the transition to one of the most unapologetically functionally right-wing governments this state has seen – well, certainly in my lifetime. One which unashamedly proscribes ‘toughness’ for the weakest while protecting the strong. When we read comments that seem to place economic platitudes above all else and push social and economic justice to the margins then we’re not in Kansas anymore, and certainly not Berlin.

Welcome to Boston, circa 1980.

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1. Jim Monaghan - October 31, 2008

It seems to me that if you accept the basics of a Capitalist economy then you have to accept cuts. The question is where? An LP/FG/FF /greens and even Sinn Fein etc coalition of whatever mix would do roughly the same thing. Only the far left would cut the Gordian knot and come up with another alternative. Outside of an international revolution we would then be a new Iceland.
They cannot borrow an unlimited amount. Already the interest rate paid by the Irish state has gone up relative to Germany.
I think we should ask all parties where they would cut and trim. I would opt for a redundancy scheme in selected areas of the public service as the price of keeping education etc. untouched.
On international comparisons let me annoy some. Why is the Irish School year the shortest in Europe. Surely Irish kids are not thast much cleverer.

2. Niall - October 31, 2008

Of course there were other options available to the government. You’re right, it is utter nonsense to suggest that the cuts are the only option available. For starters, the government could have applied the levy differently. The ‘super-rich’ could easily afford more than 2%.

But what’s really disturbing is that the government has managed to tie the fate of the country to that of the builders. If the builders fail to make profits, the banks are hit, which hits everybody. The government can’t cut back on building projects it can’t really afford because that would hurt the economy. So we have a situation where teachers are fired so that the government can afford to build new classrooms because builders need the work.

3. Damian O'Broin - October 31, 2008

‘patriotism’, ‘there is no alternative’. This is going to get very depressing, isn’t it?

There’s two issues here – first we have the straw man being built of the ‘immature’ response of the public who will not accept the reality that we need cuts. Nonsense. Everyone I know recognises the need to make savings. The question is what are the cuts and are they being done in a fair manner. This budget was the most manifestly unfair budget I can remember – that may be because difficult times force real decisions which expose the reality of FF & Co. It’s the unfairness rather than the harshness that people are annoyed about.

Alternatives? Well for a start, why stop at 1% on the top rate – make it 2% and raise €800 million. I pay the top rate, I can live with that (call it patriotism if you want Mr Lenihan).

Then there’s those on bigger incomes – let’s be gentle with them , they’re sensitive souls – introduce an additional 5% levy on incomes over €100,000. Hardly punitive, and sure we all have to play our part.

And then there’s wealth taxes. The top 1% of our population have assets of €100 billion apparently. Following Donald Trump let’s introduce a 5% wealth tax – and there’s another €5,000 million right there.

The second issue is the fact that our tax base and public sector has been effectively hollowed out by FF/PD mismanagement over the last 10 years. Relying on stamp duty to fund current expenditure looks increasingly foolish as every day passes. The economy is horrifically skewed towards construction and FDI. Rebuilding a new economy in the midst of a global financial crisis and an impending climate crisis is looking very difficult at the minute.

4. CL - October 31, 2008

In the U.S. economists are calling for a massive fiscal stimulus, with accompanying massive deficits, as what’s needed, given that monetary policy has reached an impasse, and the clear danger now is of ‘stag-deflation’.
Does the Maastricht treaty prevent the eurozone from implementing a similar policy?

In the Dail on Wednesday, Cowen said that the problems with the Irish banks did not originate with exposure to the U.S. sub-prime market. He did not elaborate on what caused the problem.
Fianna Fail is the political wing of the building/property development sector and the inflation of this sector facilitated by the banks is the cause of the problem.
If recapitalization of the banks is necessary this will involve an injection of real value into the system. By forcing cut-backs now F.F is preparing the way for a massive redistribution of economic resources to their cronies in the financial/property sector.

5. crocodile - October 31, 2008

There has been very little comment on the fact that politicians and commentators are suggesting that teachers should pay for the cutbacks in the education sector, by taking pay cuts. Could it be that response to the budget is being calibrated not on the merits of the arguments, but on the public popularity of each interest group: you might lose votes by hitting the old-age pension but children can’t vote and teachers and farmers aren’t popular.
And Jim (comment 1) a better measure of our school year is to measure teacher/pupil contact hours. Our school day is longer and we expect our teachers to look after our kids’ sporting and cultural lives as well. I have, somewhere, a long article from the Observer called ‘Inside the best school in the world’ ( it’s in Finland). The reasons for the excellence of the Finnish system: short terms, small classes, no inspections and, above all, high pay and prestige for the teaching profession.

6. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2008

Very good points crocodile. It does have the whiff of a softening up process, first get some hardish issues out of the way – even test the waters with them – and then go for the public sector.

As regards Jims point, as someone who worked in the secondary sector and now has an involvement in the third level area I’d go halfway on the idea of shorter summer holidays. Some standardisation with primary holidays would be a good idea, but I’m with you crocodile on the broader point. Teaching is difficult, teachers work bloody hard. And in any event the length of the school year is irrelevant to the question at hand. There’s no credible savings to be made there. As regards substitution, the idea that it can’t happen without certification is quite odd. I note that this isn’t expected of those who work closely with our politicians and are paid by state monies. Nor does it make any sense. Someone falls ill, stays in bed for a day or so and yet is expected to go to work, spreading germs etc, etc. And let me be clear I dislike the abuse of sick days, but this is the wrong way to go about it.

7. crocodile - October 31, 2008

I had a chat with a guy who works in the Dept of Ed and he confirmed my suspicions about the education cuts.
Basically, Batt O’Keeffe handed over the task of finding ‘savings’ to his civil servants, who immediately set about settling a few old scores. Some of them had been complaning about abuse of the substitution system – and I’m not saying that some didn’t happen – so that was a goner. The Protestant schools had given the Department a bloody nose over a dispute involving redeployment, back in the spring – so they were well and truly shafted by being reclassified as fee-paying in the budget, losing the grants they’ve depended on for 40 years and suffering a double rise in the pupil/teacher ratio.
So this is how public policy is implemented in Ireland: governments target those sectors least able to fight back; nameless, unelected officials exercise personal vendettas – and any resistance is jeered down as the special pleading of vested interests.

8. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2008

Makes sense, or at least more than the stuff O’Keefe has been coming out with. Certainly it’s been so piecemeal and stupidly implemented that it’s hard to see any logic to it at all. Substitution is only the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it? Incidentally, I note that O’Keefes approach re Protestant schools is somewhat at odds with his thoughts re fee-paying schools.

9. Niall - November 1, 2008

‘Could it be that response to the budget is being calibrated not on the merits of the arguments, but on the public popularity of each interest group: you might lose votes by hitting the old-age pension but children can’t vote and teachers and farmers aren’t popular.’

I don’t think there’s any doubt. Just listen to the likes of Matt Cooper and his band of civil service bashing texters.

And the department of education has some shockingly morally bankrupt individuals working in it. The millions spent on court cases trying to deny special needs children their rights is despicable. What sort of evil bastard could ever have suggested that the government go to court to claim that children with special needs could not be educated so the government wasn’t obliged to provide them with an education? When you consider the depths departments have sunk to when acting in the open, it’s no surprise to hear that they’re using the cuts as an opportunity to hit old enemies.

10. crocodile - November 1, 2008

Sorry to keep on about this, but I feel it’s another sense in which the budget has represented a move towards the right.
There’s the fiscal sense, in which the ‘problem’ is represented as one of expenditure rather than revenue, therefore ‘there is no alternative’ to cuts in services.
There’s the sense in which vulnerable or unpopular groups are targeted for cuts – they don’t vote or fund political parties.
Then there’s the insidious sense in which cuts which save hardly any money but make an ideological point are smuggled in under cover of the big cuts: the killing off of the Combat Poverty Agency and the neutering of the Equality Authority; the reduction in English Language teaching in schools; the reclassification of the Prod schools mentioned above.
The Sir Humphreys must have enjoyed those – now roll on the Mini-Budget!

11. Ian - November 1, 2008

Batt O’Keeffe said in his speech that he increased the education budget by 300 million which he did. Two paragraphs later he says that the salaries of teachers will go up 300 million next year. I very much agree with crocodiles view that the education budget was written by civil servants – and hence they defend their own turf. Essentially, all the other spending in the budget aside from pay is an elaborate accounting exercise where civil servants vendettas decide who wins and loses.

I’m sure teachers unions care about class size – from both a self-interested and civic perspective – but would they prefer class size to stay the same if it meant a pay freeze? I’m not trying to spout right-wing nonsense here and say teachers lively-hoods should come at the expense of overall education. Ideally, both teachers pay and class sizes would be adequate.

I’d like to hear opinions of others on this if you had to choose between class size and pay – because I find myself torn between wanting appropriate class sizes yet concerned that I’m unsure about the justness of additional pay rises to teachers if they come at the expense of class size. Needless to say, its not a very comfortable dilemma for someone who considers themself to be on the left.

12. crocodile - November 2, 2008

I suppose the unanswerable argument there is that we spend 4.6 % of GNP on education whereas the OECD average is more like 6%. If we weren’t wedded to the idea of low income tax as the be-all-and-end-all we could probably afford to pay teachers and have a respectable pupil/teacher ratio.
A teacher in my family would add that we could heat our schools and provide toilets without having to pass round the begging bowl.

13. Niall - November 2, 2008

Ian, there is no logical link between class size and teacher’s pay. Yes, if teacher’s were paid less, then we could probably afford to have a smaller classroom size, but if we were spending less on GPs or Gardai, then the same would be true. There’s no law that says that if you have to increase spending in one part of the department of education that you have to make cuts in the same department, especially when, as Crocodile points out, we spend such a small amount on education to begin with.

14. Ian - November 3, 2008

Niall, that of course is true. I think education should be a priority in terms of our budgetary spending – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that by increasing the percentage of GNP spent on education our education system will automatically improve. We could pay teachers all the extra money spent on it and still class size wouldnt change. It’s all about how we spend the money.

Right now we’re facing a recession, regardless of the causes and the right-wing trickery which caused it. Belts are going to have to be tightened because even if we raise taxes, which has happened, the enormous deficit in the public finances is going to have to be plugged somehow or someway. Should pay rises really be our first priority? That is what the government has decided – and their is a just outcry over the fact that class sizes have come second. I find this somewhat disconcerning.

15. WorldbyStorm - November 3, 2008

Again, to echo Niall, I don’t see why a pay ‘increase’ is being linked to class sizes. Or rather I do, not by you Ian – I take your point – but more broadly. I can’t help but feel this is a ploy by the govt. to paint the teachers (and we’ll see this later in the entirety of the public sector) as selfish people who want their rises over class sizes. And yet curiously the hypocrisy there is on the part of the govt which negotiated the former and then presents the latter as a fait accompli. So if the prioritisation is by the govt. then it seems reasonable to attack the govt for the class size issue before trying to link it back into pay – particularly when there are progressive solutions to this which would plug holes across the public sector without recourse to the draconian stuff the govt. is putting out.

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