A recently published OECD report ranks Ireland last among 36 developed countries for spending on education. This may have shocked some parents, but it was no surprise to the teachers.
Funding for Irish primary education is 11% below the EU average as a share of GDP. As one of the richest countries per capita in the world, we can do much better than that. The 2022 budget must begin the journey to correct this national embarrassment.
Primary schools offer the taxpayer excellent value for money. The government contributes a miser â¬ 1 per day per student while parents pay â¬ 47 million per year to close the gap to cover basic school expenses like heating, electricity, water, cleaning and insurance.
Primary schools are key and central poles in each locality. Principals and teachers are concerned with more than the education of their students. They guide children through the first steps of socialization and inclusion. Schools are often the place where the first professionals pick up signals that may indicate additional developmental, emotional, sensory, or nutritional needs. They are regularly the first places where signs of the challenges children face at home or in their communities are noticed.
Primary teachers are also very often the first people in a child’s life to introduce them to formal participation in activities such as the arts and sport – often outside of class, for which they are not paid. .
They do it willingly, but on top of that, teachers – and principals in particular – are overwhelmed by an increasingly heavy administrative burden. This is made all the more onerous by the measures necessary to deal with COVID-19.
It simply would not have been possible to adequately meet the education, welfare and well-being needs of the country’s children during the pandemic without the commitment and dedication of school leaders. . The government must now provide essential support to sustain them.
For 12 years, the moratorium on promotions has decimated middle management teams in primary schools. The Chief Inspector of the Ministry of Education said: âThe workload of the principal and deputy principal has increased while the number of teachers with paid managerial responsibilities has decreased. “
This situation is not tenable. This is why the Irish National Teachers’ Organization (INTO) has called for a return to the level of middle management positions that existed over ten years ago. These vice-principal positions allow schools to meet the holistic needs of our children. This means that schools can support well-being, special education and inclusion while coordinating initiatives in areas such as digital learning, environmental awareness, the arts and physical education.
The Ministry of Education has great ambitions to improve the quality and develop the skills of school management. Without real middle management teams, these ambitions will not be realized.
During the pandemic, the government finally responded to our years of lobbying by granting principals one day a week a day off from their teaching duties to run their schools.
This initiative supports education directors in their managerial tasks, but it also leads to better learning outcomes due to the more consistent approach to substitution.
The government has also set up substitute teacher groups covering 80 percent of primary and special schools. This scheme must be kept after the pandemic and it must be extended to cover all schools in the country. Expecting our school leaders to cover teachers absent due to poor planning of teacher supply risks undermining the main responsibilities assumed by the leaders of our large schools during the current public health crisis.
In the future, when a teacher is absent, one should avoid at all costs the scenario where his class is supervised by a person without pedagogical qualification or distributed among other classes, creating even more oversized classrooms.
The largest classes
The OECD report released last month highlighted an alarming fact: our primary students continue to be enrolled in the largest classes in the EU.
Some 85 percent of pupils are in classes of 24 or more compared to the European average of 20. Worse yet, 14 percent are in classes of 30 or more.
The OECD report indicates that early schooling is: “a crucial period for developing basic skills”. Elementary school teachers are the gatekeepers of the most critical educational period in a person’s life.
The pandemic has exposed a decade of neglect in investing in primary education, clearly illustrated by the embarrassing fact that Ireland was the only country in the EU that provided for social distancing in classrooms of more than 30 students .
Research shows that smaller classes allow teachers to give more one-on-one time, with a positive effect on a student’s achievement levels.
INTO calls for class sizes to be reduced by one pupil per year until we reach at least the EU average. With the overall enrollment down, all the government has to do is keep the current number of regular class teachers. Otherwise, as they slowly recover from the pandemic, many elementary school communities will lose critical teaching positions.
Investment is the only way to be of benefit to the country’s children if we are to achieve the ambition of making our primary education system the best in Europe by 2026.
Without the investment, parents will continue to shell out tens of millions of euros just to keep the lights on in schools, while their children struggle to keep up with their peers in other EU countries.
John Boyle is Secretary General of the National Organization of Irish Teachers