St Mochta’s National School in Clonsilla, Dublin 15, has 907 pupils. Four hundred and fifty of those children are taught in dingy and overcrowded prefab buildings. Mould is commonplace on the walls and pupils often have to use buckets to catch leaking water.
The government promised the school a new building in 2006, but nothing has been delivered. St Mochta’s parents and children are marching on Dáil Éireann this morning (Wednesday, 5 October) in protest.
Sadly, the pupils and parents of Clonsilla are not alone in their troubles.
Between 2008 and 2013, government spending per student at all levels of education fell by 7 percent, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). For the OECD region (basically, the rich countries of the world) as a whole, the average spend per student rose by 8 percent over that period.
Countries that faced financial crises comparable to Ireland’s did not make education bear the brunt of economic adjustment. For example, Portuguese real expenditure on education increased by 33 percent between 2008 and 2013.
As I have written about here before, the Irish situation is worsened by the undue subsidisation afforded to private, fee-paying schools, meaning that there are even fewer resources available to the majority of non-elite schools.
And while primary schools like St Mochta’s have suffered greatly, the proportionately biggest cutbacks in Ireland have been at third level, where there has been a 25-percent cut in state funding per student over the (admittedly longer) time period of 2005 to 2014.
But perhaps things are about to improve. Last month, the government published an action plan with the stated intention of transforming the Irish education and training system into Europe’s best by 2026.
Pupil-retention rates in disadvantaged schools are to be improved; the number of students taking higher-level mathematics, physics and chemistry is to be boosted; and a variety of other measures are to be implemented.
This is all very laudable, but as the press release accompanying the launch of the plan notes, “This is not a financial or Budgetary document”. In other words, no money has actually been earmarked to achieve any of these objectives yet. There is not even a pledge to restore educational spending to its pre-crisis levels.
The gap here between claimed ambition and funding reality caused Fintan O’Toole to write a column in the Irish Times entitled, “Between aspiration and reality we build a bridge of bullshit”.
O’Toole estimates that to become the best in Europe, pupil-teacher ratios at primary and secondary level would have to be halved – and that simply cannot be done without spending a lot more money. He also estimates that it would cost €2.24 billion over five years to reduce student-teacher ratios at third level to even middling European standards.
He concludes, “There’s nothing wrong with having high hopes, but this is just an exercise in denial. What’s being denied is the immense damage wrought by austerity,” as the OECD figures cited above demonstrate.
In the brilliant US TV series The Wire, a newspaper editor struggling to maintain the quality of the paper despite budget cutbacks is told: “We’ll have to do more with less.” Series creator and writer David Simon has commented on the scene: “What [he] is hearing … is the fundamental lie that underlies the system, which is that you don’t do more with less. You do less with less.”
Now, I am not unbiased here: I am a third-level teacher who would like to see more resources allocated to the education system. And I freely admit that we, as teachers, could improve what we do with the help of reforms that would cost little or no money and from the improved allocation of existing budgets.
But, fundamentally, we cannot, in the third-level sector, maintain existing research output, do the public service that is expected of us and significantly reduce student-teacher ratios unless we get additional resources.
Even more fundamentally, the students at St Mochta’s in Clonsilla will not get out of smelly, fungus-ridden classrooms unless the government constructs a new building. It really is as simple as that and all the “action plans” in the world won’t change it.