This September many students walked into familiar classrooms and many took a seat; those late to arrive looked to the teacher, wondering where to sit in the absence of not just chairs but space. We don’t miss what we never had; however, this current generation of students are accustomed to a maximum of 25 in their classes. This September, the classroom setting has changed, with many students joined by an additional 8 to 9 students. Ask any assertive and empowered adult would they contain – yet alone teach a class of up to 34 teenagers in a confined space and you might just hear a resounding ‘Not a chance’. Yet, this is what teachers today are facing in packed classrooms, made of students with probably a number of diverse abilities and ambitions.
There are schools who are dealing with budgetary cuts in the same manner as a manager of any factory/company would do – they are making serious internal cuts. In the case of a school day, many are creating everything from study periods in the absence of subject teachers available to reduced timetables for some students. The Department of Education has responded by warning schools that they could face serious consequences if they send students home early or cancel classes because of cuts in staffing. Ruairi Quinn, the education minister, is concerned at unconfirmed reports that secondary schools have chosen to deprive students of tuition time. There are many principals that would welcome Ruairi Quinn’s alternative plan to work with his cuts.
About 800 jobs have been cut from 720 secondary schools by the inclusion of guidance counselling into overall teacher allocations this year, forcing schools to decide between less guidance provision, reduced subject choices, larger classes or a mix of those measures. A recent news report reported that one secondary school is sending younger pupils home early four days a week after axing a class, and another was replacing some taught classes with study periods — both in order to maintain the level of guidance and counselling for students. These are schools that for very good reasons recognise that they must maintain a guidance and counselling service in their schools. After all, little education can be attained by a child distressed or with emotional behavioural difficulties in the first place. It is not just the said child that is affected but the class that contains him/her.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) recently said that it can understand why a principal might make a choice to reduce class times for some students. ‘We don’t know any schools where it’s happening, but it is a sign of the tough choices they are facing.’ For some schools, they have already cut subjects or merged higher and ordinary-level classes,’ a spokesperson said. The probably reality is: principals are getting creative with the budgetary cuts but nobody wants to formally admit to it – certainly not the Department of Education.
The most recent OECD’s annual education report shows that Irish second-level schools out-perform most other countries. The report shows that Ireland has one of the highest school completion rates in the world with only two countries out of 26 coming ahead of Ireland. The average school completion rate for OECD countries is 84%, while in Ireland it is 94%. It is widely accepted that completing second-level education is highly correlated to employment status, lifetime earnings and according to the ASTI General Secretary Pat King, ‘A country’s completion rates for second and third-level education are vital to the development of a workforce which can compete in the global knowledge economy and ensure long-term economic growth.’ However, the ASTI has issued a stern and realistic warning to the Government that Ireland’s education ‘successes’ are under serious threat due to four years of Budget cuts. They also highlighted that the OECD’s educational findings does not take into account the impact of the cuts on second-level schools as the findings presented mainly relate to data collated before the cuts took place. The impact and results of continuous reduced funding, loss of teachers and the axing of vital support services on schools, such as Guidance and Counselling has yet to be measured and evaluated.
Recently, there was a news report that outlined how incensed parents were when their children attending a particular school were asked to bring in their own toilet paper. As humorous as this maybe for the reader of the report; this is just one example of the measures that principals have to resort to – in order to keep the school doors open. Hardly comparable to cutting classes or overcrowded classrooms but still evidence of the times we live in and an indication of what is yet to come. The next OECD report will no-doubt be a very different read in terms of our education ‘successes’.