Leading educators in Donegal say the most vulnerable students are the ones being hit hardest by cutbacks in education and fear that the worst is still to come.
Gerry Breslin of Bundoran is Vice-President of ASTI, the national union for secondary school teachers. He told the Donegal Democrat yesterday: “Schools are suffering a double-hit at the moment, because of the severity of the cuts in the last budget and educators are dreading what the next budget will bring.”
He added: “The biggest worry is that in a lot of the schools, especially in disadvantaged and rural areas, the schools are losing what is most vital and it is the the most vulnerable who are hardest hit. This year we saw a reduction in the numbers of resource teachers, who provide essential support to students who have difficulties with literacy and numeracy. The home school liaison teacher scheme was also cut and there’s no doubt this will also affect students who have been struggling with school for one reason or another. The visiting teacher for Travellers scheme has been completely wiped out. A lot of Travellers do leave school early and this was a crucial service that helped them stay on. The other big victims have been the LCA and the LCVP programmes which was essential in heping the less academic kids finish school and get a good Leaving Certificate. “And there have been big cuts to the numbers of Special Needs Assistants, which not only affects those students, but other students and their teachers. The idea of bringing kids with special needs into education is definitely the right one, but, like all these other initiatives, it was always underfunded from the start.
“There’s all kinds of talk about the smart economy and educating our children to take their place in the world but the reality is that education in Ireland has always been underfunded, even in the good years.
“Ireland is ranked by the OECD 27th out of 31 in terms of education spend. This means we are nowhere on a par with other modern countries.
“The biggest worry now is that, as we come into the next budget, the pupil-teacher ratio will be increased. This means that schools will lose teachers, have to stop offering certain subjects, and our students will be even worse off.”
What the principals say
What the principals say John Gorman, principal of Rosses Community School said the cuts are being felt in many ways.
“From a principal’s point of view, posts of responsibility have been cut and that means that our own workloads have doubled.
“On top of that, there is a real concern for families who are struggling to cope with all the costs - books, buses, transport. Unemployment is very high here and families are definitely suffering here, due to the loss of most of the fishing industry.
“We try to run events to help raise funds to alleviate the burden of school costs. We’re lucky because we have the sports hall and it’s an excellent concert venue. We’ve had the Daniel O’Donnell concert and the Strictly Come Dancing there and they’ve helped offset expenses. If you look at the bill each year just for buses for sports events and extra-curricular activities, that in itself is quite substantial. We try to lift as little money from our students or their parents for this sort of thing as possible, we are always looking at ways to save our students money.
“With the current cutbacks, there’s a real problem releasing teachers for activities such as sports or training and development because there is no funding for substitutes. Again, we are lucky because a lot of the local clubs have been great. They are helping out by sending people over to assist with coaching and that sort of thing. We try to make the most of what we have.
“Our numbers have incrased from 380 to more than 500 and we physically don’t have the space we need. There’s no chance at all, though, of getting funding for new classrooms or to replace outdated prefabs, even though we are a designated Disadvantaged School.
“The pupil to teacher ratio is a real worry because we could easily end up losing one or two teachers if it changes at all, and this at a time when we are trying to improve students’ literacy and numeracy.
“On a positive note, over the last few years, I’ve found that students are becoming more ambitious. They appreciate the value of education and want to go on to third level. We have to support that.”
Padraig Ó’Léime, principal of Carrick Vocational School, has one main worry. “The major concern that I would have regarding future resource needs would be any proposed increase in the pupil – teacher ratio. In a small school such as Coláiste na Carraige, the knock-on effect for subject provision would be very serious and could be extremely detrimental.”