Absence of educational debate during general election?

Is there an appetite among the general public for paying more tax euros to increase education funding?

Brian J Mooney

Brian J Mooney, Editor, Education Matters Yearbook

Are parents prepared to pay?

Ireland’s education system has always been underfunded by the State. Indeed, there is an element of acceptance among Irish people that parents and local communities are partly responsible for education funding and the State is partly responsible. This is best crystallized in Article 42 of the Constitution which guarantees provision for the educational needs of children, rather than simply providing the service itself.

42: The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.

42.2: Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State.

The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful reference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.

The State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.

The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative, and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities or institutions with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.

In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.

Are taxpayers prepared to pay?

Currently faced with huge demographic pressures at all levels of education, from early childhood to third level and beyond, the level at which taxpayers are prepared to commit their tax euros to the provision of enhanced services across all sectors of educational provision is very much an open question.

During general election in February, all parties published a list of educational commitments which they would attempt to implement if elected. Given the inconclusive result of the election, none of the parties can now be held to these commitments.

Other than those of us who are full-time professionals in the field of education, very few voters paid much attention to the educational promises, and the issue of education in its broadest sense never featured in any of the leaders’ debates or media coverage.

Education did have its allotted day towards the end of the second week of the campaign but the issue did not catch fire with the electorate, which would suggest that Irish people are by and large happy with the current balance between State funding and parents’ personal funding of their own children’s education.

It is up to those of us who see the value of investment in education to persuade the public to engage in this debate.

Easter Teachers’ Conferences without a Minister to abuse?

There is an accepted pattern to the combat between the various interest groups within Irish education and the powers that be who decide where increases in spending are allocated. Over recent months – and particularly in the past month – all of the players in the education space have been laying out their stalls in preparation for Education Week, i.e. the week after Easter Sunday when the teacher unions hold their Conferences.

The messages being transmitted at the moment is that, in the light of the so-called “economic recovery”, teachers want to see the unwinding of all of the emergency measures implemented since 2008. The powers that be in the Department of Education and Skills see many of these features – Croke Park, etc – as bought and paid for and not up for reversal under any circumstances. The referee in these matters is always the Minister and Advisors, and the Government at the end of the day.

Given the outcome of the General Election, whereby the current Government and Minister for Education have been consigned to caretaker capacity, we are about to witness a very one-sided spectacle. All of the key educational issues will be given an airing at the Teachers’ Conferences from March 28 until the end of that week, but there will be nobody to impress because there will no elected minister in place to decide between the competing claims on the public purse.

In such an environment landmines with demands for additional resources will be laid, timed to explode next September at the beginning of the new academic year, in the hope of attracting the attention of the incoming Minister and his/her cheque book.

Public support will be the key to progress

The key to the success of this strategy will be the public reaction to arguments presented and cases made over Easter by the various forces in education. Hopefully, this realization will imprint itself on the minds of the delegates when they see a television camera pointing in their direction. The Irish public hold the teachers with whom they have interacted throughout their own and their children’s education in the highest regard, but they have a relatively poor opinion of teachers generally due to the way they present themselves in the national media.

Let us hope that this Easter it will be different and that we will see the real educational needs of Irish society teased out in a thought-provoking and constructive way.

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