Thursday, 15 October 2020
Financial Resolutions 2020 - Financial Resolution No. 7: General (Resumed)
Often in these speeches, Opposition Deputies come into the House to make speeches and there is a feeling that we are going through the motions. I want to appeal to the Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration, Deputy O'Gorman, particularly as a member of the Green Party, to deal with one issue in the budget that needs to be rectified.
We are living through a great sense of hopelessness at the moment but if anyone ever wants to get a sense of hope, they should walk into an average disadvantaged DEIS school and look at what those schools are achieving with infants. The average three-year-old in a DEIS school has one third the oral language capacity of an average mainstream three-year-old. The former has 400 words while the latter has 1,200. The gap in oral language is significant, even at the age of three. What disadvantaged schools are achieving with infants, young boys and girls, is huge and transformational, as the Minister knows because the Green Party is committed to education. The Labour Party has advocated for increased capitation for disadvantaged schools etc. The Government announced a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, from 26:1 to 25:1, which was welcome. That was something for which we advocated. DEIS schools are on a different staffing schedule and will not automatically get that PTR reduction.
The situation now is that the only schools that will not benefit from the reduction in pupil-teacher ratios are disadvantaged schools that have infants. Every other primary school in the country is getting a reduction in pupil-teacher ratios. That is justifiable and welcome, and I am not suggesting it should not happen. In a pandemic it is important that we reduce what are the largest class sizes in Europe. I think the Minister of State will agree with me that it is utterly unfair that the only schools that will not receive a reduction in pupil-teacher ratios are those disadvantaged schools that have infants.
I can make speeches about all that is wrong with the budget, rehearse all of the lines and do mock anger like anybody else can. This is something that is within the gift of the Government to fix with the stroke of a pen. I will not say it will cost nothing, but it will not cost an awful lot considering the Department of Education and Skills has a budget of €10 billion. There is a list of hurt, disappointment and point-scoring opportunities that I am foregoing. I ask that disadvantaged schools with infant classes be included.
I got a kind of "Let them eat cake" response from the Minister of State's Cabinet colleague earlier today. I was told by the Tánaiste that most disadvantaged students do not attend disadvantaged schools, and that is fine. I felt that comment utterly missed the point because most people would understand that the vast majority of children who attend disadvantaged schools are acutely disadvantaged. Education is their one chance to get out of poverty. In many instances, it is their only chance to get out of grinding and spirit-crushing poverty. Education is the great liberator. If the Department of Education and Skills is making the gesture of reducing class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios, one would have thought it would have front-loaded that for infants in disadvantaged schools. Yet, it is infants in disadvantaged schools who will not benefit from this at all.
After all of the discussion and debate from Ministers who sat where the Minister of State is now sitting, it would be gratifying if my simple five-minute contribution was to lead to this one change so that every school in the country and, in particular, infants in disadvantaged schools would benefit from the reduction in pupil-teacher ratios. The announcement could be made at any stage over the next period of time and would be graciously received by me, my party and those who are teaching and whose children attend schools in the system. It is my one ask. I am not trying to score political points, but I think the Minister of State will agree that it is a valid point and should be recognised.