Wednesday, 21 May 2008
Question 87: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if the quality of the educational provision in primary schools across the country will be enhanced or at least maintained in view of his reversal of the Government's commitment in the programme for Government to reduce class sizes, thereby depriving schools of the services of more than 140 teachers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15574/08]
The programme for Government sets out the overarching policy position in respect of the provision of additional teachers and on reductions in class size over the life of the Government. The programme contains a commitment to increase the number of primary teachers by at least 4,000 and on that basis to make further progress on reducing class sizes.
Budget 2008 provided my Department with €4.6 billion, or an additional €380 million, for teacher pay and pensions. This was a very substantial level of additional investment in the context of the economic environment on which the budget was based. This allocation will pay for an increase of more than 2,000 primary teachers on the number that was teaching in schools when the Government took office last summer. It covers the additional teachers who went into schools last September for the previously announced reduction to a staffing schedule based on a ratio of 27:1, as well as additional teachers this school year and in the coming school year to meet increasing enrolments and to provide for special needs and the language requirements of newcomer children. This means that in respect of the overall commitment to provide at least 4,000 additional teachers, the Government will be well ahead of target in its first two years in office.
All programme for Government commitments to improve public services, including those relating to class size, are contingent on the economic and budgetary environment and the need for prudent expenditure and fiscal management. Even since the presentation of budget 2008 last December, there have been significant alterations in the external and domestic environment. All things considered, any reasonable observer would regard the actions by the Government that will see the allocation of more than 2,000 additional teachers to primary schools to be a considerable investment.
As for an impact on the quality of provision, it also must be borne in mind that the number of teachers relative to students is only one of many variables affecting the quality of education provision. International research on the experiences of the top school systems suggests the three things that matter most are getting the right people to become teachers, developing them into effective instructors and ensuring the teaching system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.
It is important that the Minister should indicate to the House whether the commitments given in the programme for Government on reducing the staff schedule this year, next year and the following year will be put in place. I specifically refer to commitments that should be honoured in 2009. Many schools will lose a teacher or two this year because of the Government's failure to honour its promises.
I also will refer to a promise made in respect of post-primary education. A unequivocal commitment was made by the Minister's former leader, Deputy Bertie Ahern, at the Ard-Fheis before the recent election that a reduction in class size would take place in respect of the core subjects of Irish, English and mathematics in post-primary education.
I appreciate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's comment. On the question of class size, does the commitment regarding post-primary education also apply in this instance? In a previous question, I sought illumination on the promise made in 2002 that no child of nine years or under would be in a class of more than 20. Will the Minister state unequivocally whether this promise now stands?
First, this question has been dealt with in part as one of the priorities. I reiterate that in respect of the Government's commitment to have 4,000 additional teachers in employment over five years, after two years, the Government has employed 2,000 teachers.
I beg Members' indulgence in this regard. I have been in this position for two weeks and have indicated clearly that I have entered discussions with my officials regarding funding and demands on funding within the Department. I am not in a position at present to indicate clearly the destination of capital funding or what is the current funding side. I certainly am not in a position to indicate what will be available to me as part of the 2009 allocation. The commitment I will make is that the programme for Government provides for 4,000 additional teachers.
I am committed to doing so. Obviously, like everything else within all strategies across Departments, the commitment regarding pupil-teacher ratios will be contingent on the available finances. Were Members to read the programme for Government, it stated clearly that all the aspirations contained in it were contingent on finances being available. At the time, this was stressed greatly by the then Minister for Finance.
I wish to put him on notice that this is information he should be able to offer to Members when they seek it. How many additional teachers would be required to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in primary education by one? What additional resources would be needed to fund that intent? Is the Minister in a position to answer the question?
To give the Minister some light relief, his predecessor as Minister for Education and Science, who held the position for many years more than the Minister, was not able to answer this question earlier this year.
I cannot give accurate information off the top of my head but the ratio is currently 27 to one and to reduce it to 26 to one would require around 500 additional teachers, I would think. This would cause a requirement for additional classrooms and other facilities so one cannot quantify the cost solely in terms of teachers' pay.
There are other consequential costs involved. The previous Minister clearly indicated that she was putting at bay the issue of reducing the pupil-teacher ratio for this year. That was her decision and it stands for 2008.