A FG-FF Arrangement

Implications for Education Policy

One of the distinctive and, to my mind, disappointing features of the recent general election campaign was that issues in regard to education policy attracted little if any attention or comment.. Quite why this should be the case is difficult to understand. Education is our largest, most important (and costly) intervention in our children and young people, yet I cannot recall any party leader or prominent politician addressing the topic during the election campaign. At the time of writing, some arrangement between the two biggest parties seems likely to emerge from the government formation process. So, it’s necessary to revisit the main points in their election manifestos in order to have some idea of what policies might be implemented in the next few years.

Both parties produced reasonably comprehensive policy documents underpinned by an effort to cost their proposals. It is surprising how many campaigning groups active in the education field, and media organisations, produced summaries or checklists of manifesto proposals without examining the costings.  It’s not clear what purpose such an exercise achieves and indeed it probably serves to mislead. Newstalk was one honourable exception and researchers there pinpointed a serious difficulty with the education manifestos of parties generally in calculating the financial implications of their proposals as we shall see.

 

Primary Education

The main issue addressed at primary level by both parties is the question of class sizes. Currently the pupil teacher ratio (PTR) at primary is 27 to 1 (lower in DEIS schools serving disadvantaged areas) which determines the teacher allocation to each school. Each one point reduction requires the appointment of 250 extra teachers at an approximate cost of €15 million. Both parties pledge a significant reduction in the PTR over the term of the next government. In the case of FF, the commitment is to reduce the average class size to 23 whereas FG proposes to concentrate the reduction on junior and senior infant classes which will be calculated on the basis of a ratio of 18 to 1. Neither party makes clear whether a similar reduction is intended for DEIS schools. The cost of these proposals is estimated and included in the manifestos. However, as Newstalk highlights, the figures provided are based solely on the cost of hiring an appropriate number of additional teachers. Every time a school recruits an additional teacher, non-pay costs arise in the form equipment and materials for that person to use in class. There may also, in particular cases, be a need to employ additional SNAs as a consequence. Even more significant in financial terms would be the question of accommodation. Obviously in many schools the additional teachers could take classes in hitherto empty classrooms. In other locations, however, it would be necessary to build additional classrooms. At a current cost of €200,000 to build and equip a single classroom the cost of implementing the pledges given by each of the two parties would be huge. It would be unfair to criticise them for not estimating the cost of the additional accommodation that would arise. To carry out the necessary research on which to base a figure would be a huge task. However, one would have expected that this large omission from their calculations would have been mentioned in any serious manifesto. The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that the changes in class sizes pledged by both parties, which in each case is the major item in their education manifesto as regards primary level, are unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved. Instead, what’s likely to happen is that small incremental changes will be made without reaching the target figures. Unfortunately, research indicates that changes of this nature have no impact on outcomes. Only significant reductions have a noticeable effect. In this context, the FG idea of targeting whatever resources are available on early intervention at infant class level has much to recommend it

In other less expensive areas of the manifestos as they relate to primary education, there are large areas of agreement though different in some details. So, agreement between the parties on the need to improve capitation grants, spend more on ICT, increase staffing in the National Educational Psychological Service, and improve speech and language therapy services, increased funding for continuous professional development of teachers at both primary and secondary level, should be achieved easily.

On a number of issues which have proved controversial, the parties are vague or non-committal. So on the patronage issue FF states that children, irrespective of religion, should be allowed attend their local school and that selection criteria need to be drawn up for over-subscribed schools. FG commits to allowing for more multi and non-denominational schools. As regards the two-tier salary scales which discriminate against new entrants to the teaching profession at both primary and secondary levels, FG ignores the issue whereas FF pledges to address this anomaly without offering precise details. Similarly as regards the moratorium on filling posts of responsibility in schools, FG is silent on the matter. FF intends to restore assistant principal posts beginning in 2017 but makes no mention of special duties appointments. This may signal an intention to drop these from the management structure altogether. I suspect many would see merit in this idea because, in reality, the duties attached rarely if ever merited the designation ‘management’.

 

 Post-Primary

As regards post-primary level, any agreed programme which might emerge between the parties is likely to reflect strongly the FF manifesto if for no other reason than the fact that the FG one is remarkably slight on issues specific to that sector. FF has adopted as a key educational strategy the restoration of ex-quota guidance provision in schools. They also have proposals for the non-pay element of funding of schools in the ‘free’ education scheme (i.e. excluding those which are fee-paying). This lack of equity in such funding has been a matter of contention for decades. If memory serves me correctly, there have been at least two expert groups which have reported on the position and made recommendations for significant changes which were ignored by successive ministers. It is often asserted that schools in the voluntary secondary schools are very poorly funded by comparison with their counterparts in the Community and Comprehensive sector with those in the ETB (formerly VEC) sector lying somewhere in between. Anecdotal evidence and my own experience lend credibility to that view. Some years ago, a programme of additional capitation funding to assist the voluntary secondary schools was introduced but it ceased when the recession hit the country. FF has committed to reintroducing this equalisation funding scheme. The problem with this approach is that it is a fairly blunt instrument in that it ignores the existence of parental voluntary contributions. A very small scale survey I undertook some years ago across all types of post-primary school indicated that the level of voluntary contribution ranged from zero in a DEIS school to €1,000 per child per annum in a school located in one of the leafy suburbs. So the voluntary contribution can distort the picture quite considerably. It’s not just a question of the sector to which the school belongs. The nature of the catchment area has a huge bearing on the resources available to a school. While the general assertion is true and schools in the voluntary secondary sector lose out in terms of state funding there are very well-funded schools in that and the other sectors. By the same token there are schools in all three sectors operating with meagre resources at their disposal.

An area of potential disagreement between the parties relates to ideas which can be grouped generally under the heading of accountability at both primary and post-primary levels. The DES released a discussion paper last year entitled Advancing School Autonomy in the Irish School System. The ideas outlined in it has attracted FG interest but little from FF. Bureaucracies, as a general rule are not noted for devolving power especially ones like the DES which have little at their disposal in any event. Quite apart from the merits of increased autonomy at school level, it is likely that any proposal along these lines will gain much traction as it will be interpreted as a move to transfer responsibility for the performance of our schools as far as possible from Marlboro’ Street. In particular a game of pass the parcel in respect of accountability for teacher performance has been ongoing for decades and it is unlikely that school boards, principals, or trustee bodies will prove naïve in accepting a primary role in that regard. More particularly, teacher unions are likely to exercise their powers of virtual veto in respect of any move towards increased accountability.  So the FG proposals requiring annual school reports, target-setting in which parents will be involved, strengthened self-evaluation processes, a mechanism for addressing the issue of what are described as failing schools, an effective complaints procedure for parents, implementing fitness to teach regulations and making the teaching council more independent and effective, all have sensitive implications. A FG-FF coalition government might agree to address some of these issues. Certainly it would have a strong enough parliamentary majority to resist the vested interests and establish the state as the primary policy maker in Irish education. Of course previous administrations in a similarly strong position have declined to take steps in this direction so whether any FF-FG coalition would do so is open to question. On the other hand if a minority government emerges it is unlikely that politically sensitive issues will be addressed   irrespective of which of the major parties is leading it.

 

Third Level & Further Education

An expert group has been looking at the issue of the funding arrangements for third level education. While both parties support increased funding for the sector specific commitments are missing as they await the report of the expert group. This increased funding in the case of FG would be conditional on eliminating waste. It seems that one issue under consideration is the re-introduction of tuition fees which might be more closely related to the economic cost of the courses being provided. A student loan scheme to support such a development seems a likely outcome. The fact that the report of the group was awaited afforded the parties a reason (or perhaps excuse) to sidestep the issue. The current registration fee attracted some attention as the Union of Students in Ireland campaigned for its abolition. FF proposes to freeze it at its current level for the next five years whereas FG ignored the issue.

Friends and former colleagues working in the further education often describe it as the Cinderella sector of state involvement in Irish education. There is ample evidence to support this view as I failed to identify in their manifestos evidence of any detailed thinking or policy by either party on the issues and challenges facing further education.

 

 Educational Disadvantage

My particular interest relates to policies designed to combat educational disadvantage. In the primary sector, schools in the more disadvantaged areas are supported in the form of a lower PTR. In proposing reductions in the general PTR neither party indicates that the lower one would be reduced proportionately. So it would seem that the discrimination in favour of schools serving disadvantaged areas is going to be reduced in relative terms. At second level both seem to focus on extending the DEIS scheme to other schools. This might be seen to imply that it an adequate response to the needs of the schools currently involved. There is a hint in the FF manifesto that they recognise that this is not the case to what they propose to do as a response is not very clear. FG’s intentions are also vague as they commit merely to producing an action plan for social inclusion within a year.  As regards the School Completion Programme, however, FF is quite specific promising to restore cuts made in recent years. At third level the dominant issue in recent years has been the question of funding. A more longstanding one, and in social terms a more significant issue, has been the question of access. For decades we have had ample evidence that access to third level is strongly related to socio-economic status. For many people from poorer backgrounds a third level education is not a realistic option because of circumstances outside their control. The FF proposal to increase the Student Maintenance Grant and the Student Hardship Fund would certainly help but the issues are more fundamental than that and reflect deficiencies in our education provision far earlier in the system. All in all the manifestos of both parties are disappointing on the issue of tackling educational disadvantage and creating equality of opportunity for all. In fairness, the same comment could be applied to the manifestos of the smaller parties also.

 

Brian Fleming

Education History © 2017