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Has the government delivered on its 'ultimate goal'? One year in, here's how it has fared

Last week we looked at its record on health and housing. This week we’re looking at jobs and education.

SIMON COVENEY has said he believes Taoiseach Enda Kenny will make his departure date known by the summer. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

IT’S NOW A year since this government was formed.

After 10 weeks of negotiations, Fine Gael reached a deal with Fianna Fáil that would see the former leading a minority government along with the support of independents.

A lot of this deal-making made its way into the Programme for Government, a wide-ranging document detailing what the government aims to achieve over its term in office.

The 155-page thesis contains a massive number of commitments, pledges and promises that the government said it would pursue over the next five years.

So how has it gone so far?

One year in, has the government made a telling contribution to the “fair society” that would allow communities to thrive “throughout both urban and rural Ireland” as promised?

Last week, we looked at the government’s record on health and housing. Now, we examine how they’ve fared in two more important pillars – jobs and education.

Jobs

As part of the Programme for Government, delivering full employment back to the Irish economy was described as the “ultimate goal of the new government”.

In practice, this would “mean an extra 200,000 jobs by 2020, of which 135,000 will be outside of Dublin”.

Another key priority was the reduction of the unemployment rate to 6%. The government also aimed at facilitating the return of at least 70,000 emigrants and an aim for the unemployment rate in each county to be within one percent of the State average by 2020.

In response to a request from TheJournal.ie, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said that an additional 66,100 jobs were created for the whole of 2016 which it said was ahead of the target of 50,000 outlined in the government’s Action Plan for Jobs.

By then end of 2016, over two million people in Ireland were working.

The department, however, was unable to provide a figure for how many jobs had been created since the government took office, but said the CSO’s Quarterly National Household Figures, due for release soon, would provide a good indication of this.

The most recent figures show an unemployment rate of 6.2%, with 47,300 fewer people on the Live Register in April 2017 than in April 2016.

cso ireland unemployment Source: CSO

The government is nearing its target in this regard but, with 66,100 jobs created last year, momentum in job creation will need to be maintained to reach the target of 200,000 new jobs.

Criticism

90431956_90431956 Source: Rollingnews.ie

These figures have not kept Minister for Jobs, Mary Mitchell O’Connor free from criticism, however.

In October, the Irish Times published an article which quoted a number of anonymous sources discussing their concerns about the Fine Gael TD’s aptitude for the jobs portfolio.

Since then, two of her advisers have quit their roles.

Much of the criticism against Mitchell O’Connor came in the wake of the budget, before which she had floated the idea of a special tax break for returning emigrants. This was dismissed in the Dáil chamber by Enda Kenny as “unfair and discriminatory”.

She has defended her record on occasion, as has the Taoiseach.

She told Fora.ie in March that the falling unemployment rate was evidence that she was performing well:

My own performance is [a] 6.6% rate unemployment rate. That’s my performance.

Kenny, meanwhile, said that he appointed Mitchell O’Connor “because of her experience” and added that she is “working well”.

On its progress on other commitments made in the Programme for Government, the department said that it “is prioritising and working through the commitments for which it has responsibility”.

It added that “IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the LEOs (Local Enterprise Offices) all had strong performances in the last 12 months”.

Although not wholly within her remit, she has repeatedly faced questions from rural TDs about job creation in these areas.

In response, Mitchell O’Connor points to CSO figures she says show that 70% of the jobs created over the past year were outside of Dublin.

Appearing before an Oireachtas Committee in March, she said that extra funding to the tune of €200 million was being provided to the IDA to “ensure it can address regional development needs”. The Minister added:

We are seeing that success come through. In 2016, 52% of jobs created by IDA Ireland were outside the Dublin area. Regional job creation by Enterprise Ireland was 64% of their total. I sometimes think the message has gotten out there.

Whether or not every part of the country shares in this promised job growth is something that Mitchell O’Connor has sought to reassure on.

90099190_90099190 Source: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

She told that Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins during that same hearing: “We have a regional action plan for jobs. Irrespective of whether likes it or irrespective of whether he has read it, it is working.

Of course, we want all boats to lift in the good tides. I want to ensure every region shares. However, the figures indicated that the south-east was a black spot. Waterford was an absolute black spot and we will see it improve.

With Brexit looming on the horizon, the government will have more opportunities to seek new business to Ireland.

Jobs are certainly coming to Ireland, but the question remains on whether every part of it will benefit equally.

Education

education 162_90500337 (1) Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

So, what did the government promise it would do in terms of education? Here’s what the Programme for Government said:

We are committed to investing an extra €500 million in education by 2021 through measures including childcare subventions, HSE speech and language therapists (to bring the number up to 1,102 – a 25% increase), additional national educational psychologists (to bring the number to 238 – a 25% increase, reducing the pupil teacher ratio in junior and senior infants, annual increases in primary and secondary capitation rates, additional teacher CPD, a new school excellence fund, pay increases in accordance with the Lansdowne Road Agreement and extra third level investment.

That’s quite the mouthful. And that’s only some of the commitments made regarding education in the Programme for Government.

Further pledges related to reducing primary school class sizes, reintroduce guidance counselling to secondary schools and increasing funding for post-graduate students with a particular focus on those from low-income households.

In response to a request from TheJournal.ie, the Department of Education returned a quite lengthy summary of its progress to date. Here’s what they said:

  • “Launched and started implementing the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019, aimed at making Ireland the best education system in Europe within a decade.”
  • “Budget 2016 provided for an improvement in the staffing schedule in primary schools by one point, from one teacher for every 28 pupils to one teacher for every 27 pupils for the 2016/17 school year and it should be noted that the current staffing schedule of 27:1 for primary schools has restored it to the position it was at prior to the fiscal crisis”
  • “Secured a record increase of €458 million in Budget 2017, which will provide for an extra 2,500 posts in schools, and €36m in extra funding for third level (the first significant increase in a decade).”
  • “Published the Cassels report into third level funding and referred it to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills. The Minister has already committed €36m in extra funding in 2017 and €160m over three years.”
  • “Successfully negotiated with the INTO / TUI a 15-22% increase in pay for newly qualified teachers.”
  • “Preliminary work on establishing the School Excellence Fund is nearing completion.”
  • “A total of €46.5m was invested in teacher continuing professional development (CPD) in 2016 across the primary and post primary sectors.”

The department also pointed to numerous other measures, such as the provision of 1,000 extra special needs assistants, plans to deliver 400 multi-denominational and nondenominational schools by 2020 and plans to extensively recruit more teachers as examples of positive action it has taken.

Trouble ahead?

Cabinet colleagues may be envious of Richard Bruton’s comparatively crisis-free year since becoming Minister of Education.

The Tánaiste has faced garda controversies, the Minister for Health has been under pressure over the National Maternity Hospital in particular and, as pointed out above, the Minister for Jobs has faced criticism from within her own party.

File Photo TALKS CONTINUE TODAY in a bid to avert next week’s teachers strike, as Minister Richard Bruton again warned a large number of schools will have to close. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however, with teacher strikes seeing schools close across the country on a number of occasions, with the threat of future industrial action not yet off the table.

Late last year, secondary schools across the country closed as the ASTI union failed to reach an agreement with government after payments made to teachers for supervisory or supervision duties was ended.

Industrial action was suspended in November after new proposals were made to the ASTI by the government.

The deal that was offered was published on the ASTI website and showed that there had been a slight compromise on the supervision and substitution dispute – which says that teachers who have been working for over 15 years can opt out of that duty.

However, teachers rejected this “final deal” offer from the government in February.

Furthermore, teachers are threatening further strike action in the future over the lack of pay parity between newer teachers and others who’ve been in the profession for years.

The ASTI’s President Ed Byrne says teachers are “standing up for their most vulnerable colleagues”.

“Our members are standing firm and telling us to continue to hold the line on Junior Cycle reform and to vigorously pursue equal pay for equal work for our young teachers,” Byrne said.

File Photo TALKS CONTINUE TODAY in a bid to avert next weeks teachers strike, as Minister Richard Bruton again warned a large number of schools will have to close. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

With the threat of further action a very real possibility, Bruton’s aims to modernise the Irish education system may take a back seat for industrial unrest.

One feature of their progress to date is that a lot of measures have been announced rather than implemented. Here are a few examples:

  • “Announced plan to deliver 400 multi-denominational and non-denominational schools by 2030.”
  • “Announced an 8 week consultation process to deal with religion as a criterion for admission into a school.”
  • “Launched and started implementing Apprenticeship and Traineeship Plan, aimed at providing 50,000 places in 120 schemes by 2020.”
  • “Commenced a series of regional Action Plan for Education Forums to consult with education stakeholders around the country – on skills, on higher education; on traineeship and apprenticeship.”
  • “Announced a series of initiatives to help people from under-represented groups to become teachers, in particular students from socio-economically disadvantaged background, students with a disability, and members of the Traveller community.”

Fianna Fáil has been quick off the mark in its criticism of Bruton’s tenure with the education brief.

Its education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said: “Complete inertia has been the defining feature of Minister Bruton’s first year in office.

There has been a flurry of announcements and press releases, but little in the way of actual decision-making and legislative change.

Byrne also said that hopes for “progressive change to the education system” had been dashed during Bruton’s first year as Minister for Education.

In the Action Plan for Education, Minister Bruton said in his foreword: “Too often in previous governments, ambitious plans like this were published but then little achieved.

Following the successful model pioneered in the Action Plan for Jobs, we are putting mechanisms in place to ensure that delivery takes place.

For the Irish education system to truly become the best in Europe within a decade, these plans will need to become a reality over the lifetime of this government.

Read: This government is a year old but what has it actually achieved?

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Sean Murray

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