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Column: Smart economy? Schools are so hamstrung they’re cutting subjects

If we want that ‘knowledge economy’ we’re always hearing about, the Government needs a serious change of direction, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

The three main teachers’ unions are all calling for changes to education policy this week as they hold their annual conferences. Here Aaron McKenna argues that we’re headed in the wrong direction.

SINCE THE CRISIS began, governments have talked about making hard choices – andwhere spending is concerned, have gone on to make none at all.

Instead they have abrogated their responsibility to lead by endorsing and re-endorsing deals like the Croke Park Agreement that ensure few decisions can be made about spending and social priorities. Whatever happens, happens.

Witness the latest harvest reaped from this seed: A survey of secondary schools has found that 64 per cent are considering dropping subjects and 47 per cent already have. Classes are being amalgamated and schools are losing teachers despite there being 15,000 extra pupils in the system since 2009.

Schools can only cut back on “non-pay” elements in their budget. AKA “subjects”. It turns out you can only save so much by leaving the heating off on cold days and schools have to come up with their share of the €600 million in savings planned for the department over the next three years.

The favourite subjects up for the chop? Accounting, chemistry, physics and economics. Some of the key building blocks of that smart economy we hear about every time a jobs initiative is rolled out.

These are areas, such as for the pharmaceutical industry, in which the IDA identify a strong need for more graduates in the years to come lest we have to keep importing qualified individuals while half a million don’t have a job at home.

We already see this in the IT industry where complaints abound about the difficulty of sourcing local talent to fill available jobs.

It’s also not as if Ireland has the luxury of complacency in educational attainment. Despite increasing spending in the 2000s by 61 per cent in real terms, we’ve slipped from fifth to 17th in the OECD PISA rankings of school systems.

‘The rhetoric doesn’t chime with the policy decisions’

To put this into an economic context, we were fifth just as the Celtic Tiger was taking off. Today’s king of the hill, South Korea, is one of the Asian Tigers. Number two is Finland, a country that invested heavily in education following an economic collapse in the early 1990’s. They did the opposite to what we have done under similar circumstances.

Number three on the list is Canada and four is New Zealand, prime emigration locations for Irish people looking for jobs in booming economies. In the main the top ten OECD PISA countries do quite well for themselves.

The next ten, the group we’re currently near the end of, is a mixed bag of economic performers. Poland, Iceland, France, the UK, Germany and the US are in this group. Solid performers with ups and downs. The odd youth riot. That sort of thing.

Now look at the 20s, the group we’re surely headed for – unless you believe that less teachers and less subjects are a recipe for a comeback – and we find a familiar group of friends: All of the PIGS countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) are ranked in the 20s. High youth unemployment for all and perennial second or third world status for some.

Back at home we’re told time and time again about our smart economy, best country in the world to run a small business and a high tech hub of innovation. That rhetoric doesn’t chime with government policy or spending decisions.

Usually if you want an outcome that is contrary to the current trend then you make some key decisions that turn the boat into the headwind and take it on. You make choices to sacrifice some things in favour of the chosen direction. To continue our boating analogy, you toss dead weight overboard instead of the navigator. What you don’t do is sit back, relax and let it drift while she springs leaks left and right thanks to, say, losing teachers and subjects.

‘School time is a precious commodity’

Rather than looking for €600m in savings from our schools in terms of the economically relevant subjects they teach and the quality of those classes we ought to make some difficult choices.

Within schools Ruairí Quinn has made the point that a third of teaching time in primary schools is devoted to Irish and religion. In secondary schools we see quite a lot of time spent on these subjects as well. Now please don’t lynch me, I’m not an ‘aggressive secularist’ nor am I anti-Gaelic in our schools. I do believe however that more balance should be given to subjects like science and economics for purely practical reasons.

School time is a precious commodity. Many schools spend more time on Irish as a core subject than the ‘option’ subjects, like science. Is this the best use of time? I don’t think so. The same applies for religion with different arithmetic, but many schools still provide three times as much religious education as civics. There is a strong argument that faith formation, while it can be facilitated by and in schools, can and should be developed by church leaders on church rather than school curriculum time.

Now let us come round full circle on to the Croke Park Agreement and how it applies both in education and across government spending.

In a labour-intensive business like education, where the vast majority of the budget goes on people, it is key. The Minister for Education can only seek savings in the minority of areas that are non-pay related. To carry the CPA to its ultimate conclusion we could have classes taught in hedges so long as the teacher isn’t touched.

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Unless, of course, that teacher happens to be a new entrant. For the CPA is a clever little instrument in protecting those who served before its time and hammering those who arrive after. A new entrant can expect to earn much less in salary and allowances than the existing cohort. Of course this doesn’t save us enough money to protect the small matter of teaching science, because the majority of our teachers are on old contracts.

‘This is grossly unfair to new teachers’

This is both grossly unfair to new teachers and to students who have to bear the cuts to the quality and breadth of education. Ireland spends 71 per cent of its education budget on salaries versus 63 per cent for the average OECD country. We ought to redress the balance by paying new teachers (a little) more, decreasing existing salaries and getting rid of allowances.

There are mind-boggling allowances like those for having the minimum required qualifications for being a teacher, and there are soppy allowances for doing things like minding kids at lunch break. You know what? When we add up teachers’ annual working hours they’re getting off fairly lightly in this world without demanding extra pay for working through lunch every now and again. So take half a lunch every couple of days and suck it up.

Outside of the Department of Education the CPA has a negative impact, for example in our hospitals. But it also prevents us from doing something very specific: Let’s cut quangos and other state bureaucracies and link it directly to saving subjects in schools and nurses in hospitals.

When I recall the example of the personal assistant to a director in a quango keeping the job despite the director retiring (and lo, the sky didn’t fall in without his six-figure salaried presence in the place) and her having nothing to do, I see a direct line to a school that has just lost its guidance counsellor.

Even if you’re a public servant the CPA is bad for you if you have kids you want to see educated, if you ever need the care of a hospital or if you want to live on safer streets. Right now in our schools the attack on non-pay spending is leading to cutbacks in subjects vital to our economic future and the chances in life of our young people.

It’s high time for some leadership and making some hard choices to protect the things we hold dear, like a decent education.

Aaron McKenna is Managing Director of the e-commerce company Komplett.ie. He is also writing a book on the future of Ireland to be published later this year.

Read more from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie here>

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