For most of last year a steady stream of announcements and leaks came from Marlborough Street. An enormous amount of time was spent telling journalists how progressive reform was underway in a new era for Irish education. The problem through all of this is that it all added up to nothing more than a statement of intention rather than concrete action. Budget 2012 was the moment when the warm words and self-praise could no longer cover up the reality of a government whose education policy is deeply regressive and almost designed to maximise the damage inflicted on the most vulnerable pupils.
On the day that spending for this year was revealed Minister Quinn together with most of his colleagues in government and many of his backbenchers put out statements praising the plans for education. His own statement led with the direct claim that “frontline services” in schools were being protected. For schools and teachers in every part of the country this statement was an insult. It said that, for this government, home/school liaison, language support, smaller classes for the most disadvantaged communities and many other activities in place for over a decade are not “frontline”. The same goes for the career guidance and counselling service in our second-level schools.
A budget which Fine Gael and Labour claim will protect “frontline” education services will shortly end all support for guidance and counselling in schools. In September there will not be a single teacher in Irish second-level schools paid by the state specifically to help young people cope with the incredible and rising pressures they face in school and looking at their future.
If helping a teenager who is finding it difficult to cope and doesn’t know what to do with their life isn’t a “frontline service” then nothing is.
The teachers who deliver guidance and counselling in our schools carry a heavy workload and perform a vital role for our society. The Minister and Government took a decision to single them out guidance in the budget. A service built up over 40 years has been dismissed as a mere optional extra. It has been adopted without even basic steps being taken to examine its impact on schools and pupils. Not one single piece of advice is available to schools about what they should do now. The cold, hard message of the government has been to say to schools “it’s not up to us, you handle it”.
This is a dishonest cut which was proposed specifically so that it might be slipped in without too much controversy. The government thought that leaving the headline PTR in place would be enough to make people believe their claims. This fell apart immediately and they then resorted to the insulting claim that all they were doing was giving schools staffing flexibility. The Taoiseach himself said during Leaders’ Questions that this decision was all about giving schools what they were looking for.
The Department has sent a circular to all schools which contains the soothing words “In this way schools will have discretion to balance guidance needs with the pressures to provide subject choice.” No doubt this evening we will here more of the same from the Minister and he will attempt to claim that there is no need for guidance and counselling to disappear.
Let’s put aside all of this nonsense and look at the facts. This is a cut which was demanded by no one and was on no one’s agenda. The government’s own documents as well as our pre-budget proposals showed how to achieve the budget figures without this cut.
It first emerged as a possibility in the Minister’s own review of his department’s spending which was finalised on September 9th. A proposal which was later put through a public relations filter is to be found in its stark and brutal simplicity on page 15 of the Minister’s document. In September he explicitly raised what he terms the “option to terminate the dedicated staffing allocation” for guidance and counselling. There was nothing about providing it from other allocations as is now being claimed, in fact he explicitly talked about “redeploying guidance teachers”.
Last September he said that this would raise difficulties and “could take at least two years to achieve.” If it was going to raise difficulties over two years its implementation in one brutal move this September will raise many more. The Budget documentation allows for no transition period and for no flexibility – these 700 teaching posts will be removed in their entirety in September.
Ministers and desperate backbenchers have been repeatedly claiming that the service can be protected “within the staffing quota”. Hiding behind the complexity of second-level staffing they have claimed that principals will have discretion to continue to employ guidance counsellors. This doesn’t stand up to even basic scrutiny.
Every single school in this country has already filled its staffing quota with teachers who are allocated to specific subjects. Many have slightly more teachers than the strict PTR allocation in order to be able to provide required subjects. There is no space within the PTR allocation to maintain the guidance and counselling service.
No doubt the government will claim that this space will be created by retirements, but what this ignores is the fact that schools will have no option but to replace retiring teachers with subject specialists. If, for example a Science teacher is retiring the school has to replace that teacher with another who can teach Science. Most teachers teach subjects which are required for the curriculum. Schools have to provide for the core subjects and they have to provide a minimum number of other subjects. The claim that they will have enough discretion and flexibility to absorb 700 posts in September is either cynical or ignorant. Whichever it is, the devastating impact is clear.
There is no doubt about the legal obligation of schools to provide for the set curriculum, what is less appreciated is the legal obligation to provide guidance. In preparing the Education Act I, as the then Minister for Education & Science, decided to include a provision concerning guidance. I did this for a range of reasons, the most important of which was the fact that guidance works.
I looked at the evidence and could see very clearly that guidance teachers were performing a vital role for schools, pupils and wider society. In particular, I could see the fact that pupils from disadvantaged schools benefitted most from the service, a fact confirmed by subsequent studies.
When reducing the overall second-level PTR I also implemented an increase in the number of guidance and counselling posts together with improvements in areas such as in-service training in this field. I chose to keep guidance and mainstream allocations separate because every scrap of evidence showed that guidance is not optional – it is core to the work of schools.
The fact that Ireland now has one of the world’s highest school-completion rates is in part the work of our guidance counsellors. It was the experience of many other countries that drop-out rates increased during prosperous times and it was a core objective not to have that happen here. The expanded guidance and counselling service was charged with taking a lead role and it did this. Equally it is central to helping pupils in these more difficult times – working with them to negotiated the more complex training and higher education fields.
One of the most cynical and disingenuous things about the education cuts targeted at those most in need is that part of the savings has been earmarked to fund a new literacy and numeracy strategy. The Comprehensive Review of Expenditure confirms this in a number of places. Programmes which have been proven repeatedly to deliver better educational outcomes are being cut to create space for a public relations initiative. It is more important to this government to be able to claim credit for things than to acknowledge the work of others.
When applied to many other areas, this is merely petty. When it affects education services in place for years and relied upon by schools, teachers, parents, pupils and their communities it is much worse.
There is still time for this cut to be reversed. The Minister has already admitted that this was a Budget put together by people who were not on top their game. You have four years left and a majority which can survive even the current rate of backbench losses. Do the decent thing and withdraw what you yourself called the ‘termination’ of guidance and counselling provision.
If you push ahead with this plan and take these 700 posts out of our schools, you will be doing a great and long lasting disservice to our education system and it will not be forgotten. You will talk about having taken tough decisions but people will remember that they were the wrong decisions, that they were unfair decisions and that they did immense and avoidable damage to our schools and hundreds of thousands of pupils. Minister, a simple plea: do the right thing.