The first thing I would like to do is to recognise that the Education Minister Ruairí Quinn has reversed the decision he made initially. However, I have to question about how that decision was made. The Minister had to have known that, with an increasing demographic and what he had already planned for in regard to increasing the number of classroom teachers, it was inevitable that the demand for resource teaching hours would increase. I cannot fathom how he allowed the decision to be made that would provide for all of the extra classroom teachers but would not deal with the people most in need of support in the system, namely, the children who need resource teaching hours.
When the Minister rightly reversed his decision on the DEIS band one schools, he gave the excuse on “Morning Ireland” that he was new to government and had much to learn. He can give no such excuse now. It is legitimate, therefore, for us to try to get an explanation from him as to the thought processes that let him think he was going to be able to provide the same resource teaching hours for children with many more in the schools and much greater demand on the services provided. He has said he recognises he was wrong on the resource teaching hours but still says he is right that there will be no increase in the need for SNAs, despite the fact that the number of children in schools is increasing.
The other side of the equation on which the Minister has not let us in is the part where he says this has budgetary implications and that savings will have to be made elsewhere. He might outline these savings in 2013, in respect of which we are talking about a period of four months, but more particularly in 2014. When the Government took office, it stated it would do the budget in a totally new way. The committee of which I am a member was promised that early in the year we would be given the opportunity to have an input into possible decisions that might have to be made based on the budget arithmetic. I suggest the Minister go before the committee and put before it all of the options he is considering regarding “savings” next year. It is very important that we proof these savings to ensure we are not always hitting the weakest and most vulnerable in society. The Minister always seems to have a fetish for hitting those on the margin, those in DEIS band one schools, with a disability, living in rural areas or on islands. It seems to make no difference to the Minister as long as they are not able to create a critical mass to upset his party colleagues. Thankfully, in the case of DEIS band one schools, there was enough of a voice to ensure he changed his mind.
I will give an example of the mindless decision making that results in no financial saving in which the Minister seems to glory. We had maintained a situation where if we had eight pupils in an island primary school, since that school would be entitled to a full-time teacher and approximately 20 hours of general learning support teaching, we kept two full-time teachers in the school. Our belief was that there was no way to send children to another school down the road when there was water between them and that it was important to sustain island communities because they had become much more expensive to the State when they became unsustainable and one kept providing the service for an ever-dwindling population.
The Minister has brought in a new rule whereby if the number drops below eight pupils in one September, it must increase to 17 to get the second teacher back. Is there any logic in this? Is there a good financial reason for it? Only five schools are affected, on Tory Island, Clare Island, Inishturk, Inis Meáin and Sherkin Island. Aranmore and Inis Mór each have two schools that are not qualified, while Inis Oirr and Inisbofin have plenty of children, yet the Minister creates this impossible ceiling below which if they ever fall, they will have to get back to 17 rather than eight pupils to get the second teacher back. His Cabinet colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for the islands, maintains that the Government has a positive, supportive policy on the islands. They go on about the culture and unique heritage of the islands, but an island without children has no future, as the Blasket islanders found out.
The Minister’s total policy is to hit those who cannot hit back, are small or will be unable to create a big row. Thankfully, in this case, the outrage was so great on the part of so many that he was forced to row back on the decision made. One of my worries is that he will replace it with an equally bad one and that next time he will focus on some group that will be unable to defend itself and fight back. Under his stewardship not all parts of the country are equal. To put it bluntly, places where the Labour Party vote is strong and there is high Labour Party representation seem more equal than others. That seriously worries me.
I looked after everybody equally, as the Minister will see if he checks my record. That smear has been made many times before, but like so many of the smears made from the Minister’s side of the House, it does not stand up to objective scrutiny. When we analyse his policies objectively, they are very clear as to which communities take the hit and are unfairly treated every time. If he does not believe me, I ask him to examine that mindless policy on the islands and reverse it tomorrow, as he reversed this decision in this instance.