During the twenty months that this government has been in office it has consistently sought to avoid responsibility for its own decisions. They have put out a never-ending stream of press releases praising themselves as visionaries who are setting everything right.
This has been accompanied by a constant effort to diminish, ignore and then flat-out deny clear evidence of bad decisions and failed policies.
Over recent months the growing and avoidable crisis which decisions in the health sector are causing has been obvious to everyone.
Even within the cabinet trust has broken down to the extent that the Tánaiste is having the work of a Minister checked independently.
The impact of government decisions on the education sector has not received anywhere near the same attention but this impact is very real and growing all the time. Last year the government announced proudly that education had not only been given priority, all frontline education services had been protected.
The truth was exactly the opposite. There was no priority given to education and cuts were specifically targeted at frontline services. The result is obvious to anyone who cares to look at what is happening.
At every level of the education system it is not just that belts are being tightened, deliberate policy decisions are making the system less fair, more exclusive and building problems which will cause lasting damage if left in place.
No doubt we will shortly hear from government speakers about how nothing is their fault, and everything has been forced on them by a combination of the troika and their predecessors.
They should be warned that these speeches, always empty, are now causing the government’s support to fall every time they are used in place of seriously addressing very real problems.
The public can see through the arguments because they can remember the promises made early last year when every last bit of economic data was available to Fine Gael and Labour.
They can remember the signed pledges and the ringing commitment in the programme for government that fairness and frontline services in education would be protected.
They have heard and understand the repeated statements of the troika that individual spending decisions are fully at the discretion of the Irish government.
These are your promises. No one forced you to make them and no one forced you to break them.
When Minister Quinn attended a photo-op outside Trinity College and gave his and Labour’s solemn commitment not to increase fess at third-level he knew the fiscal situation.
The only thing which has changed is that Ministers Noonan and Howlin say that things are better than planned.
This pledge was no solo-run by an over-eager campaign manager – it was reinforced by the Tánaiste himself when he said on February 19th last year “Labour is against third level fees by either the front door or the back door”.
In this debate we will clearly not hear anything new from the Minister about his cynically-made and quickly-abandoned promise – however it is well passed time for him to acknowledge the impact of what has been done.
The increases in fees which he has implemented are already causing real hardship – particularly because of his decision to target cuts on maintenance grants at the same as increasing the fees.
The evidence of a significant increase in student hardship in the last year is now overwhelming.
The scale of it is such that the next step will be a fall-off in third-level attendance by the most economically marginalised groups.
Over the last two months the situation in relation to late payment of grants for those who still qualify has become a full crisis.
Many thousands of students have not received their reduced payment because of administrative problems under the control the Minister. The SUSI system is failing students and the government should accept this and rectify it.
Despite promises given last week by the Tánaiste about students having full access to all they needed in College, we heard last night from students on Frontline that this is simply not the case.
Since this problem emerged students and families from all parts of the country have been pressing for urgent action. Yet if you look at the lengthy list of press releases and speeches made by the Minister during this time not one addresses this crisis.
Deputy Charlie McConalogue persisted with parliamentary questions to get to the bottom of this issue and it is only then did the full truth come out .At least now the Oireachtas Committee are met staff from SUSI today.
It is obvious to all that 65 staff is not enough to deal with over 66,000 applications. This should be immediately addressed.
The two fee increases implemented under this government are only part of a longer series. As currently planned, it is this Minister’s intention to increase student’s fees by far more than any of his predecessors.
In opposition, Labour promised to cut these fees. During the election they promised never to increase them. Now they are implementing an unprecedented series of five increases.
What makes this much, much worse is that cutting funding for access to third-level is accompanied by targeted cuts at schemes to help disadvantaged students in first and second level.
The Minister has delivered many speeches in which he has said that he will rescue an underperforming system. Sometimes his criticisms of the system have been balanced and reasonable – but more often they have involved putting the worst possible spin on statistics.
Last week he found himself in a bit of a quandary because he had to release a report showing that under his predecessors school completion had increased significantly.
At the same time the greatest improvements were seen in the most disadvantaged schools, the underperformance of boys was being addressed and there was greater equality between different types of school.
The Minister launched this report in as low-key a way as he could and did so without acknowledging the work of teachers, parents, communities and public servants in delivering a fairer, more successful system.
He also failed to acknowledge that the DEIS programme is being targeted for cuts just at the time when it is delivering major progress.
While government speakers will obviously ignore this fact in their speeches, the facts show that cuts to disadvantaged schemes were first proposed by the Minister himself in his review of spending dated September 9th 2011.
The cuts which have been implemented were not imposed reluctantly; they were proposed by the Department as merely removing anomalies and damaging no one.
In relation to career guidance, the cut of 700 posts was also suggested by the Department last year. In the internal documentation the cut was entitled the “termination” of the dedicated guidance service.
When the backlash happened the Taoiseach and many ministers claimed that nothing was being terminated and that schools were simply getting the flexibility they had asked for.
Well the truth is now being felt in every second-level school in the country. Some schools have been able to take from other areas to still provide the service, but those who need the service the most have had fewer options and have been hardest hit.
It is almost as if the more that Labour talks about fairness and equality the more it is working against them in education.
I believe in a greater diversity of patronage at primary level, but it’s hard not to compare the time the government has spent on that issue to the time spent on real equality issues.
This says more about the government’s priorities in education than any speech we will hear during this debate.
Just as we did last year, my party will be setting out a constructive alternative approach for the Budget to be announced next month.
We fully acknowledge that there are many areas where tough decisions must be implemented. What we don’t accept that there is no alternative to every decision taken by every minister.
Education deserves to receive the priority it was promised before the election and in the programme for government. Labour and Fine Gael will be held to account by the people for their broken promises – but they will also be held to account if they see their decisions doing immense damage but do nothing to reverse those decisions.
If this year’s budget is a repeat of last years the result for education will be devastating. The priorities which have been followed to date are making the Irish education system more unfair and less effective.
While there is still time, and before lasting damage is done, the government do the right thing and stop its policy of targeting cuts on education and on those who need help the most.