Smaller primary classes and the recruitment of more resource teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) are central planks of the €8.9bn education budget for 2021.
Fianna Fáil has held good to its promise to restart the process of reducing the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in the most overcrowded classrooms in the EU.
It will come via an increase in the allocation of teachers to schools, with one teacher for every 25 pupils next September, down from the current 26:1, and it means an extra 307 primary teacher jobs.
While the average class size in the EU is 20, in Ireland it is 24, with one in five primary pupils taught in a class of 30 or more.
There is also a commitment to 403 special education teachers, a further 87 posts for primary schools at risk of losing a teacher because of falling enrolments, and another 268 teacher jobs, across primary and post-primary, to cater for growing enrolments.
The Budget is also delivering 990 more special needs assistants (SNAs), bringing the total number of new posts in the education system to 2,100 next year.
Only some details of the Budget 2021 commitments for primary and post-primary education were released yesterday and a fuller picture will be outlined today.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has waged a relentless campaign for a five-year plan to reduce class sizes. Its general secretary, John Boyle, described the measure as “necessary and welcome”. Mr Boyle said in a normal year, smaller class sizes had a positive impact on pupils’ learning and development – but, “during a pandemic, we had the particular shame of being the only country in the EU to issue guidance for social distancing for a class of 30 or more. Smaller class sizes will make it easier to keep our distance”.
Junior Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan said the €2bn for special education brought its share of the total education budget to over 20pc.
Ms Madigan said the investment would support more than 1,200 new places in special classes.
A €740m commitment for new and renovated school buildings included new ASD units, special schools and facilities for special classes in mainstream schools, she said.
Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said, given the scale of the once-in-a-generation public health crisis the country is facing now, the Government could have gone further and expanded the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio to second-level schools.
Mr Ó Ríordáin also said the Government could have been “far more ambitious by giving all children access to free schoolbooks, which would cost around €20m”.
Second-level teacher unions were unenthusiastic.
Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) president Ann Piggott said the Budget represented “a sticking plaster for schools, and does little to address the prolonged underfunding of Irish second-level education”.
“While overall investment is to increase, at second-level much of the additional funding relates to demographic changes or the implementation of specific Covid-19 requirements in schools.
“While this funding is crucial, it is nowhere near enough to ensure the continuation of a safe and quality education for all students for the duration of the pandemic.
“We note the commitment to additional teachers to support students with special education needs and we await the detail. However, this will do little to reduce overcrowding in most classes, which poses such a distinct threat to social distancing measures.”
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie also pointed to the fact the additional posts at second level were “a necessity in order to meet demographic needs”.
He said the education system would continue to struggle with the ongoing legacy of previous cutbacks.
“It is regrettable that the country’s policymakers have, once again, failed to recognise the value of education.”
Mr Gillespie said the “effects of the historic, chronic underfunding of education have been put in sharp focus by the burden of the additional demands foisted on the system by the pandemic”.
“As a result of inadequate investment, increased bureaucratic duties and vastly stripped-back middle management structures, conditions for educators and students are more difficult than those in other countries where education has been more appropriately funded,” he said.