I hope this House will vote decisively and make it clear that education does matter.- Howlin

18 October 2016


Ceann Comhairle,

Tonight, in simple terms, we are debating whether education really matters.

Extraordinarily, a week after the Budget, the Government still can’t confirm what date next year social welfare increases will come into force.

Lest people think this is a minor detail, each additional week costs €7m or so, according to figures provided by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Since the Government and Fianna Fáil continue to negotiate over such sums, we believe that this chamber can argue for other reasonable measures that deserve our collective support.

Education matters to me.

I began my working life as a primary school teacher.

Every day, I got to experience the simple joys that come from watching young minds grow and develop.

And I saw first-hand the frustrations of overcrowded classrooms, underfunding of schools, and the pressures imposed on parents to meet the significant costs of education.

Last year, against a backdrop of significant funding constraints, Jan O’Sullivan found the money needed to begin reducing class sizes.

We reversed the increase to class sizes introduced by Fianna Fáil at the start of the crisis, and brought class sizes back to their smallest ever level.

Everyone working in education believed that was the first step, not the last.

Every party in this house argued for smaller class sizes in the last election.

The Programme for Government noted the value of smaller class sizes for younger children in particular.

And so, in advance of the Budget, we all presumed that a reduction in class sizes would happen.

Sadly, we were all wrong.

The INTO has noted that “the government’s plan for education lies in tatters because the budget failed to match ambition with resources.”

They have called on all of their members to contact their local TDs to support the motion tabled here tonight.

We are grateful for their support.  But more importantly, we are grateful for their campaigning work.

They have highlighted that over 100,000 children are attending school this week, being educated in class sizes of 30 or more.

It’s a crying shame the Government didn’t do anything about that.

Back to school costs in Ireland are enormous.

This year, Barnardos reported that parents of primary school children spend on average about €100 a year on school books.

Parents of children in second-level education are paying about €300 a year.

Over 70% of parents are asked for voluntary contributions.

These are real costs.  And they put parents under real pressure.

Labour’s alternative Budget again proposed modest but meaningful measures to tackle these costs.

We believe that the state should continue to invest in the seed capital needed to make book rental schemes a reality in every school, covering every book.

For primary school children, the average cost of a book rental scheme is about €20 – an 80% saving on the cost of buying books.

Funding was provided over each of the last three years to expand the number of book rental schemes.

Like class sizes, progress on this area has come to a shuddering halt under Minister Bruton.

Funding of our schools has been described by officials in the Department of Education and Skills as a ‘critical issue’.

Yet the Budget delivers no change in this area.

A small amount of money goes a long way when we’re talking about capitation payments to schools.

Increasing capitation rates by €10 per child would have cost less than €10m.

Even doing half of that would have been a start.

But the Budget delivered nothing.

We in the Labour Party believe that increases to capitation should be enhanced for any school that commits in writing to end the practice of asking for voluntary contributions.

In this way, we could wean schools off their reliance on funding from parents. 

We could deliver real and tangible savings to parents.

It’s a crying shame the Government won’t do anything about that.

The Minister made hay on Budget day out of unveiling a “significant additional investment in higher education”.

He announced funding of €36.5m to cover both the further and higher education sectors.

Apprenticeship numbers are going up – we have seen this welcome pattern over the last three years, and it seems set to continue.

But the Minister can’t announce how much if any of the €36.5m will go towards delivering these important opportunities for young people.

He says that this funding will meet the impact of growing enrolments.  The Department of Public Expenditure has costed this measure alone at €21m next year.

He has specifically said that €1.5m of this amount will go towards the international education strategy.

And that €8.5m will go towards a very limited expansion of student grant supports.

If these things are true, then he has €5.5m left – to fund the apprenticeships I’ve already mentioned, to fund the development of Technological Universities which his Department estimates require funding of €10-15m a year, and to roll out his other proposals on targeted skills initiatives, flexible learning places, and attracting researchers to Ireland.

The sums quite clearly don’t add up.

One of the proposals contained in the Cassells report on funding higher education was a modest increase in the national training fund levy paid by employers.

This proposal was welcomed by IBEC and others.

And a tiny move in this direction – an increase of 0.1% in 2017, would have yielded €67m – a sum that could have been used to make a meaningful investment.

It’s a crying shame the Government won’t do anything about that.

Over 1,000 people have now signed a grassroots petition in support of the motion being debated here this evening.

I received an email from Gerry Adams this morning noting that Sinn Féin “are largely in agreement with the intentions of, and measures contained in, the Labour party motion”.

I think it’s a shame that the contributions from Sinn Féin TDs tonight have hardly reflected that sentiment.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil is happy to kick any improvement to class sizes away for another year.

We in the Labour Party believe that education matters.

We believe the motion tabled this evening deserves the support of members on all sides of the house.

We believe it is a modest proposal, but one that would make a meaningful difference to the lives of children and young people in Ireland.

On Thursday, I hope this House will vote decisively.

And make it clear that education does matter.

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