Budget 2017 undermines Government proposal to tackle educational disadvantage
You would be forgiven for completely missing the education announcements in this year’s Budget, so few, so disparate and so quietly delivered were they. In fact there was extremely little to suggest a Minister with a grand plan to tackle educational disadvantage.
It is telling the most meaningful education announcements came from the Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar. This included the important €5.7 million investment to ensure 50,000 more children benefit from school meals – including 35,000 attending non-DEIS schools. Meanwhile, the 2,515 extra teachers will allow the Department of Education to keep pace with demographic changes but will not do anything to reduce class sizes. Frankly, it is difficult to see the lack of priority in Budget 2017 as anything other than a major undermining of the Government’s proposal to tackle educational disadvantage.
These announcements came on the back of the Minister’s desire to create the best educational system in the world. This desire was declared along with published Action Plan on Education. On paper, the action plan commits to reducing inequalities throughout the education system, which for too long have seen children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds left behind. But that’s the problem – it is just on paper. Barnardos sees first-hand the impact poverty and delays in accessing educational supports can have on a child’s educational outcomes; the negative effects begin early and can last a lifetime. Measures outlined in the Plan, such as establishing a new Inclusion Support Service to improve co-ordination across various services for children with special educational needs have the potential to achieve meaningful change for children experiencing disadvantage. But this potential can only happen if the Plan is resourced and implemented.
As just one example of the mismatched approach, it is pretty hard to see how the Government will make good on its stated aim to restore the capitation grant by 2019 when there was no mention of any extra investment in capitation fees in the Budget 2017 announcements. Meanwhile, chronically underfunded schools will continue to be forced to make up the shortfall in funding by passing on the cost to parents via fundraising and levying hefty ‘voluntary contributions’. This Government may have lofty plans to provide one of the best education systems in Europe, but this becomes rather a limp aim if schools can’t afford their heating and lighting bills.
Another no show in the €1.2 billion Budget 2017 bonanza was any increased investment in school books. The previous government made strides in investing in school book rental schemes, a crucial measure to help reduce the burden of school costs on parents. No change means the viability of current school book rental schemes are in jeopardy and parents will continue to pay high costs for their child’s school books.
It is time the Minister for Education took real action to back up his words. It is within his power to tackle educational disadvantage, but it will not be achieved with endless strategies and limited, scattergun investment. The €5 million allocated in Budget 2017 for the implementation of an (as yet unwritten) Action Plan for Educational Inclusion will likely barely cover the administrative costs involved in executing the report and so is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the ground.
As a first step, Barnardos is calling on the Government to help make primary school affordable for all families. This means investing in school books, capitation fees, school transport and classroom resources. It would cost just €20 million to give every child in Ireland free primary school books, giving them equitable access to an education support which has long been enjoyed by our neighbours in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. A further €42 million would remove the burden on parents to make up school funding shortfalls via the so-called ‘voluntary contributions’, €16.7 million would restore capitation fees to 2010 levels, €19.5 million would cover the cost of all essential classroom resources and just €5 million would ensure school transport costs for those who avail of the scheme are covered.
This means for a total of just €103m we could provide truly free primary education for all children. With one in nine children (11%) children living in consistent poverty, and those children most likely to face educational disadvantage due to the simple fact of their parent’s inability to cover school costs, the case is clear. Knowing a mother’s educational attainment is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s outcome we have a powerful financial and moral obligation to break the cycle of educational inequality. Our Government must invest in children and their education and realise children’s constitutional right to free primary education. The additional amount required is tiny compared with the tremendous benefits it will reap for children in the short term but also the exchequer in the long term. It’s a question of prioritising current resources to get maximum effect.
For any society seeking to build an economic recovery and effectively tackle high child poverty rates, ending educational disadvantage is a must. Scribing strategy after strategy will not have an impact. Thoughtful investment and intelligent long-term planning will.