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Anger as Ireland's bail-out commitments impact education

Unions label public spending cuts `draconian' as schools reach breaking point

Unions label public spending cuts `draconian' as schools reach breaking point

Ireland's education unions have reacted with bitterness and dismay to the Dublin Government's budget, the first stage of which was passed by the Dail last week.

The EUR6 billion package of tax increases, public spending reductions and benefit cuts was lambasted as "draconian" by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and as the "Pearl Harbour of Irish education" by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

The budget comes on top of EUR14.6bn in tax and spending "adjustments" over the past two years and is a condition of Ireland's EUR85bn bail-out by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Although the overall allocation to education has been cut by a relatively modest 2 per cent to EUR8.85bn for 2011, this disguises a severe impact on individual areas of expenditure. Schools will face EUR22 million of savings next year, and reductions in teacher numbers will see their salary bill slashed by EUR24m in 2011 (rising to EUR98m by 2014).

ASTI claims schools were "at breaking point" as a result of previous education cuts and they were already reporting serious concerns about pupils' welfare due to larger classes and less pastoral support.

Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Education and Skills, said the 2 per cent reduction in her department's spend, amounting to EUR207m, would be taken mainly from capital expenditure.

"Achieving savings in the education and skills budget is never without difficulty, and this is particularly so at a time of growing demographics in our schools and increased demand on our education and skills services," she said. "It is clear, however, that in the context of the unprecedented level of expenditure saving required this year, the Government has chosen to go as far as it can to protect frontline education services."

But Sheila Nunan, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), hit back. "Nothing and no one has been spared," she declared. "The cost of bailing out the banks has been spread from the cradle to the grave."

The budget aims to achieve EUR309m savings in public service pay and pension costs in 2011, which INTO said would mean a cut of 14 per cent in starting salaries for new teachers and a loss in pension for retired teachers on above EUR12,000 a year.

Pat King, general secretary of ASTI, claimed the future of teaching in Ireland would be "seriously damaged" by the pay cut and loss of two salary increments for new entrants to teaching. He claimed they would also be forced to join "a dishonest pension scheme that will take more from them in contributions than they will receive in pension benefits".

The unions commissioned an independent review of the teachers' pension scheme that concluded it was sustainable. The study by Trident Consulting, which reported last month, said changes to pensions introduced in 1994 and 2004, along with a pension levy imposed last year, have reduced the government contribution to teachers' pensions to 3.4 per cent.

The budget will also see increases in the cost of school transport (leading to savings of EUR17m by 2014) and the introduction of a EUR2,000 "student contribution charge" (which will save EUR27m next year).

The Government, which faces an election next year, says it is left with no option. Its spending is EUR19bn more than its revenue and the international bail-out commits it to taking tough action over the next four years to get the budget deficit down from a record-breaking 32 per cent of the country's wealth to 3 per cent.

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