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'Celtic tiger' not burning so brightly any more

With Ireland's boom times over, its education system is braced for cuts

With Ireland's boom times over, its education system is braced for cuts

Ireland's "Celtic tiger" is no more and vocational education is expected to ride to the rescue of the country's shattered economy.

This was the blunt assessment from Michael Moriarty, general secretary of the Irish Vocational Education Association, who was speaking last week at a skills conference in Glasgow. His sector, he said, was no longer the "poor relation" in education and it was being asked to deliver generic and academic as well as vocational skills to boost people's employment and re- deployment prospects.

Teachers and lecturers were suffering under the country's austerity measures, he said. Coincidentally, Mr Moriarty was speaking on the day the Dublin Government revealed that bailing out the country's banks would cost taxpayers 45 billion euros (pound;39bn) - more than 10,000 euros for every man, woman and child in the country.

Before that announcement, public sector pay had been cut by 5-10 per cent, taxation had risen, pension contributions had gone up from 3 to 9.6 per cent and there are plans to raise the pension age from 65 to 68 by 2028.

The Fianna Fail Government has also cut the education budget, and there is a moratorium on replacing any administrative or support staff who retire or leave. Class sizes in secondary schools have risen from 18.1 to 19.1, while 33 education quangos have been reduced to 22.

Although teachers have been told their jobs will not be cut, the revelation about the costs of bailing out the banks will place a huge question mark over that guarantee. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said last week he wanted to slash the deficit from 32 per cent of Ireland's economic output (GDP) - the highest in the 33-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development since 1950 - to 3 per cent within five years.

Observers are in no doubt that this cannot be achieved without massive job losses and further contraction of public services. Unemployment, which two years ago stood at 2 per cent, is now 13.7 per cent.

Even before the further disclosures about the banks, classroom unions were restless. The Teachers' Union of Ireland is already taking limited industrial action in protest against the Croke Park agreement on pay and public service reform. The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland has agreed to cease its action, pending "clarification talks" with the Government. Only the Irish National Teachers' Organisation has so far backed the deal.

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