Two old blocks - which one to chop?

Two blocks of a similar size – one of brass, the other plasticine. Which one would displace the most water when dropped into a beaker? If you don't know the answer, then maybe it's time you headed back to school – or maybe not.

Fewer than one-fifth in a study of 25,000 children across both state and private schools in Britain came up with the right answer, and the researchers claim that rather than getting brighter, 11-year-old children are in fact less intelligent than children of 30 years ago.

It is a timely reminder perhaps to the Government that yesterday, as the country appears to lurch from one budget crisis to another, hundreds of education workers marched in protest at planned cuts in their sector,while Galway and the west are set to march on Saturday, November 8. In the last couple of weeks both ends of the age spectrum have been hit by plans to cut spending to what people consider the most vulnerable in society. Understandably it has prompted an unprecedented backlash against the Government. Just as its proposed cut on free medical cards for the elderly was ill conceived and hasty - and later altered - the spotlight has moved to the youngest in the community.

This is a government that has prided itself on the nation's education. Just 17 months ago the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stated: “Fianna Fáil has always seen education as central to achieving our social and economic goals. Forty years ago a Fianna Fáil minister for education, Donogh O'Malley, introduced free second level education. His decision dramatically improved the opportunities available to young people in this country. It also laid the foundations for our recent economic success."

The principle that education should develop a child's personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential – as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989 ) and ratified by Ireland (1992 ) - is taking a battering.

Former minister for education Mary Hanafin similarly stated last year that in Fianna Fail's education policy "Our Next Steps Forward" the average class size at primary level had been reduced to 24. Today the first of the 12 cuts in education is to increase class sizes in all schools.

¨•“Since 1997, we have hired 10,000 extra teachers.” Today, according to reports, it plans to cut teacher numbers – the exact amount, disputed between Government and union estimates, vary between 400 and 2,000 jobs.

• “Prioritise high quality in-career professional development for teachers and principals.” Today it plans to abolish substitute cover for teachers on uncertified sick leave and on official schools business, while also cutting in-service training for teachers.

• “Encourage more schools to offer alternative curricula such as the Junior Certificate Schools' Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied course.” Today it plans to abolish seven grant schemes for areas such as transition year, choirs and orchestras, and leaving Cert applied.

• “Priority has been given to children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas so that they are now getting far better support than ever before.” Today it is to axe funding for Travellers, youth services, and defer implementation of the Persons with Special Needs Act, while also reducing the number of places on back-to-education schemes and senior Traveller training centres.

• “ We are determined to ensure successful integration and to meet the language and other needs of newcomer children.” Today the Government will reduce the provision of English language teachers.

And so the list goes on. There are, of course, arguments that these are “exceptional”, and that the actual spend on education is not being cut. What is concerning is that the increase in spending is a result of salary increases and capital budget. Which brings us to the crux of the Government’s latest budget cuts. Why is the public sector seemingly immune? Why are teachers facing the axe when some 20 teaching jobs held by Oireachtas members are safe - including three cabinet ministers? Why, according to reports this week, has the HSE spent €122 million nationally on taxis and minibuses for patients and staff - a 73 per cent increase in four years. Why has not a thorough audit been conducted on government departments and quangos? Yes, it is important to be prudent, but not at the expense of the country’s future generations. Tough times do call for tough measures - but hitting at the youngest and oldest in our community looks more like an easy option rather than tackling the inefficiencies in our public sector.

Linley MacKenzie [email protected]

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