What are you at, Batt?

Sport played a pivotal roll for the students of Athlone CC as they captured silverware in a great journey earlier in the year. 
Photo: John O'Brien.

Sport played a pivotal roll for the students of Athlone CC as they captured silverware in a great journey earlier in the year. Photo: John O'Brien.

At this stage I presume that, like myself, you are sick to your teeth of hearing people complaining about the recent Budget. First the pensioners, then the teachers, medical professionals, and more recently the farmers have taken to the streets to highlight how unjust the recent changes brought about by the Budget have been to each of their respective spheres. And that’s before we even mention the dreaded word recapitalisation. Thank God for the All-Blacks was all I could think as our attention was diverted to matters less important, but infinitely more entertaining over the past week.

As I reflected on the deflation which accompanied our national teams capitulation against the mighty All-Blacks, to the high that went with Munster’s heroic (if ultimately unsuccessful ) exploits in Thomond Park, and back to disappointment as Trapattoni’s men fell short against Poland I wondered what we would all do without sport. All of the ups and downs that are part and parcel of sport, in a strange way help to keep us sane, when all around us is up in arms. Sport is on one level a welcome distraction from the more serious realities of life.

And then I turned on the radio and there was more talk of the Budget and some teacher lambasting the Minister’s decision to increase pupil teacher ratios from 18 to 19. If I wasn’t a teacher and acutely aware of the implications of the recent cuts in education funding I, like many others, would probably have dismissed it as just another cosy civil servant complaining over nothing and probably would have turned off my radio. After-all Joe Public is sick listening to teachers and indeed farmers complaining and forever playing the poor mouth. And sure, what are teachers complaining about? Even the Minister is on record as asking what difference one extra pupil will make in a class.

If only it was as straight-forward as that. Then nobody would have reason to complain. The reality however, is vastly different. Weaker students will undoubtedly suffer, as smaller classes are amalgamated in order to balance the books.

Now I have no intention of undermining the legitimate concerns of the over 70s or indeed those campaigning for vaccination against cervical cancer, nor am I going to start whinging about teachers losing their jobs, or book rental schemes coming to an end, but I do intend to make people aware of the serious consequences which education cutbacks are likely to have on extracurricular activities including sport in our schools.

In my opinion the penny has not yet dropped with the wider community that the end of substitution cover for teachers from January 1, 2009 is likely to mark the death knell of sport in our schools. From that date teachers away on sports events, on necessary fieldtrips, at debates or any other educational outing will not be covered. Therefore all such activities will have to end.

Now some people might be of the opinion that the ‘extra’ in extracurricular implies that sport, musicals, debating, etc, are surplus to what is required to receive a good education.

I would argue however that these activities are every bit as important in shaping our youth as Irish, English, maths or any other subject. To me, schools should be geared towards providing a holistic approach to education, in order to create the rounded (as opposed to round ) young individuals who will go on to become leaders in our society in the years to come.

I can only talk from my own experience of how sport played a pivotal roll in my education, particularly at second level. Just as the All Blacks were a welcome distraction to me this week, Gaelic football helped to keep me sane when the heat of Leaving Cert was turned up. Looking back on it now, the enjoyment I got from being involved in some memorable Leinster colleges matches, greatly added to my contentment in Marist College. It probably made me more teachable also. Ask anyone who has participated in sport of any description at second level and I have no doubt that they will say likewise.

From my teaching experience also I am keenly aware of the positive role which sport plays in the education of so many at second level. For some who are, for want of a better expression, ‘fond of the books’, it offers them a temporary escape from the pressure of the points race, something which should not be underestimated. For others who may not be as studious it instils discipline and helps to keep them on the straight and narrow. It allows students and teachers to bond in a way that a classroom environment would never allow. This allows for the smoother running of our schools.

Last year our senior Gaelic team in Athlone Community College won the Leinster senior title for the first time ever, while our debaters won the Concern All-Ireland debating competition for the second year running. The joy of those directly involved was shared in by the whole school community, which created a feel good factor that has not yet fully waned. If Batt O’Keeffe pushes ahead with his decision, the end substitution cover our present and upcoming students will be denied the opportunity to emulate such feats. So too will students in every secondary level school in the country.

At a time when obesity amongst young people is reaching epidemic proportions, should the minister not be doing all in his power to encourage our young people to become more involved in sport in our schools instead of locking the dressing rooms and throwing away the key?

I understand well that we are in desperate times and that in such instances desperate measures have to be taken. I don’t however agree that our young vulnerable students should be the ones to pay the price for the excesses of recent years. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Denying our students the opportunity to engage in activities outside the classroom is unwarranted, inexcusable, and intolerable.

The problem is however that, like many other recent issues, unless there is a public outcry the Government will carry on regardless. All of our major sporting bodies, including the GAA, FAI, and IRFU have shown a distinct lack of leadership in this instance by not being more vocal in their criticism of a decision which will impact on them also. Teachers in all schools assist these organisations by coaching teams in their own time and a bit of support would not go astray.

Parents too need to make their voices heard if we are to get the minister to listen.

Or as a nation do we subscribe to the belief that being healthy in mind and healthy in body is less important than balancing the books? The Minister would certainly seem to think so.

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