Budget cutbacks sound the death knell for sport and extra-curricular in schools

It is a beautiful crisp spring morning in February 2009. The game has been fixed for more than two weeks at this stage. The school team is to play its deadly rivals in a key championship encounter and all the arrangements are in place.

The bus is booked and en route, everyone is in good spirits, and the students are excited and looking forward to the fray with great anticipation.

The hard work has been done after school on the training field and now they want to display their talents and array of skills in the school colours. It means a lot to them. And to you.

One final check over the essentials - Pitch and ref organised. Jerseys. Medical kit. A few euro from the secretary for the referee. An intelligent lad or lassie who is not afraid of blood as an un-qualified medic. A few tall lads with reasonable eyesight and co-ordination for umpires. And a mobile one for linesman. Finally an experienced hydrologist and ye are in mighty shape.

Time to hit the road.

However, there is a glitch. At the last minute the principal knocks on your door and informs you that the game has to be pulled as he cannot get cover for your classes. From a health and safety perspective, you cannot go.

B***ix. B***ix. B***ix.

This will be the new reality for students and teachers who are involved with GAA and soccer at second level schools from next January as a direct consequence of last week’s budget cutbacks in education.

As part of a wide range of cuts, substitution cover will be suspended for school business absences in post-primary schools.

The net effect of this measure is that school managements all over the country will not be able to employ subs to cover the classes of those away at games. Which begs the question, who will cover those classes?

Bi-location for teachers is not an option and some schools will not have sufficient cover under the existing supervision and substitution scheme to cater for colleagues away with teams.

The GAA hierarchy has requested an urgent meeting with Dept of Education officials and their minister, but considering the amount of u-turns taken already this week by the government, it is unlikely it could be seen to pull the hand-break again and do another 360 degree turn.

Indeed this column is not screaming from the roof-tops that such a manoeuvre should take place. Money is tight and the substitution scheme was expensive for the Dept of Education and Science,but it does beg the question, do the powers that be want sport in schools or not?

They cannot have it both ways.

You cannot have a teacher or two away with a team in whatever code and also expect that teacher/school to have their classes covered without incurring some degree of expense.

From next year the vast majority of schools will have no option but to massively restrict such absences rather than pay substitute teachers out of their own resources.

General secretary of the joint managerial body which represents the boards of almost 400 second level schools, Ferdia Kelly, pointed out during the past few days that this decision “would lead to the demise of schools competitions, even though we’ve always prided ourselves on looking after the growth of the student not just academically, but with sports and other extra-curricular activities”.

Minister O’Keefe’s spokesperson in the department is also aware of the challenges - I love that word - that this cutback entails.

“The Minister fully realises that the changes regarding substitution will present particular challenges - that word again - in the day-to-day management of schools and he asks schools for co-operation and understanding in undertaking to implement the arrangements.” We must do our patriotic duty it seems.

The bottom line here is that there is a genuine and high probability that many schools will have to pull out of games and competitions, especially with the health and safety requirements to have two adults accompanying students who are away with games. Some teachers and parents would not shed any crocodile tears if sport was removed from the remit of schools completely, but to say that such a development is a positive for school children is incorrect and is gullible in the extreme.

Ironically the recent cutback will not have a major impact on rugby schools which have seen rising numbers in school competitions recently as their games are usually played on Wednesday afternoons when most participating schools have half days.

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