€47m initiative on free books and drive for smaller classes at primary level, but teacher unions say it’s not enough

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A long-overdue €47m-a-year initiative to supply free school books for every primary pupil caught the public imagination in the €11bn Budget 2023.

t will save parents about €110 a year per child in today’s prices and, while it doesn’t deliver the holy grail of free education, it is a landmark step that has been widely welcomed.

Ireland has lagged behind other education systems, including in Northern Ireland, when it comes to the provision of free books.

Primary school pupils will also benefit from smaller classes next September, arising from the decision to employ 370 more teachers and allocate one for every 23 pupils, rather than 24.

It is the third year in a row for such a cut, but it will take a couple more similar reductions to bring class sizes down to the EU average of 20.

There was no such good news for post-primary schools, where the recruitment of 269 more teachers provided for in the Budget will stretch only to covering the ongoing growth in student numbers. Nor did it deliver free books for post- primary pupils, which cost parents an average of more than €200 per child.

There will be a big boost in spending for pupils with special needs with an 85pc rise, of €13m, in funding for the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to allow for the recruitment of more staff to enable it to support families in securing an appropriate school place for their child.

There will also be more special classes, more special education teachers and more special needs assistants (SNAs) in schools.

The Budget made no mention of extra money for school buses to accommodate pupils who lost a seat this year.

However, a Department of Education spokesperson said additional funding had been approved which would “allow officials, in consultation with Bus Éireann, to consider and evaluate where temporary additional capacity may be available”. The initial focus will be on families who applied on time and who previously held concessionary tickets.

Among the one-off cost-of-living measures there was a €100m subsidy to include €10m for school bus operators to defray fuel costs, and €90m for schools for energy and other bills.

It represents a 40pc increase on the normal capitation grant to support schools’ day-to-day running costs, but there is no increase in the core capitation grant.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle described it as a Budget that tackled “the immediate over the important”.

Mr Boyle said that while schools and families required immediate financial support, “we must ensure Government keeps their promise to support primary school children in the aftermath of the pandemic. In that regard reducing primary class sizes to the EU average of 20 pupils remains key.”

He said with schools struggling to cover basic costs, the increase in funding would be welcomed but added that it did not address “the chronic underfunding of primary education through permanent changes to the capitation grant”.

Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) president Miriam Duggan was similarly critical of the lack of measures “to address the chronic underfunding of second-level schools and large class sizes”.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which also represents teachers in second-level schools, said the Budget went “nowhere near remedying the damage that underinvestment and unrestored cutbacks have wreaked on the system”.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said the Budget was “regrettably silent on measures that would tackle the teacher recruitment and retention crisis afflicting second level schools.”

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