Friday, 11 November 2011

The Human Cost of Education Cuts

I've spoken before about 'austerity measures' to reduce national debt. As my loyal reader will know, my special interest is the field of social care, but I've spoken enough about that for now.

Education has come to my attention, both in Ireland and England. In picking up on austerity measures in both countries, I've realised how much I've missed out on the education debate, and the human cost to education cuts.

The situation in Ireland is different to that of England, in that the cuts to services are being driven by the European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, even though there are many who believe that the savage cuts across the board are unnecessary. For many years the Irish Government has been a coalition, and currently this is Fine Gael, as the largest party, and Labour, who came second in the last election. It's sad to say that Labour has had little impact on Fine Gael's plans for cuts, particularly in the area of education.

For many months, there have been protests about the Irish Government's plans to cuts Special Needs Assistant's (SNA's) posts from over 200 schools. The role of SNA's in Ireland has been important, as the very individualised support to children with special needs has enabled them to remain in mainstream education, and this has enabled them to have a 'normal' education. From the Government we hear about the necessity for cuts to reduce the national debt, but from parents, we hear about the human cost of these cuts on their children. There is no finer example of this than a mother's powerful piece on 'The Anti Room' web site, which you can read here. Do read some of the comments as well if you have the time.

The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland has said, "When children with special needs are denied early educational and therapeutic intervention, not only do the children themselves suffer major setbacks in terms of reaching their potential, but their entire families also suffer directly in terms of stress and exhaustion. And in simple economic terms, wider society suffers too, as it costs the taxpayer much, much more to intervene later on in the life of a person with special needs than it does to provide appropriate early intervention". This view is supported by Richard Boyd Barrett, TD (member of the Irish parliament), who said, "It is utterly obscene, that children, and particularly our most vulnerable children should be asked to pay the price for the gambling and greed of banks and speculators. The removal of these vital supports is not only grossly unfair - it is utterly short-sighted and economically stupid". He went on to say, "High quality early education is the single most important building block if we are to lay the basis for economic recovery and avoid social breakdown. To persist with these cuts is a recipe for disaster".

These comments could easily have been said about the situation in Britain, in relation to cuts in our educational system. Short-termism again dominates the agenda, as saving today, just stores up other problems for tomorrow.

According to researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) last month, they estimate that total public spending on education in the UK will fall by over 13% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2014/15, and that "this represents the largest cut in education spending over any four-year period since at least the 1950's". The Government of course disagree, saying that "the schools budget is actually increasing by £3.6 billion in cash over the next four years". They are being disingenuous here, as there is a difference between funding for local authority schools, and the greater educational budget. Education cuts seem to be hitting the following the hardest.
  1. Capital spending on school buildings
  2. Higher education
  3. Education for 16 - 19 year olds
  4. Early years learning
Voice, the union for educational professionals, commenting on the IFS report said, "It could be argued that the areas facing the deepest cuts should be seeing increased funding. It is crucial that there is investment in education now and for the future".

On the subject of school buildings, Ian Toone from Voice said, "Many school buildings require urgent repair. Government estimates are that 75% of all UK schools have buildings that comprise asbestos-containing materials. The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) has called for a national audit of asbestos in school buildings after figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed that of the small number of academies inspected, approximately 60% had enforcement action taken against them for failing to adequately manage the asbestos in their buildings". The Chair of the JUAC said that "we simply do not know the true extent of the problem; this could just be the tip of the iceberg". As possibly serious as asbestos is, it is but one part of the condition of school buildings. Lack of action now is simply storing up problems for the future.

Higher education, in which Britain is a world leader, is crucial for the future of research and economic development. According to estimates produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, funding to universities has been cut by 40%, but that some of that shortfall will be recouped with increased tuition fees. However, though the deadline for application to most courses is next January, it should be some cause for concern that according to Ucas applications at the moment are 9% down on the same period last year. This means that about 7,000 fewer students have applied so far. If you take out overseas applications, there is a drop so far of 12% for UK students. All of this may well pick up before the end of January of course, but the rise in tuition fees and subsequent student debt, is causing many people to think more carefully before applying to university. More mature students seem to be definitely re-considering their future, as people over the age of 25 have fallen by more than 25%, and among those in their forties, the drop is 28%. The Chair of the Million+ group of new universities has warned of the importance of mature students not being put off university. "Studying for the degree people need to get the job they want in the future will be particularly important for those seeking to re-enter the labour market after losing their jobs". This policy of cuts is again possibly storing up future problems, as the people the country will need, are not there.

The General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has said, "Despite the Government's claim to have protected school funding, most schools will see real terms cuts. Sixth form colleges and school sixth forms will be hit by the particularly savage cuts of up to 20% to 16 - 19 year olds education". Further education (16-19) plays a key role in providing training for businesses and jobs and in preparation for higher education. I've come across too many people who became educationally alive, only at the age of 16, and it would be tragic to think that similar future generations would lose out on this opportunity.

Someone said about working with the under five's, "The early years are crucial for children's social and behavioural development and in laying the foundation for lifelong learning. The early years set the course for the rest of a child's life". Cuts in this area makes it more difficult for the next one, and the next one after that, and so on. But the Government are adamant that the spending cuts will not have an adverse affect on education.

As the NUT says, "Education cuts don't heal - they cause massive social and economic costs". The social costs can be equated to the human costs of education cuts. We're not just talking about institutions or establishments losing out, but children, young people and adults, as well as those who teach them. Cuts to education will not bring long term economic recovery, but investment in education to give us the skills we need for economic recovery will.

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