#RealityCheck: Is it possible to reduce teacher to student ratios in classrooms?

Odran Flynn looks at the party proposals on student to teacher ratios

#RealityCheck: Is it possible to reduce teacher to student ratios in classrooms?

File photo of children at school raising their hands to answer a question | Image: Dave Thompson / PA Wire/Press Association Images

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” - Nelson Mandela

Education is one of the most emotive issues in this campaign. Parties are attempting to outbid each other for the votes of the many parents who go to bed at night very concerned that their child will get a place in the school of their choice. Indeed, many are just concerned that they will get a place within reasonable distance from their home.

The electoral battle in this area has crystallised around teacher-pupil ratios in the primary school sector.

We have examined the manifestos of the four largest parties in relation to this issue and they all make for interesting, indeed some might say astonishing, reading in regard to what has been promised.

What's the proposals?

There are 550,000 children in the primary school system and the current ratio is 27-1 in average class size.

The Labour Party is promising to reduce this ratio to 20-1.

So what would this mean in terms of the number of extra teachers required and for infrastructural costs?

There would be a requirement for an additional 7,100 teachers and by definition the same number of extra classrooms.

The Construction Industry Federation has confirmed to me that the cost of a fully fitted out 82sq.m classroom would cost €200,000. Therefore the infrastructural element of the proposal would amount to €1.42 billion.

The full quota of additional teachers would cost in the order of €200 million per annum in basic salary alone.

Labour has targeted €2.158 billion of the fiscal space of a predicted €8.4 billion for Education and Children.

However, the cost of their childcare (€4 billion) and teacher-pupil proposals (€2.4 billion) alone would require an additional €6.2 billion over the five year period, which is almost three times the amount set aside to implement their manifesto promises.

Sinn Fein is also proposing to reduce the class size to a 20-1 ratio. However their proposal envisages reducing the ratio by one point a year for each of the first two years. This would require an additional 1,400 teachers for each of the first 2 years and by definition the same number of classrooms.

Therefore the costs for those first two years would be in the region of €686 million i.e. €322 million in year 1 and €364 million in year 2. The party proposes to have a review at the end of this period. Should they decide to continue to reduce the class size to 20-1 then the cost would be identical to that of Labour i.e. €2.4 billion. However if they don’t continue to attempt to reduce the ratio then the 5 year cost would be €938 million.

Other than a broad figure of €1.9 billion for Education there is no specific costing for the class size proposals. However should they decide to implement the 20-1 ratio then they would be some €0.5 billion short without even considering the other elements that go to make up the education budget.

Fianna Fail proposes to reduce the class size to 23-1 by 2021.

Should they reduce by one point per year then it would require a minimum of 900 additional teachers for each of the next four years until an extra 3,600 staff numbers are achieved. Infrastructural costs would amount to €180 million for each year which would aggregate to just under €0.72 billion over the relevant period.

The staff costs would amount to €27 million in year one, €54 million in year one, €81 million in year three and €108 million in year four. The total minimum staff cost would therefore be €270 million. The total minimum cost of the entire proposal amounts €0.99 billion.

The only costing provided for in the manifesto is €138 million in additional staff cost which is just 14% of the total estimated implementation figure.

On the 11th February, Fine Gael issued a press release saying that they were going to propose reducing class sizes in primary schools to 18-1 without any qualification.

By the time the manifesto had been published on the following Sunday, possibly as the realisation dawned of how ridiculous it was, this had been qualified to apply to Junior and Senior infants only.

There are some 145,000 children in these classes and to reduce their class sizes to 18-1 would require an additional 2,800 teachers. They propose to phase this in from September 2017 so I have presumed that this will be over a four year period.

Infrastructural costs would amount to €140 million for each year which would aggregate to just under €560 million over the relevant period.

Staff costs would amount to €21 million in year one, €42 million in year two, €63 million in year three and €84 million in year four. The total minimum staff cost would therefore be €210 million.

The total minimum cost of the entire proposal amounts to €770 million. There is no direct costing for this in the manifesto.

There is also the issue that children, having been used to an 18-1 ratio, would then have to cope with a 50% increase to 27-1.

So what does this all mean?

The costings presented here do not take account of classroom assistants, special needs teachers and other functions that will add to the costs. Neither do they account for additional site costs where they would be required.

There is also the crucial question as to whether the teacher training colleges could produce sufficient graduates to meet the requirements.

There are schools, particularly in rural areas where constructing additional classrooms would not be necessary if class sizes were reduced. Equally there are many schools in urban areas where the class sizes are above 30-1 ratio and even greater need for infrastructure would be necessary.

The bottom line is that the four main parties are so desperate for this crucial vote and realising how vulnerable the concerned parents are, they will promise anything and hope that they are not called on it prior to polling day.

The top six constituencies which would require the largest funding, given the number of primary school children in their area are:

1. Dublin Fingal – 20,470 – constituency of James Reilly, Minister for Children

2. Louth – 19,700 – constituency of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein

3. Donegal – 19,200 – electorally Sinn Fein’s strongest area

4. Dublin South-West – 18,300 – constituency of Paul Murphy (AAA-PBP)

5. Wicklow - 18,200 – constituency of Fine Gael rising star Simon Harris

6. Wexford – 18,200 – constituency of Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform

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