Government must not “wibble” on Lansdowne Road

The ASTI dispute throws into sharp relief  a number of elements of  how we disorganize our state. Lets leave aside the mad Leninist concept of equal pay for equal work, and the Trotskyite raving of equal pay for equal work.  At heart the  closure of schools will result from the abdication of the state over decades towards a key obligation – to educate.

sr-anne-dr-tudor-xrayLike in the hospital situation we don’t actually have a joined up system of state education provision. We have a hodgepodge, a mix, a shambolic melange of provision. The ASTI are mostly found in the old religious schools, analogous to the “voluntary” hospitals. These were of course the mainstream of  second level education and health provision for decades, with the state glad to step back and outsource, providing limited and  (at least perceived) poorer provision through the Technical School and County Hospital system. Although the churches and other voluntary bodies mostly provided these services at a low or even zero rate, they were not and are not except through the goodness of their heart charities. The churches ran the education system as much as a means of control of the minds of the population as from any precepts of religion. We as a state were happy to entrust our health and education to the kindness of strangers, mistrustful of the very political entity we fought to create and unwilling to allow ourselves the benefit of the doubt that we could manage on our own.  That these are public goods ill suited to the marketplace and best provided by a state system went right out the window.

The consequence here is that we have a major problem of disjointed badly organized units. At second and at primary level each school maintains a legal fiction of being a sole trader, an independent unit, managed by the board of management (usually untrained well meaning volunteers) and the principal (usually untrained for management on appointment).  When school A is down 2 students below a cutoff point it loses a teacher when school B, possibly quite literally across the yard is 2 over but doesnt gain one. There is no easy way to pool. Teachers and schools make the system work, somehow. Primary teachers who are surplus, because in that one year the school is one student below a cut off point, they go into a clearing system when being redeployed, run by the catholic (or CoI) diocese, with the bishops clerk acting as a clearing house to redeploy, usually in well meaning ignorance of their abilities, skills and preferences.  Schools wishing to pool resources for resource teachers or other supplementary staff find the organizational obstacles to be formidable.  So we may have soon the following  situation; two schools in close proximity, one has to close due to lack of staff to supervise students, the other has staff able and willing (union issues aside) to so do, but no ability to transfer. Each school is independent, and has to manage on its own. Crackers.

Its said one should never waste a good crisis. Well, this is a crisis – if we have 250,000 students out of school on an indefinite basis, then that’s a crisis. As Captain Blackadder noted , it’s a twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage and an enormous sign on the roof, saying ‘This Is a Large Crisis’. Alas, the government are going “lansdowne  road lansdowne road” with a pants on their head and two pencils stuck up their nose. We can do better. We must do better

Lets combine two things. Lets look at local property tax, and indeed lets use big data on tax. Lets combine that with a radical reformation of how we organize schools.

Lets introduce school districts, each with a professional cohort of managers, both academic and professional. Teachers would no longer be employees of the school , which, mar dhia, they are now but be so of the district. Crucially, they can be redeployed within the district as needed. Similarly we might consider the employment of school supervisory and support staff, to free up teachers to actually teach. This would at a stroke remove the confusing mixture of patronage (do we really want our children patronised, by the way) juristictions, and clarify the reality that even in the most elite feepaying schools our teachers are paid by the state.  Those who elect, for whatever reason, to not move to the new districting system are of course at liberty to remain outside, and to find funds to provide their own operating costs, including salaries. We have a small number of purely private run schools so this model is possible.

Combined with this lets divert the local property tax towards the running of schools in the district.  The monies raised would be , approximately, the amount required for capitation grants – these are the per student grants to buy supplies, to run the buildings etc.   Combine this with the fact that revenue know where , geographically, tax is sourced. Use this to ring fence some of the local VAT and PAYE for capital spending on schools.  Now we have an incentive to shop local, knowing that some of our spending is going to our local schools. And we have an incentive to have a properly functioning local property tax system. Lets see a councillor demanding cuts to school funding via a cut in LPT..

A final element might be to realise that education is the most powerful force we have at our disposal to tackle socioeconomic inequality.  Lets have some interdistrict revenue shifting – those that are above the median per pupil tax take shift resources to those that are below , so that those below the pre shifting median are moved up to or above this benchmark and those above are moved to it or below. This recognises that students in wealthier areas have greater home and social capital to buttress their in school learning.

This is all feasible. It is all legal. It is all grounded in educational theory and good tax policy. It alas requires a courageous and forward thinking educational philosophy. We have “wibble”.

Column in the Irish Examiner Monday 31 October 2016

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