At the INTO teaching union conference earlier this year, Sinn Féin’s Education Minister John O’Dowd responded to angry protestors by stating, “placards will not end austerity”. But the protest did highlight that O’Dowd and his Alliance party counterpart in the Department of Employment & Learning, Stephen Farry, certainly have no plan to end austerity. O’Dowd is currently implementing £97m of cuts to schools. Farry is marching to the same tune, implementing £82m of cuts to further and higher education.
O’Dowd’s austerity programme is cutting thousands of teaching and support posts in both primary and secondary schools. This means growing class sizes and poorer outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable children. It also means ever longer lines of teaching graduates waiting for the opportunity to teach, and unbearable pressure on those who make it to the classroom. The Department of Education’s primary modern languages programme has also been scrapped, denying a generation of children the opportunity to learn a second language at a key time in their development. Over 50 skilled language teachers are now joining the dole queue alongside teachers and play workers. If there was any question over the impact of austerity in education, look no further than last year’s A-level results which saw pass rates fall for the first time since the 1980s.
For those seeking to pursue education beyond secondary school, Farry is making it more difficult than ever to get a qualification. Thousands of places have been cut and colleges closed in further education. In higher education courses, places and jobs are being cut and the threat of higher fees looms larger than ever. Working class people are being pushed out and priced out of a decent education. This will have a devastating impact on the standard of living of those young people for years to come.
The Stormont Executive parties will not end the attacks on education. The people that can are the activists in the student and trade union movements. On March 13th, public sector workers were joined by Queen’s Students’ Union in striking and demonstrating against Stormont’s austerity, following a referendum initiated by Socialist Party members at the university which saw 86% vote in favour of the action. It is imperative that many students’ first experience of struggle is not squandered by the leadership of the movement. A motion put to the Conference of NUS-USI (the students’ movement in Northern Ireland) by Belfast Met Students’ Union President and Socialist Youth activist Courtney Robinson has committed the movement to support an ongoing an escalating campaign against the cuts. The time to fight back is now!