Ireland: Big business avoids paying taxes as education sector suffers

Joe Higgins calls for properly funded sports facilities in schools

The following exchange between Joe Higgins, Socialist Party member of the Irish Parliament (Dáil Éireann), and the Irish Prime Minister (The Taoiseach), Bertie Ahern, over sports and gym facilities in Irish schools, took place during Dáil Éireann ‘Leaders’ Questions’, on 24 May 2005.

The debate occurred on the same day that five school students were tragically killed in a road crash, in Country Meath, and over forty students were injured. The deaths shocked people throughout Ireland, and beyond, and raised questions about the safety of children on school transport, following the news that the bus was not fitted with seatbelts. Teachers’ unions in Ireland and Britain are calling for seat belts on all school buses to be made compulsory.

Big business avoids paying taxes as education sector suffers

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party)

It is a day when our schools are in mourning over the young lives lost in the awful tragedy in County Meath. Members will express their sympathy and have points to make on the safety of children on school transport.

I want to draw the Taoiseach’s [Irish Prime Minister] attention to another aspect of student welfare, which is the urgent and extensive investment needed immediately for physical fitness facilities in schools, in the form of gyms and sports halls. Everybody was taken aback in recent days when it was announced that many [school] principals throughout the State have a "no running" policy in school playgrounds. The Taoiseach described the ban as shocking, but the reality is that teachers have explained that it is the lack of space and facilities that is the real cause. If insurance was a consideration, that should certainly be put off side. However, it is the former point that is mostly responsible, in primary and secondary schools.

Against the fact that the national task force on obesity said every school-going child should have at least 30 minutes a day, or two hours a week of physical fitness exercise, is it not crazy that parents and teachers in many parts of the State have to spend endless hours, days, weeks and years lobbying the Department of Education and Science for investment in sports halls and gyms? In view of what has emerged in the last week, and the report, will the Taoiseach now say the Government will immediately ring fence investment for physical education infrastructure in schools? If he does not do that, is not the whole health strategy as regards obesity a fiction?

An Ceann Comhairle [Speaker]

The Deputy must conclude.

J. Higgins

I am not saying the schools and the physical fitness regime is the only answer, but it is an important one, acknowledged by all.

The Taoiseach

The Deputy is highlighting an important issue about the activity of young people and the fact that they should be able to do some of that in school. Improved PE facilities account for a large part of the enormous amount of money being spent in upgrading schools. Any worthwhile initiative in this whole programme is, of course, good. The Deputy will agree that children spend less than 20% of their overall time in school. However, they learn much of the basics of PE training, gym work etc. there, so that is important.

I do not buy the argument that obesity comes about through lack of training, though. The only research that I have seen showed that 35 years ago obesity related to 5% of the young population. Now it is approximately 15%. At a time when people had nothing, children were out playing and running around school yards. Now it is a different issue. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of those figures. Other countries have done similar studies which showed the levels of obesity to be relatively low. Having said that, facilities are important and prevention is far better than cure. It is good to have people active, as encouraged by the sports and community grants.

Some 4,000 communities have received money in the last six or seven years that is helping to build a really good capital base of facilities where children can go, whether it is scouts, football, community halls or whatever. The more activity there is as regards PE and gym training in school yards or halls, the better and this is important. I do not disagree with the Deputy. Some €2 billion has been spent on upgrading schools in the last few years, which is an enormous amount. Every year about 1,200 projects are being finished and all of them are improving the facilities.

As regards this issue it is important that the community is linked to the school. We are now seeing in the 3,000 or so schools across the State an enormous amount of work in terms of schools and local facilities. There is no point in building school halls that are not being used during the day. The use of such facilities should be closely monitored and that is what the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism is doing.

J. Higgins

If such investment has been made, why did the INTO [a teachers’ union] discover that 80% of schools surveyed in Donegal did not have a PE hall, that 70% of schools surveyed in Kerry did not have one and a similar percentage was found in respect of schools between those two counties? The University of Limerick in a study on secondary schools pointed to an absence of adequate facilities, qualified staff and timetabling as regards physical education.

I accept that lifestyle is a major factor. Schools cannot be expected to correct everything that is unhealthy or tending to make people unhealthy in society but schools have a corrective role. In this regard, they have an important function. Does the Taoiseach accept that this issue is linked to an earlier point Deputy Rabbitte raised, in that, if the speculators who flit off to the Bahamas and Switzerland at weekends for tax purposes stayed here instead and paid their taxes, as other elements of big business should pay equally to the PAYE system, we would have far more funding for such facilities?

What new urgency is the Government bringing to bear on investment in regard to this important sector of education that will show an acceptance of what has been said in the past week?

The Taoiseach

This issue is being dealt with across Departments. The huge amount being invested in recreational facilities in terms of sport and community facilities should be linked to schools because we would obtain much better use of such facilities. Under the capital programme approximately €2 billion has been spent in the area of education across schools. Approximately €3.5 million will be spent over the next five years under the multi-annual programme.

Deputy Higgins referred to the physical education programmes in primary schools. All primary teachers are receiving in-service training in this area. It is a core part of the curriculum. There is no reason for not running a policy on playgroups. There is joint funding in terms of the community grants for playgrounds and provision of approximately €4.6 million for playgrounds in schools. That provision taken with the sports grants is a significant investment to help our young people. I accept the point the Deputy made. While provision in this area is not the only issue in question, I accept it is an important one. It is important that children are able to do drill and PE and that teacher are able to train them in that respect. That is the reason such education is a core part of the curriculum. It is also important to build up the number of facilities available where possible.

We have now put community facilities into 3,000 places. The schools should use them in the day time. Separate facilities are not needed for use by schools. Local clubs and societies should allow schools to use their facilities in the day time.

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May 2005