The March That Never Happened - Action needed to build a proper campaign on class size


In June of this year the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) wrote to its members in all primary schools in the Republic announcing that a National Rally on the issue of class size would take place on Saturday 4th October. Posters were included for display in schools and staff reps were urged to begin the process of building a delegation of teachers and parents to represent their school at the rally.

Last week another communication arrived in schools from INTO head office. This informed members that the 4th October rally “will not proceed… as previously indicated.” Here Gregor Kerr, a member of the Dublin City North Branch of the INTO (writing in a personal capacity) analyses why the union leadership have backed off from the rally, asks whether they really have the bottle for a fight on this issue, and urges a grassroots campaign to deliver victory on the issue.

The background
Class sizes in primary schools in Ireland are among the highest in the ‘developed world’. Figures released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development just last week show that
· Irish primary schools have an average of 24.5 pupils per class – the second largest of the EU countries surveyed (with only Britain having larger classes, by an average of one pupil)
· on average there are four more pupils in Irish classes than in other EU countries
The government’s own figures released at the end of August show that
· just over one in ten Irish children are in regular sized classes of less than 20 pupils
· more than 100,000 Irish primary school pupils (twenty per cent of the total) are in classes of more than 30

All educational research and best practice indicates that pupils perform best when in smaller classes. The majority of EU countries have already achieved the target of having class sizes of 20 or less. Despite the years of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, Ireland lags at the bottom of the league.

The politics and the ‘campaign’
The Programme for Government signed by Fianna Fail and the PDs after the 2002 election – 6 years ago - was unambiguous in its promise on the issue of class size:
“Over the next five years we will progressively introduce maximum class guidelines which will ensure that the average size of classes for children under 9 will be below the international best-practice guideline of 20:1”.
It goes without saying that that promise was not even worth the paper it was written on and that the government never had any intention of actually delivering on it. The INTO responded to the failure to deliver on this promise with a campaign which involved the collection of a petition signed by approximately 200,000 parents and – in the lead-up to the 2007 general election - a series of large public meetings across the country which were attended by over 18,000 parents and teachers and which demanded that the government take action on this issue.

Posters with the campaign slogan ‘Is your child being crowded out?’ adorned the corridors of practically every primary school in the country and the issue was a live one with huge numbers of people – both parents and teachers.

Unfortunately the leadership of the union seemed to lose sight of the fact that the purpose of running a campaign is not just to have a clever slick PR- friendly series of events (although that is in itself important). The reason for running any campaign is to win, but this seemingly obvious truth seemed to get lost somewhere along the way.

Thus when the then Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, came to the INTO Annual Conference at Easter 2007 – in the run-up to the general election - and promised 4,000 extra primary teachers to deal with the issue of class size, the union leadership declared victory, with general secretary John Carr going so far as to say that he would be “happy” to see her back as Minister for Education after the forthcoming general election.

Political promises
What John Carr lost sight of was that all he had managed to wrest from the Minister was a repeat of the political promise contained in the 2002 Programme for Government. A campaign that was universally described by the INTO leadership as ‘successful’ had in fact gained nothing more than a repeat of an election promise. The fact that the promise had previously been broken counted for nothing. Another election – another promise. Like fools we’ll believe it again this time! It brings to mind the old saying ‘Fool me once, shame on you… Fool me twice, shame on me’.

So along came the 2007 Programme for Government, this time signed by Fianna Fail, the PDs and the Greens and it had the following to say on class size:
“We will increase the number of primary teachers by at least 4,000. This will enable us to reduce class sizes. The staffing schedule will be reduced from a general rule of at least one teacher for every 27 pupils in 2007/08, by one point a year, to one for every 24 children by 2010/11”

Guess what – Surprise, Surprise (well some of us weren’t at all surprised!) the ink was hardly dry on the document until Minister Hanafin was saying that it wasn’t actually going to happen. And the union leadership reacted with shock. What?? A government minister failing to deliver on a pre-election promise?? Never heard of such a thing before!

So the ‘campaign’ swung into action again. And on one level – the PR front – it has been extremely successful. The issue of class size and the government’s broken promises has been prominently covered in both national and local media over the past two weeks since schools re-opened after the summer holidays. On Monday last, 8th September, for example INTO spokespersons were interviewed on this issue on 24 different radio stations – both national and local.

More than PR needed
The case has been made, the PR battle has been won. Everyone agrees that our primary school children deserve smaller class sizes. But what about a campaign that is going to deliver a victory – that is going to force the government to act on this issue. This is where the union leadership don’t appear to have the bottle for the fight. Their decision to call off the 4th October rally on the grounds of ‘a greatly altered and rapidly changing economic and budgetary outlook’ shows that they are afraid to take on the government.

It is to be hoped that at a grassroots level teachers and parents can combine to build a campaign which will not only deliver a strong message to government that our children deserve better than the way they are being treated but that will also deliver a result. We need to begin to discuss the strategies and methodologies of a campaign which will be designed not just to win the PR battles but to win the substantive issue. The government must be taken on by a strong and united campaign of parents and teachers and told in no uncertain terms that we will not continue to tolerate this situation.

The discussion about that strategy has begun at branch and district level within the INTO. If you’re a teacher or parent who feels that you’d like to get involved in helping to build that campaign I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me at

Together let’s build a campaign which will deliver a victory on this issue.