Jan 102009
Batt O'Keeffe
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With the excitement of Christmas and New Year behind us the kids are gearing up to going back to school. Their partly looking forward to seeing their friends again, and partly mourning the fact that the holidays are coming to a close.

I can sympathise with them, in part because I still recall the conflicting emotions of going back to school after the Christmas break from my own childhood… but mainly because of the clash of sentiments it causes for me now as a parent.

Back to school means back to routine: getting up early, making school lunches (a personal pet peeve of mine), organising the kids, getting out of the door on time. The return to school imposes structure on the fluidity of life… and on one level that’s a good thing. At the same time structure and routine are always going to be more boring and mundane than disorder and spontaneity, and part of me riles against the conformity of it all.

But back to school they must go… and while spending lots of time with them over the holidays has been wonderful, for the most part I’ll be happy to reclaim the bulk of my working week as we head into what promises to be a very challenging year.

Talking of challenging years, I guess I should be grateful that the children have a school to go back to in 2009, given the cutbacks our esteemed Government is imposing on our education system. Faced with the cost-cutting initiatives spearheaded by Cork TD and Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, financially embattled schools across the country are facing a very tough 2009 on the fiscal front, and will no doubt be looking to parents for fundraising and direct financial contributions. The Government will bail out the banks, it seems, but bailing out the schools falls to mums and dads.

I’m all for parents getting involved and raising money for schools — but for my money (if you’ll pardon the pun) such funds should surely go towards equipment, facilities and resources over and above those demanded by the standard national curriculum. Schools should be adequately funded by Government to cover all of the basics. When parents have to raise money to subsidise things like the school’s heating bill there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

Nobody questions the need to cut Government spending in the wake of the economic downturn, but the approach the Government has taken speaks volumes about the character of those we choose to lead us. When the going got tough, they  chose to target the most vulnerable in society: the very old and the very young, or to put it another way, those least likely to fight back. Of course they underestimated the backlash (they seem to underestimate most things, with the notable exception of their own competence to govern).

The irony here is that health and education are probably two of the last places a Government should look to reduce funding: the first is vital to maintaining a healthy and productive workforce today, a workforce that will help our beleaguered economy push through the recession; the second is the foundation stone on which all future prosperity will be built.

Now, Mr O’Keefe, perhaps you can explain to parents, teachers, and most of all to children, how undermining the stability of that foundation could possibly be considered a good idea.

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Oct 012008
Banknotes from all around the World donated by...

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A new programme aimed at secondary schools is apparently going to teach our children how to budget, save and be smart with money. The programme, dubbed “Get Smart with your Money”, is a joint venture between the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and the Financial Regulator, and encourages students to explore their attitudes to money.

A “free pack”, containing a teachers manual full of activities, tips and case studies, and individual learner journals for the students, is being distributed to secondary schools around the country. The programme was officially launched last week by Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Hanafin.

“Having a dedicated module on finance which helps young people to understand budgeting, planning, shopping around and how to manage their resources in order to make the most of their money is very welcome,” she said at the launch.

“Students will be able to build on their knowledge from other financial areas of the curriculum such as mathematics and business studies,” she enthused.

Given the chronic state of underfunding in our schools, both primary and secondary, and an economy that’s nose diving into the depths of recession, I can’t help but wonder if Ms Hanafin and her cabinet colleagues might benefit from a bit of fiscal training of their own….

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Sep 042008

Published on in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo on 03 September 2008

IMG_1552 Yipee! School starts on Monday, and for the first time ever all three of the girls are going! The little one is five… and it will be her first day of “big school”. She’s all excited about it… but, truth be told, not half as excited as her Mum and Dad!

There was a time not so long ago when we were sure sending our “baby” off to school would be a heart-wrenching experience; if ever there was a time for a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat this would be it. But a long, dreary summer with three kids on top of each other in the house, constant bickering and all out sibling warfare, to be brutally honest we’ll be glad to see the school term start.

Once upon a time the first day of school used to evoke something akin to dread in the hearts of children and parents alike… but not any more. If they’re anything like ours, five year olds all over the country are positively rejoicing at the thought of their first day at “big school”. I was reading this week that the National Parents Council used to run courses for parents whose children were going to school for the first time, but they stopped them because children and schools are so much better prepared these days. There simply wasn’t the demand.

There are open days, when children and parents get to meet teachers, see classrooms and familiarise themselves with school before term starts, and improved communication between teachers, parents and children means it’s all become less of an ordeal and more of an adventure for the children.

But what about parents? If anything, the first day at school is more traumatic for them than for children today. Sending your youngest off into the big wide world without you for the first time – even if it is only the local national school – is sure to tug at the heart strings. But trust me, the prospect of a few hours of genuine peace and quiet every day is a real mitigating factor.

The twins can’t decide whether they’re looking forward to the return to school or not… but they’re more than ready for it. They’ve been wired for the last couple of weeks, which is pretty normal for the end of the holidays. Except that this year it’s been much worse… largely, I suspect, because we haven’t really had a summer. School will at least keep them occupied, and re-establish a bit of routine and order.

We’ve been talking to the little one about her transition to full time education all summer; doing our best the lay the groundwork for the coming weeks. She thinks it’s a great idea, but I’m not convinced she realises school is an all day, five days a week, week in, week out thing. Yes it will be difficult, yes there will be tears, and no doubt there will be three tired, cranky girls to contend with on their return.

But there’ll also be a mum and dad who’ve had a few child-free hours: brief respite from the constant questions, incessant demands and the childish exuberance and boundless energy that, while delightful, can also prove oh so exhausting. We’ll be able to focus on work uninterrupted, go for walks together when we feel like it… even, perhaps, go out for lunch every now and again.

When you think about it, school really is a wonderful thing!