A teacher can only teach if she isn't preoccupied with crowd control

The headline in The Irish Times last Wednesday confirmed widespread fears. 'Ten years for economy to recover', it said, quoting from one of the experts in the Liam Carroll High Court case.

So much for the economy. How long will it take society to recover? While the headlines were once more corralled by Carroll and his attempts to mock the heretofore sacred free market, out in the real world another aftershock of the bubble was being felt.

You don't need to be a sociologist with a psychoanalytical degree to know the importance of early childhood and early education on the adult-to-be. In a society that values not just the children of today, but feels compelled to hand on the reins in good nick tomorrow, early childhood would be given serious attention.

Not so in this country. Last week, an OECD report stated that Ireland was spending "relatively little on younger children" (those under six years of age).

"A better balance of spending between the 'Dora the Explorer' years of early childhood and the teenage 'Facebook' years would help improve the health, education and well-being of all children in the long term," it stated.

The state invests €81,000 in children up to the age of 18, which is €7,000 less than the OECD average, and €22,000 less than in the UK. Within that context, the imbalance of spending on young children is even more shocking.

This news comes after a prolonged period when the state was allegedly awash with money. What hope for the most vulnerable children now in the face of what will be inevitable cutbacks? What price is going to be paid by society in 20 years time for short-term savings implemented by a government devoid of any vision at all?

Most kids have dispensed with Dora the Explorer by the time they arrive in school. Last week, school gates around the country opened to the extra pitter patter of larger classes. At the outset of the recession last year, budgetary cuts were introduced to increase the standard class size from 27 to 28. This, at the end of a prolonged period of alleged prosperity when it was repeatedly stated that government policy was to have class sizes of 20 for children under nine.

Figures released last week show that 93,000 children are still being taught in classes of 30 or more. This state of affairs is liable to get much worse when last year's cuts feed through. If that wasn't enough grief, the McCarthy report recommends raising the standard class size to 29.

So what, some may say. A few extra bodies in a classroom never did anybody any harm. Education minister Batt O'Keeffe appears to concur with such an analysis.

"A number of respected educationalists have produced studies saying that the quality of the teacher is more important in determining educational outcomes than the size of the class," O'Keeffe's spokesman said last week.

As spin goes, this effort merits banishment to the dunce's corner. The quality of a teacher is probably the key determinant in how good an education a child gets, but a teacher can only teach if she isn't preoccupied with crowd control.

Large classes have a number of different effects on the quality of education on offer. A couple of disruptive seven or eight year olds in a class of 20 are manageable. The teacher can still give due attention to the rest of the class. Four or five problem children out of 30 is a different ball game. Patience, effort and quite possibly motivation are sapped by the disruption. All pupils suffer, but it is quite possible that some can manage, particularly if they go home to parents who are finely tuned to their responsibilities in education.

For the others, it's tough luck. Those whose parents can't fill the gaps have to go without a proper foundation. Others, who might have special needs, are left behind, particularly in schools that have lost special needs assistants through the cuts.

For children with undiagnosed psychological conditions, it is likely their condition will go undetected longer and therefore worsen. All these little setbacks are magnified because they occur during the early years. Some will recover lost ground. Others won't. The results will be available for inspection in a couple of decades, in the form of all manner of social, health and even criminal justice ills. There is no secret in any of this. It's basic common sense.

In a society any way progressively minded, these matters would raise major concern. Here, greater noise is generated by last week's imposition of a €200 tax on second homes. Bigger emphasis is placed on the potential political fall-out of introducing a wealth tax on property. Concepts like universal provision are twisted to maintain a system of child benefit where millionaires are given money by the state to ensure their children have shoes on their feet.

How long will it take society to recover from ignoring its moral obligations to young children? Not possible to say, because, according to the OECD, society at large – from the government down – hasn't recognised the problem and the urgency required to tackle it. Whatever hope of proper attention and investment in the bubble years, there is absolutely none from here on in. Instead, the knife will be applied, the wails endured and everybody will move back to wondering whether or not Nama might get the economy motoring again.