THE annual teacher unions’ conferences over the Easter holidays were comparatively quiet affairs this year without a Minister for Education to abuse and grandstand in front of due to a new government not being in place. Acting Minister Jan O’Sullivan, who is unlikely to be part of the next government, politely declined any invitations she got from the unions, letting it for her successor, when appointed, to deal with their demands, which mainly centre around pay.
The disparity in pay scales between older teachers and newly-qualified teachers, who feel with justification that they are being exploited, was the biggest issue raised at the conferences with the younger teachers having to make their voices heard above those of their more experienced counterparts who have tended to dominate the upper echelons of the unions’ hierarchies. At the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation conference, the more media-savvy newly-qualified teachers stood out in their colourful T-shirts with placards demanding ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ to get their message across.
Many of the younger teachers are more qualified academically nowadays, but because pay scales have been reduced, those teaching in Dublin especially can hardly afford to live there due to the high cost of renting in the capital. Others have difficulty getting contracts that would give them enough hours to earn a living wage.
During the Teachers Union of Ireland conference, one delegate cited instances of 30-minute contracts per week, which – while they may be exceptional – are nothing short of ludicrous and exploitative. Granted, at second level, there are over-supplies of teachers for some subject areas and shortages in other areas, so it is difficult to get the balance right, however many of the newly-qualified teachers of recent years have not been prepared to try to live off scraps of work here and felt compelled to emigrate in search of better opportunities abroad.
This mirrors the stories of many medical personnel who also see the faraway fields as greener and leave the country after their training to work for better pay and in better conditions, so the authorities here need to ask themselves how best to hang on to young graduates. In the case of teachers, the equalisation of pay scales would seem to be the logical first step in order to make new teachers feel it is worth their while to pursue the career they have trained for in Ireland.
The Department of Education and the Teaching Council of Ireland need to put both short- and long-term plans in place to ensure that the country will have enough teachers to meet the growing demand for them. Ireland has the youngest population in the European Union and the highest fertility rate, so the number of children in schools will continue to rise for the foreseeable future
Class sizes are also an issue and need to be kept in check so that all students can be given the attention they need in order to succeed in their studies. Again, this will add to the number of teachers required, so the authorities need to make staying in Ireland to work a more attractive option and it is good to note that a working group is currently compiling a report about supply and demand of teachers for the Teaching Council, which should help the next Minister for Education to get to grips with the situation in a more informed manner, as demographics are also an important factor, especially for rural areas.
Some members of the public have little sympathy for teachers because of the number of hours they teach during the days they are working and the amount of holidays they have in Ireland. However, there is a lot more to the job than that in terms of preparation and follow-up, especially for the more conscientious teachers, and it can be pretty stressful occupation.
As well as for pupils, there needs to be more rigorous continuous assessment for teachers in order to ensure that they are fit for purpose and justifying the very decent remuneration they are getting, especially at the upper end of their pay scales. Where teachers are not performing to required standards, there needs to be a fair system of sanctions that can be applied.
The most worrying issue to emerge from the Easter conferences was the seeming row-back by members of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland on the hard-won progress that had been made on badly-needed reform of the Junior Certificate cycle, involving more elements of ongoing assessment of students. This may lead to further unwelcome industrial action by ASTI members during the next school year.