Who would dare deny our teachers?

April 23rd, 2022 5:10 PM

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IF it’s the Easter school holidays, then it must also be time for the teacher conferences.Dominating the news streams this week, and for the next few days, will be talk of the burning issues concerning our educators. But this year one main item will dominate the unions’ agendas: pay.

The INTO were the first out of the traps this week, citing inflation as the primary (pardon the pun) reason for seeking pay increases.

They demanded ‘swift action’ on their request, at the conference in Killarney.

The Education Minister, Tralee woman Norma Foley, hit back saying that while the government acknowledged the challenges facing teachers, and they would be happy to discuss them, there was no timeline for a pay increase. A long-winded way of simply saying ‘noted’.

The teachers were quick to remind the government how flexible they have been, especially with regard to their ability to provide online learning during lockdown, and added that the ‘rapid inflationary pressures’ had now outstripped the ‘modest pay increases secured in recent years’.

Significant concern was expressed by delegates about the ability of colleagues to make ends meet, particularly from younger members locked out of affordable housing with rents skyrocketing by 10%, last year alone.

Indeed, one reporter commented that she could not remember another time when the price of food was so high on the agenda at a teacher’s conference. The teachers pointed out that their pay packets have shrunk by at least 7% due to surging prices and that the ESRI and Central Bank are predicting that inflation will exceed 6%, and will be a fact of life for the next two years.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said that teachers are now experiencing a ‘cost-of-living crisis’, and some cannot afford to commute to work, pay for childcare, or college fees. Others cannot afford a home at all, and so live with their parents well into their thirties. ‘These same thirty-somethings have friends whose private sector employers are offering meaningful pay rises,’ he said.

The government has a careful balancing act to perform here, and the Minister is all too aware of it. As the past will clearly show, any prolonged period of inflation brings with it demands from all sectors for pay increases.

But often this is the very time when the government purse can least afford to increase wages. And this year, not only is the economy reeling from rapid inflation, but it is also attempting to exit the first global pandemic in over 100 years. That makes this situation a lot more precarious than the inflationary cycles we have seen in more recent decades. The public exchequer has come through the most expensive unforeseen episode in its history. And now war, and global food and supply shortages are adding to the pressure.

If the government makes a hasty concession for one group of workers, it will create a domino effect that will see every other sector jumping on the bandwagon immediately. Plenty are already waiting in the wings to see how the teachers fare.

But that is not to say the demands aren’t justified. How quickly many have forgotten the great praise the nation had for its teachers who worked as much on the frontline of the pandemic as many healthcare staff did – without their specialised medical training.

In the pre-vaccination days, they often – quite literally – put their lives on the line to educate our children. Petty comments about wonderful holidays and early finish times were consigned to the past when our schools were faced with a deadly virus but battled on regardless, in many instances. Keeping our children at school enabled parents to keep other areas of the economy working, too, and so our teachers’ courage and generosity kept the country ticking over.

Who now would be so brave as to deny them their request for a decent living wage that would allow new entrants aspire to owning their own homes so they can continue to contribute to our economy and uphold the high standards of Irish education?

The alternative is that they are forced to emigrate and in that scenario, everybody loses.

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