'Do you want your five-year-olds to be taught by 68-year-olds?'

Thu, Dec 1, 2011, 00:00

ON A normal Wednesday, like every other day in school term, Kilkenny-born Kenny Frederick runs the George Green secondary school, with its 1,200 pupils and 200 staff on the Isle of Dogs, one of the most deprived parts of east London.

Yesterday, however, Frederick was one of 20,000 public sector workers who gathered at the Lincoln Fields in central London for a march to protest at cuts in public sector pensions that ended with fiery speeches at the Victoria Embankment. “We’re striking because we’re fed up and we think it is unfair,” said Frederick, nee Ahern, who left Ireland with her parents from Kilkenny city at 13. “It isn’t going to affect people of our age as much as the younger ones, but we have to stand together.”

One of Frederick’s deputies at George Green, Dubliner Stella Bailey, was equally unhappy: “We agreed to pay more for our pensions. Now all of that is being thrown away. And all of the extra contributions being demanded will not be used to fund pensions. They’ll go to pay the national debt.” The two are members of the National Association of Headteachers, which before yesterday had never taken a day’s industrial action in its 114-year history. It was one of 30 unions that brought members on to the streets throughout the UK yesterday.

“That will tell you the mood of people,” said Belfast-born headmaster Donal McCarthy, who runs the Regina Coeli primary school in south Croydon. “This is going to affect the long-term recruitment of good people into teaching.”

Like other public servants, the teachers are unhappy about being asked to contribute more to their pensions – on top of increases accepted in 2007 – but also about the extension of the retirement age from 67 to 68 in 2026 and about cuts to pensions.

“Do you really want your five-year-olds taught by 68-year-olds?” asked McCarthy, “This is an arduous job. It is going to be difficult for anyone to do it at the level that they would want to do it at that age.” Like other teachers, he has explained to parents the reasons for the strike: “There has been no grief, no abuse. I think people understand. People don’t become teachers to strike, they go into it to give.”