Are Irish teachers really the best paid in Europe?
As the ASTI action starts to bite in schools, an EU survey shows that some Irish teachers are sitting pretty, but it’s not the whole story
Teachers’ salaries: selected pay scales around Europe. Source: Eurydice survey 2013. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly
As parents face the disruption of their children’s secondary schooling as a result of the ASTI’s industrial action over the Haddington Road agreement, the question of teachers’ pay and conditions is back on the airwaves.
It’s a polarising issue. Many people believe you couldn’t pay teachers enough for the job they do; others resent what they perceive as a cushy number, with long holidays, short hours and a very attractive salary. Most frequently, however, what we hear are broadcasters and private-sector workers on the attack and teachers on the defence.
The debate is clouded by glib assertions about the relative pay and conditions of the Irish teacher. Just like the old chestnut that Ireland has the best education system in the world, which Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has been at pains to dissolve since he came to office, the phrase “best-paid teachers in the world” is used whenever teachers’ unions take a stand.
Other confections destined to infuriate teachers include “the shortest working year in Europe” and “the three best things about being a teacher: June, July and August”.
In this context it’s very hard for teachers to win the kind of public sympathy that junior doctors have had this month. One ASTI member, Fintan O’Mahony, was on a hiding to nothing when he took on Dr Ed Walsh, former president of the University of Limerick, who is an arch sceptic when it comes to teachers. Talking on Pat Kenny’s radio programme on Newstalk, a scalding salvo set the tone: “The public are astonished that some of the best-paid teachers in Europe should come back after 11 weeks’ holidays and pretend that they are going to go on strike,” said Walsh.
O’Mahony responded with figures to dispute Walsh’s assertion about pay, but the elder pedagogue was able to unpick O’Mahony’s claims using the very same OECD Education at a Glance survey.
That’s a problem for Irish teachers’ unions. For every bit of research they can find to bolster their complaints about pay and conditions, there’s another one to contest it, often within the same survey. How does the Irish teacher fare compared with those in other countries? It’s hard to answer when all the variables are factored in.
Consider some of the following. The cost of living varies from place to place. Working hours and teaching hours are different things and hard to quantify when a teacher often brings work home. Some countries pay performance bonuses and overtime. Taxation regimes differ. Surveys of pay and condition are always based on the salaries of full-time, permanent teachers – a quarter of Irish teachers are now nonpermanent. You can’t compare starter salaries and end salaries, primary and secondary teachers and, thanks to Croke Park, new recruits and those who started two years ago. Class sizes vary and, with them, workloads.
The European Commission’s Eurydice Network provides information on, and analysis of, European education systems and policies. Its new report on the relative pay and conditions of teachers across Europe provides plenty of information about how teachers are treated.