Education People: A principal’s view of the ASTI action
School leaders have been left to deal with the day-to-day impact of the secondary-teacher union’s industrial action. It is a lonely place to be
Noel P Malone: ‘Principals and deputies are expected to stand up and be counted.’ Photograph: Don Moloney/Press 22
This is a time of great bewilderment and anxiety for school leaders. Having spent 15 years as principal of a large post-primary school in Co Limerick, I am around long enough to have experienced the last industrial dispute more than a decade ago.
There is a certain deja vu for principals and deputy principals across the country as they wrestle with huge uncertainty, low morale among teachers and administrative headaches, as the full extent of the unrelenting education cutbacks over recent years begins to bite. This is especially so for those working in schools with teachers represented by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and in particular, those schools with representation from both second-level unions, as is the case in my school.
School leaders continue to be placed in the firing line and many feel very isolated and left without any tangible support. Most of us are members of either the ASTI or the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and may or may not be supportive of the rejection of the Haddington Road agreement. Regardless, my deputy and I are left to pick up the pieces and to try to keep the show on the road, in the interests of our students and the wider school community. It feels very often that nobody listens to what we, as principals, have to say. We are rarely consulted, except in a half-hearted, almost patronising manner.
Both teaching unions claim to represent school leaders, and yet have no qualms about reminding us that, when push comes to shove, the teachers are the ones they will back in the end.
The attitude of the ASTI, and indeed the TUI, in previous disputes shows scant regard for our position. Quite apart from the current predictable directives issued by the ASTI to its members, which include prohibiting attendance at out-of-school meetings and engagement with in-service training on the new Junior Cycle, it is the relaxation of the obligation to cooperate with school management in replacing absent colleagues that will place the most significant burden on us as school leaders.
It will have little or no traction with those who have got us into this mess in the first place, and yet it will add considerably to the stress endured by many of us school leaders, who are in many cases at breaking point, in terms of our health and wellbeing.
Isolated school leaders
The net result will be the inevitable diminution of extra-curricular activities which will seriously affect the children under our care. This is on top of the unilateral withdrawal of guidance services, which has left principals and their deputies carrying a huge additional burden in terms of counselling and mental health support for their students.
More and more of my time is taken up with making representations to the HSE, the National Education Welfare Board and the National Educational Psychological Service or, indeed, the Department of Education, pleading for additional supports for students who are dealing with myriad pressures and social and economic disadvantage. This is aside from my obligations to the 65 teachers under my care, who face the daily challenges that life brings all of us. I and my fellow principals are expected, and in fairness, are very willing, to be there for each one of them. We offer support, friendship and empathy to our professional colleagues because we care.
Similarly, the ASTI’s refusal to allow members to participate in school open nights is a very unwise move. The importance of open nights in most schools cannot be overstated. It is a shop window for a school, attracting new students and, therefore, new jobs for teachers. Many principals have scrambled to reschedule these nights. Many others have cancelled. I am aware of others who feel they must go ahead, despite the directive, to protect the position of the school in the community.
Again, principals and deputies are expected to stand up and be counted. They will sacrifice themselves on the altar of commitment to their school community, regardless of cost or exposure to themselves. Whether a school has an open night or not appears of little or no consequence to the Department of Education. It is hardly going to bring it to its knees in submission. And once again, school leaders are alone.
We have no dedicated representative body with an industrial relations remit. The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) has not exactly covered itself in glory in this regard.
Following the decision by the ASTI to take industrial action, the NAPD issued a letter to the ASTI president, Sally Maguire, castigating the union in an unprecedented manner. It was ill-advised. Many school leaders are ASTI members and many are broadly supportive of the rejection of Haddington Road. It would have been preferable for the NAPD to call on both sides to engage and reach some agreement on the current issues, without the burden being placed unreasonably on school leaders. I think that is what they tried to say, but this message certainly did not get through. The ensuing controversy provided a welcome distraction for some to talk of “friction” and “tension” between the NAPD and ASTI. It opened the door to commentators to pen articles full of vitriol, fuelling misinformation about the role and value of the teacher. The ASTI response was of course predictable, retaliating with the assertion that the NAPD director, Clive Byrne, had himself appeared to support pay cuts.
It is extraordinary that the simple solution of asking teachers to be in schools throughout the working week, from school opening to perhaps 30 minutes after school officially ends, so that planning, professional development and supervision and substitution would be taken care of in a fair and equitable manner, has not been explored. I believe that most teachers would be very open to such an arrangement, in place of the 33 hours’ perceived “detention” that unfortunately has become a feature of the existing Croke Park obligation. The productivity that would result would more than compensate for maintaining the current salary arrangements.
The irony is that a majority of teachers do this and much more, completely voluntarily and without financial compensation. The approach the Government is currently taking is a slap in the face of those highly motivated and committed professionals.
I am disappointed that the NAPD appears so out of touch with its members. It perceives its role as dealing with the so-called soft issues of Irish education, when all about the house is falling in.
Perhaps it feels somewhat compromised in that it is viewed by some to have too cosy a relationship with the Department of Education, because of the significant financial support it receives annually. This provides for a full-time director, an assortment of paid retirees and other administrative costs, including a head office that would be the envy of many fully-fledged trade unions.
This is not to take from the remarkable contribution that the NAPD has made to Irish education, especially in the field of leadership and professional development, and it has been an inspiration in its pursuit of excellence in our schools since its inception. Many of my colleagues, both retired and active, continue to offer extraordinary commitment and are selfless in the pursuit of service to education. Nonetheless, our professional credibility is at stake right now, and current and active school leaders need to be brought to the fore.
School leaders need practical support, not platitudes. They need space to vent, to share and to assist each other in a safe place. It needs to be recognised by all sides that their voices do matter and decisions cannot, and should not, be made without genuine consultation and respect.
It is rare, even in the current climate, that the integrity of school leaders is called into question. We command tremendous respect and this is something to be valued against a backdrop of widespread antipathy towards teachers. Perhaps all sides should look to us now for an honest and reasonable solution to this current impasse. It can only be a change for the better.
Noel Malone is the principal of Coláiste Chiaráin, Croom, Co Limerick