One secondary-school teachers’ union is taking industrial action in protest against cuts to the education system. Doing so could damage our schools, but few seem to know how to avert it
Across the board: the majority of teachers in the ASTI voted against the Haddington Road agreement but the TUI accepted it. Photograph: Stephen Shepherd/The Image Bank/Getty Images
All in favour: teachers voting at the ASTI annual convention in April. Photograph: Patrick Browne
There are two possibilities. Either many secondary-school teachers are lazy and interested only in trying to hide their lust for money and an easy life, or the rejection of the Haddington Road agreement this week by the members of one of their main unions, the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI), is genuinely motivated by concern for their students.
Regardless of how they voted, teachers say that postprimary schools – and, importantly, students – are suffering. Teachers are stunned by the effects of budget cuts and suffocated by the Department of Education’s initiatives and directives.
Members of the ASTI, of whom 63 per cent voted against Haddington Road, insist that their no vote was not about pay. Many say they would take pay cuts if their working conditions were protected and if their schools received more resources. The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) accepted the deal by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.
Next Wednesday they will begin industrial action, which includes refusing to attend meetings outside school hours, to go to in-service training for the new Junior Cycle framework or to perform middle-management duties unless that work is paid and pensionable.
Are students really struggling, or are teachers just looking out for themselves? Mark Caffrey, the 16-year-old president of the Irish Secondary School Union, has seen the impact of cutbacks on pupils. There is no doubt that students, especially more vulnerable children, are being hit, he says. “Increased class sizes mean less time for individual students. The weaker students or those who need extra help lose out more than anyone else. I’ve seen friends with special needs lose the resources they need. Guidance-counselling allocations have been cut.
“We all know the rising suicide rate among young people is a crisis, and if your guidance counsellor not only has less time but is [now your class teacher and is] disciplining you, are you going to open up to them? Even the removal of year heads, which might seem like merely a management issue, affects us, as there are fewer teachers to deal with issues that arise.”
But Caffrey is disappointed about the industrial action, which he believes will affect education. “I don’t think that the action will help solve this; there has to be dialogue involving teachers, Government, parents and students.”
The Irish Times canvassed a dozen secondary teachers for their views on the implications of the vote. The teachers came from both unions, including yes and no voters in the Haddington Road ballot, as well as some who did not vote. Their concerns were many, but every teacher came back to the same point: when cutbacks and unnecessary work damage their ability to do their job, students’ education suffers.
Brian Burke teaches history and business studies at St Ciarán’s Community School in Kells, Co Meath. An ASTI member and activist, he voted against Haddington Road. He took this decision even though rejection would almost certainly lead to the introduction of emergency legislation, which includes increment freezes, permanent pay cuts for teachers who earn more than €65,000, and the threat, however weak, of compulsory redundancies. The positions of ASTI teachers, and their pay packets, would have been more secure under the agreement, so what were they thinking?
“Teachers saw the Haddington Road proposals as yet another erosion of our education system,” he says. “Our members were not motivated by money. We are simply fed up with cuts to the education system and the endless administration that is having a negative impact on the time we can spend with our students and on extracurricular activities.”
Iggy Dineen is a 23-year-old metalwork and technical-graphics teacher in Skibbereen, Co Cork. A TUI member, he voted in favour of the deal because, among other things, it offers better job security for teachers, especially younger teachers. This was the incentive for many to vote in favour of the proposals. The ASTI sent ballot papers to just over 1,000 retired members that allowed them to vote on the Haddington Road proposals, and sources estimate that up to 10 per cent of the ballots were cast by retired teachers.
“We’re not delighted with the deal on offer,” says Dineen. “It does nothing to address the biggest problem in education at the moment: rising class sizes. The Government doesn’t want this spoken about, but the facilities in classrooms cannot deal with the rising student numbers. Special-needs students in these classes are the ones who get left behind.”
There are other issues. Teachers say they are struggling with the removal of middle-management posts in schools. “Those structures were there for a reason: the year head is a major figure in the pastoral-care system if there is a discipline or personal issue with a student,” says a TUI member who voted against the Haddington Road proposals.
The new Junior Cycle programme, which will be phased in from next year, is another cause of concern to teachers. Under the new system, schools will set in-house exams for third-year students, State certification will end and teachers will set exams and mark papers for their own students. Opposition among teachers is virtually unanimous.
Then there is a widespread feeling that three extra hours’ work a week, imposed under the Croke Park deal, is poorly conceived and planned. “There is a lot of confusion about what kinds of activities are acceptable uses of [Croke Park] hours,” says a TUI member who voted in favour of the deal.
“I don’t see how this extra time in school contributes to recovering the Government’s deficit.”
In a situation not uncommon to industrial dispute, there has been some posturing on both sides. This week, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn raised the spectre of compulsory redundancies for ASTI members. Pat King, the general secretary of the union, responded by saying Quinn should be seeking a resolution, not making threats.
But senior Government sources say there is no basis for talks with the union: they can take or leave Haddington Road. On Wednesday, this stance was effectively backed by the Labour Relations Commission. ASTI is isolated.
Union and Government sources both agree that strike action is some distance away, but Government sources say they aren’t sure what ASTI members want.
It’s not the first time the union has been out on its own. Between 2000 and 2003, the union engaged in a prolonged industrial dispute, which included strike action, in pursuit of a 30 per cent pay claim.
Public support for ASTI was very low at the time. Students walked out of school in protest against their teachers, and relationships with the government and other trade unions hit an all-time low. Those years caused long-term reputational damage not just to the union but to the teaching profession.
“When ASTI members went on strike in 2002 over a pay claim, there was a clear coherence about what they were demanding,” says one influential Government official. “But what are they looking for now? If it’s not about money, what exactly is it about?”
Is the official side confused because the teachers’ motives are apparently altruistic?
“It’s about a feeling that enough is enough,” says Margaret Kinsella, a member of ASTI and a teacher at St Raphaela’s Girls’ School in Stillorgan, south Dublin. “Schools have had to drop subject choices; we’ve lost special-needs teachers; we’ve endured pay cut after pay cut; and we’ve seen the Government rip up the Croke Park agreement. Why should we trust them on Haddington Road?”
The anger is universal, but there is no common approach to the problem. Nor did every member vote: about 45 per cent of ASTI members did not return their ballots, and about 35 per cent of TUI members did not return theirs.
“I was so unsure what way to vote,” explains one ASTI member who did not vote. “It was Hobson’s choice. We would be hammered either way. I do accept, as a teacher in a fee-paying school, that our conditions have not deteriorated as much as [those of teachers in] schools in disadvantaged areas; and perhaps I’d be more vocal if I was teaching in a disadvantaged school.”
The TUI is also split: 46 per cent of its members rejected Haddington Road. Nor are all ASTI members happy to take industrial action for which they didn’t vote. The TUI leadership took a neutral stance on the ballot, while that of ASTI urged rejection, and this is seen as a crucial factor in swinging the results.
The multiple groupings could yet cause problems in schools, and confusion for pupils, parents and school managers. About 160 schools have teachers in both unions. The TUI and ASTI leaderships are fearful of the tensions that could emerge between teachers. Senior officials from each union are in contact every day.
The TUI has instructed its members not to carry out duties that would normally be done by ASTI teachers in their school while, at branch meetings, TUI officials are urging members to be “extremely sensitive” to their ASTI colleagues as this situation plays out.
Principals in schools with dual members are facing a logistical mess. At one school, ASTI members are refusing to attend an open evening next week but their colleagues who are in the TUI are attending; whether the event goes ahead remains to be seen.
TUI members will attend parent-teacher meetings after school hours, but ASTI members in the same school will not. This could be unworkable. Teachers propose to wait and see how it will pan out, but some have spoken of strained relationships in staffrooms.
Parents also seem to be waiting and seeing. Their representative groups are reluctant to criticise publicly the people who teach their children. But parents are telling their representatives privately, at local and national level, about their concern that parent-teacher meetings will be held during school hours, cutting into teaching time and making it difficult for working parents to attend.
There is also significant concern among parents that teachers will refuse to participate in in-service training for the new Junior Cycle programme, which will be phased in from next year to replace the Junior Cert. This is another bone of contention for teachers.
“Parents don’t fully understand what the teachers want,” says one parent representative. “But they feel it is too awkward to ask the teachers. They could be misunderstood. It may get tense.”
How can this be solved? Teachers across the board have similar wishlists, but there is no single coherent demand. It seems that they have simply had enough.
They feel they are not paid properly, but their key concerns seem to be: a lack of resources for schools; a surfeit of responsibilities and initiatives; and a sense that policymakers don’t understand the pressure they feel. Voting no was a statement of intent, but it may be difficult for the Government to respond, even if it wants to.
Haddington Road deal: the key proposals teachers voted on
No pay cuts for teachers earning below €65,000. Their next increment will be delayed by three months.
Teachers earning €35,000-€65,000 will be paid their next increment, but it will be delayed by two months.
Teachers earning more than €65,000 face pay cuts of 5.5 per cent up to €80,000. Salaries between €80,000 and €150,000 will be reduced by 8 per cent.
Cuts for those earning less than €100,000 will be restored from April 2017.
Teachers lose a supervision and substitution allowance.
Additional three hours’ work under the Croke Park Agreement remains in place.
Salary scale of new entrants is to rise.
Entitlement to contract of indefinite duration reduced from four to three years
Reduced pensions for teachers retiring after March 2012.