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.