Teachers’ conferences: it’s been a noisy week down at ASTI’s animal farm

This week’s ASTI conference sank into rancour and disunity as protesters – including ‘Megaphone Man’ – loudly opposed Ruarí Quinn’s reforms and compared union leaders to Orwellian pigs

Shout out: Protesters make their voices heard at the  ASTI Conference in Wexford, disrupting a speech given by the Minister of Education Ruairí Quinn. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Shout out: Protesters make their voices heard at the ASTI Conference in Wexford, disrupting a speech given by the Minister of Education Ruairí Quinn. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00

Secondary-school teachers return to class on Monday after yet another Easter of negative headlines. The rowdy scenes at their annual conference, first shouting down Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and then feuding about allegations of bullying between members, blotted their copybook badly.

And the irony is the biggest policy decision taken by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) this week was to improve its external communications. Deciding against any escalation of their industrial dispute over Quinn’s Junior Cycle reforms, delegates voted instead to organise a PR campaign “to inform parents of the many issues and consequences” surrounding the plan. (Presumably, it won’t be done through a megaphone.)

In many ways, ASTI’s woes are reflected in the broader trade union movement. Austerity has had a traumatising effect; the bargaining strength of officials evaporated overnight after so many years in which they effectively negotiated their own pay increases.

Like other unions, the ASTI now stands accused of “pulling up the ladder” on younger members of the profession, and this is what lies behind much of the current tensions. ASTI Fightback, the group that initiated the protests against Quinn by shouting him down with a loudspeaker, has become a voice for teachers with little job security, according to its co-ordinator, Mark Walshe.

A teacher in north Dublin and a member of People Before Profit, Walshe rejects the claim that he is unrepresentative of the union. “I speak more than anybody else at convention; I speak on every single motion,” he said, and sure enough he could be seen trooping up to the podium with indecent frequency over the three days. Walshe is the secretary of the Dublin North East branch and sits on the ASTI education committee. He says he was approached to run as vice-president a few years ago but couldn’t do so because he did not have a permanent teaching post.

The other face of ASTI Fightback this week was Andrew Phelan, a PE teacher from Coláiste Phádraig CBS Lucan in Co Dublin, better known simply as “Megaphone Man”. He provided not only the picture moment of the congress, but the most memorable soundbite, likening the union leadership to the pigs in Animal Farm who had morphed into their masters.

“They dress the same as the Government Ministers; they talk the same as the Government Ministers; they eat in the same restaurants as the Government Ministers . . . They are just effectively another arm of the Government.”

According to Walshe, the disruption to the Minister’s speech – and it came from many quarters, including career guidance counsellors who are furious about the slashing of posts – stems from the union’s reactive culture. He says attempts were made to debate the Junior Cycle reforms as early as January 2013, but the ASTI officials delayed holding a special convention, “and now we’re a year behind in terms of opposing this. That was all down to the fact of the leadership not willing to listen to ordinary members on the ground who were saying they don’t want this Junior Cert, and unfortunately it has bubbled up into angry outbursts of frustration.”

The union’s president-elect, Philip Irwin, whose initial attempts to bring order on Tuesday were ignored, describes the protests at “disappointing”. But he takes issue with headlines saying the teachers had behaved like schoolchildren. “Teachers are adults and citizens, and therefore they have civil liberties like everybody else. So the comparison is not really a valid one.”

A history teacher and transition-year coordinator at High School in Rathgar, Dublin 6, Irwin says delegates were angry with Quinn because they felt “extremely frustrated and excluded. I was surprised at how provocative he was; he says he didn’t set out to be provocative but I think he was.”

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