It's tough to get a pass mark


Secondary teachers have not taken widespread industrial action for over 15 years. Resentment among many of them has been boiling up.

Covering the strike as a journalist, one finds plenty of evidence for this: many teachers are genuinely disillusioned with their jobs. They feel unrecognised by the Government and believe they are easy prey for the media.

Talking to them and their leaders on a daily basis as a reporter one quickly realises most are well informed and astute. They read a frightening amount of your copy and the newspaper is regularly passed around the staffroom. Such close attention is normally welcomed by journalists, but teachers with their unerring knack of spotting errors certainly keep you on your toes.

A teacher who believes I have made a mistake in an article corrects me on the phone with that slightly disapproving air of authority so clearly developed in the classroom. And you soon learn never to arrive late for interviews.

However, the vast majority of are easygoing and courteous. Working in an environment with teenagers means they are familiar with real issues facing families and even the latest teenage fads. They do not as a rule live in ivory towers - like some of their third-level colleagues.

Being an education correspondent, one can feel like a breathless referee separating two prize fighters. Parents want you to hammer the teachers, while the ASTI wants you to write glowingly about its pay claim. Because they both want their cases put forward, there can be some punching below the belt, but so far the dispute has remained quite civil.

The ASTI is an accessible organisation: I and my colleagues have been able to get almost 24-hour access to the union's leaders. The newsdesk in The Irish Times wants the dispute monitored at all times, so we have to constantly check if there is any movement, breakthrough or compromise on the horizon.

Exhausted ASTI leaders tell us "there's nothing going on". We indignantly reply: "But there must be something going on - there's always something going on."

In every dispute, wild rumours emanate from all kinds of strange quarters every day, and they have to be checked out - which is part of the ordinary journalistic slog. Most prove to be pure fiction.

Because the ASTI and the other teacher unions have such large executive organisations, you can end up on the phone with teachers all day, not just the leaders. All of them have a trenchant opinion and want you to hear it. All of it.

But you also have to devote time to the Government side, which has its own exotic ways of operating. Because the dispute is testing the whole partnership process, civil servants from various departments are involved - and they are keen to give you "some background", which can occasionally be of dubious quality.

There are other demands, too: few other media organisations can afford to have a full-time education correspondent, so I find myself giving radio interviews a lot during the dispute, often with local stations.

The work can stretch late into the evening, when many unions hold meetings. It is also advisable to make contact with sources before they enter the nearest licensed premises - though the discussions can be more revealing if you wait 'til later.

During the dispute I also end up writing opinion and analysis pieces. These are more likely than news stories to inflame teachers and often parents. When teachers and their opponents both lambaste an article, I probably have it about right - according to some of the older heads in this newspaper.

Ironically, while there is huge interest in this dispute among parents, students and teachers, there is often not much happening from day to day. The Government and the ASTI have only had two formal meetings in the last month, so in terms of actual events it can be quite calm. But there has to be something happening somewhere.