A season of not-so-smart casual for teachers

Increasing numbers of Irish teachers are employed on a casual basis with no job security

Kate Tierney, a newly qualified teacher, at St Colmcille’s Junior National school, Knocklyon, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

Increasing numbers of Irish teachers are employed on a casual basis with no job security, often living on less than the minimum wage. Teacher unions say that, unchecked, this trend will do untold damage to the profession.

One union went as far as declaring a “war on casualisation”. The trouble is, no one can identify the front line.

Is casualisation of teaching the fault of principals, labour laws, the Department of Education or the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? Is it a byproduct of the recession or a side-effect of benign neglect?

OECD studies have shown that just 73 per cent of second-level teachers in Ireland are in permanent positions; it's one of the lowest levels in Europe. Younger teachers are worst hit: more than half of secondary teachers under 30 years of age are on nonpermanent contracts of a year or less, according to a 2012 OECD report.


The TUI places the blame at the door of school management, suggesting a pattern in the approach that serves principals' needs at the cost of job security for teachers.

“We have seen incidences of mischievous and malicious behaviour by management in schools who know that they can keep fixed-term teachers on the hop and ask them to do whatever they want,” says John MacGabhann, general secretary of the TUI, who acknowledges that the practice is by no means universal.

The situation is even worse for teachers who are caught in a substitution cycle, with no job certainty from day to day and a nomadic teaching lifestyle that makes it virtually impossible to build up four years with one school.

"This has a desperate effect on morale," says Gerard Craughwell, the president of the TUI. "Casualisation is a cancer in second-level schools. We have young teachers with seven or eight hours a week hanging around staffrooms waiting for someone to go sick. The new Croke Park proposals on substitution and supervision will only make matters worse," he says. Teachers are facing cuts of ¤106 million a year in supervision and substitution payments under the proposed new deal.

“Employers in schools are using the labour laws to extend the probation period of teachers for years, turning them into machines who will do anything they are told in order to keep their jobs,” says Craughwell. “We will end up with embittered staff who feel used and abused by the system.”

[CROSSHEAD]Fixed hours
[/CROSSHEAD]Here's how it works. A school can employ a teacher on fixed hours for a fixed period according to its need.

So if a school needs a physics teacher, management can apply to the Department of Education and be allocated the number of hours needed to teach physics to fifth- and sixth-year pupils; say eight hours a week. The teacher can be dropped whenever the contract ends, or have that contract renewed for another fixed term.

That teacher may continue to be employed at that level for four years before the school has any obligation to offer permanence. However, if the teacher does not remain with the school for four unbroken years, the school has no obligation to offer them a contract of indefinite duration (CID), which is public-service speak for a permanent job.

Meanwhile, because of dwindling work opportunities for newly qualified teachers, principals receive hundreds of CVs every year. The result, according to the TUI, is a new “casualised” corps of teachers who are vulnerable to abuse by management because they are so desperate to be kept on for the requisite four years.

The other second-level teaching union, Asti, is equally spooked by the casual creep, but is not so damning of school management. “The problem is largely the product of a culture of concessionary hours rather than full-time jobs,” says Diarmuid de Paor, deputy general secretary of Asti. “In the old days you applied for a job and got a job. Now, where a school is short on French hours, the department will grant just that amount of hours rather than a full teaching post. This is creating a very fragmented recruitment environment in post-primary schools.”

Compounding the problem is the Irish definition of working hours for teachers. According to the OECD's 2012 Education at a Glance report, teaching contracts here focus primarily on teaching time and doesn't include other duties. This is unusual in the international context.

Ian Byrne is a victim of the strict Irish "working hours" definition. He currently works 15 hours a week as a science teacher and earns ¤17,000 a year. He's on a fixed-term contract that might or might not be renewed in September. "I'm earning the minimum wage but I work far more hours than my contracted hours. I'm heavily involved in extracurricular sport at the school and like all teachers I have huge amounts of responsibility beyond teaching, not least in a pastoral role with the children. I'm always working, and yet I am paid the minimum wage, and I'm considered lucky."

[CROSSHEAD]Panel system
[/CROSSHEAD]The situation at primary level is not so stark, thanks to a panel system that ensures a teacher's casual work builds towards redeployment into more permanent work. In other words, a teacher can build up their hours towards a CID across a number of schools, and is not reliant on a single principal to ensure his or her working future.

There is a proposal in the LRC report in the recent Croke Park II talks that such a panel would be established at second level. Second-level unions have been calling for the establishment of this panel for some time in order to protect part-time workers. Despite this, last week Asti called on its members to reject the Labour Relations Commission proposals, which include the establishment of a panel, because of its potential “impact on low-paid part-time and temporary teachers”.

However, the introduction of a panel at second level will not solve the casualisation issue, but will ease it only a little, according to John MacGabhann.

“We need a custom of appointing permanent staff after an appropriate probation period.

“Legislation was brought in to protect part-time and fixed-term workers by obliging employers to offer them permanency after four years: four years has now become the target for employers. A panel for second level will help, but we need to tackle this problem at its root.”

'I'm from Co Clare and I moved up to Dublin after graduating to look for work. It was a real smack in the face," says Kate Tierney. "I spent three years in college preparing for a professional teaching role only to discover that there was little or no work out there.

“ I got six days of subbing in my first month in Dublin and I had to try and pay rent and bills out of that. It was a real shock.”

Tierney did the rounds of Dublin schools with her CV, only to discover that principals had received 600 CVs already.

“Unless you knew someone or had some connection to the school you just didn’t have a chance.”

The second and third months were no better, she says. “I’m not what you would describe as a depressive person, in fact I’m very positive, but I started to find the whole thing quite depressing. I set my alarm clock for 6.30 every morning and wake up hoping the phone will ring.”

Tierney says that many of her fellow graduates are in an even worse position than she is and have had to resort to going on the dole or leaving the country.

“Fortunately, I have been getting relatively regular subbing work since January, enough to keep me in Dublin for now,” says Tierney. “I’m in a great school, St Colmcille’s in Knocklyon, and the principal, John Boyle, is doing his best for me.”

Having worked in schools all around the city since graduation, Kate sees the effects of this culture of impermanence in staffrooms. “I meet graduates who are three years out of college and are still operating from day to day, or from contract to contract not knowing where the next job is coming from. That’s very worrying. I never thought when I was in college that this would be the reality of teaching.”