Brian Mooney: ASTI sleep-walking into educational chaos

A lack of leadership means the union is being driven by emotion and anger

 Ruairí Quinn: as minister for education he tried to cut spending by adding the abolition of external assessment of Junior Certificate exams. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Ruairí Quinn: as minister for education he tried to cut spending by adding the abolition of external assessment of Junior Certificate exams. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

As a practising teacher I work in a hugely supportive environment among colleagues who energise each other through their love of their job. I cannot imagine a more positive working environment.

I am very fortunate: I am at the top of the teachers’ pay scale and have not experienced the hardship many of my younger colleagues have endured since the economic crash.

Many teachers have spent years on part-time contracts with little security and low pay. Others are mired in negative equity, living in one- or two-bedroom apartments that are too small for their families.

Their attitude to those in Government is one of deep-seated resentment, given the quality of life they have had to resign themselves to over the past eight years. This shapes their attitudes to any proposals from the Department of Education and Skills (DES), no matter how reasonable they may be.

Necessary evil

Schools will not be able to remain open this coming September if motions to cease carrying out these duties are carried at the ASTI conference, which they will be by acclamation this week.

We are sleep-walking into educational chaos in the autumn.

The direction we are moving in is being driven by emotion and anger, and anger is a policy option that leads nowhere other than chaos.

One would have hoped that those in senior elected positions in the ASTI would have provided the cool heads to direct that understandable anger in a constructive manner, but that leadership has been completely lacking.

Organisationally, the ASTI is completely dysfunctional and in no way reflects the views of the vast majority of teachers in schools.

Most teachers have never attended a union branch meeting, and thus have no input into policy or in selecting those who will represent them at national level.

An attempt to update these structures and to engage ordinary teachers was vehemently resisted by those activists and the entire process collapsed.

Surprisingly, many of the most active ASTI members, who will be very prominent at conference this week, are retired from teaching, but under the antiquated rules of the ASTI, can still play a full part in the union’s activities, and vote on issues that affect the terms and conditions of practising teachers. The dysfunction of the ASTI is best exemplified by the situation concerning junior cycle reform.

The reform proposals were drawn up several years ago by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), with full ASTI and TUI representation, consultation and engagement.

Ruairí Quinn the then minister for education tried to cut spending by adding the abolition of external assessment of Junior Certificate exams to the proposals.

This was resisted universally by teachers for good educational reasons, which I supported and wrote about in The Irish Times before the strike action teachers engaged in at that time.

In spring 2015, the new Minister Jan O’Sullivan decoupled Quinn’s additions to the initial proposals from the NCCA, and engaged with the trade unions to resolve any outstanding issues.

Both the ASTI and TUI brought a series of proposals to the table and every one of them was resolved to both unions satisfaction.

Negotiating teams

Joint Statement on Principles and Implementation

Incredibly, the ASTI executive refused to endorse it, not because there were any outstanding problems with the agreement, but because they lacked the political courage to go out and convince their members to accept the agreement.

The agreement was posted out to members’ home addresses without any direction.

Only 38 per cent of ASTI members, including retired members, voted and rejected the reforms by a 55/45 margin.

The leadership of the TUI having negotiated the agreement alongside their ASTI colleagues had no such problems in endorsing what they had signed up to.

Having found themselves isolated on this issue, the executive of the ASTI announced recently they were calling a series of one-day strikes next September, after teachers have returned from the three-month summer break.

They have called on Ms O’Sullivan to meet them. No Minister has given more time to resolve this issue than Ms O’Sullivan, who has attended six meetings with the ASTI on this issue.

Teachers who are members of the ASTI deserve better leadership than that shown by those currently holding elected office. Cool heads and clear-sighted leadership was never more urgently required than at this week’s ASTI conference, but will we get it?

Teachers, parents and – most importantly – students deserve better.

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