Class goes on for the students at Bruce


This school year has already been hit by major disruption, as secondary schools across the State have been closed in a series of one-day actions, including strike and withdrawal of breaktime supervision, by members of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI). The schools that will be affected are those where the teachers' salaries are ultimately determined by the Department of Education and Science. The ASTI doesn't represent and bargain for teachers in many private schools, particular so-called "grind schools"; those teachers, therefore, will not be striking and the schools in which they teach will remain open.

Bruce College is one such school.

It is privately owned and directed by Liam O'Hora. The fees stand at £2,500 a year for the senior cycle, with reductions for the junior years. There are four branches of the school in all, one each in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast. Bruce offers, essentially, the same subjects as in the State-supported schools and prepares students for the same exams, but fundamentally it is different. Teachers in Bruce do not protest against low pay or inadequate progression up limited pay scales, because there is no pay scale: each teacher negotiates a separate agreement with the school, based on his or her experience. New teachers are given just a few hours of teaching a week until they have proven their abilities. Students are asked to complete regular surveys to assess their teachers' performance.

There are no permanent, pensionable posts available in Bruce. A teacher's contract lasts eight-and-a-half months; renewal of that contract depends on the teacher's performance during the year.

"Performance-related pay", a dreaded and reviled phrase elsewhere in the education system, is standard practice in Bruce.

Liam O'Hora will not divulge what he pays any of his staff, but admits that they earn more than they would in a more conventional school. When asked how his institution's starting pay compares with the State's starting salary of £17,000 for a teacher with an honours degree, he says it would be "on a par with that".

He adds that there is no set upper limit on what a teacher can be paid - and that he would always do what he could to "make it worthwhile" for a teacher to stay.

"I pay them what I think they're worth."

O'Hora is adamant, however, that money is not the main reason people choose to teach in Bruce. "My teachers have been headhunted by other private schools which have offered them more money, but no one has left."

A recent survey has found that second-level schools are experiencing difficulty recruiting qualified teachers - and, despite Bruce's potentially higher pay, it has not escaped these problems. "It is getting more difficult to recruit," O'Hora says. "However high we pay, private industry will always pay higher."

Nevertheless, O'Hora says the biggest deterrent to pursuing a career in teaching is not the level of pay, but the lack of school discipline. "Discipline is the biggest problem in Irish schools." O'Hora suggests that perhaps it is discipline difficulties that lead people to seek higher pay. "Ninety-nine per cent of people in my school are primarily concerned with the quality of the job, not the money."

Pat Phipps, the principal of Bruce College Dublin, echoes that view, saying that the high standards of conduct are what attract teachers to his school. "What makes it enjoyable to work here is that you're not dealing with discipline."

Phipps says that the students who attend his school must be very committed to their studies. "I won't tolerate a student that won't work. If a student isn't working, both the student and the parents are spoken to in terms of figuring out what we can do to get them working."

However, he says that if students are not interested they are better off leaving the school. "If they want to come here they must be prepared to work. If they're not prepared to work, I won't take them."

Pat Phipps is different from the principals of the other Bruce schools in that he doesn't have a background in education. In fact, he has never worked in a conventional secondary school and he has never been a teacher. Phipps's background is in industry. Before joining Bruce College in the early 1990s he was finance director of a multinational company. He was employed essentially for his management skills, he says.

"To manage a school like this, you need to know the education system, but you don't need to have been in it from the time you got your degree," Phipps says. "I'm bringing my own work ethic into Bruce. I work hard, my staff works hard, therefore I expect the students to work hard."

Phipps does not claim that his school is better that an ordinary secondary school; rather, he says, it is another option for parents. He believes that parents who send their children to Bruce are not "that interested" in points - they are more interested in their child achieving his or her potential.

He concedes, of course, that the goal of Leaving Cert is to maximise points. "In fifth year and sixth year it's very much examorientated - Leaving Cert students do come here for the points."

In sixth year, the students sit four major exams during the year - in October, December, March and May - before they even face the Leaving Cert proper. "It gives us an indication of how the student is doing and what the student is capable of doing."

Bruce College, he says, is not offering miracles. "We need to know what parents' expectations are. We have to be realistic - we don't promise anything. The only thing we guarantee parents is that we will work hard - that's the staff, myself and the students."