External assessment protects the integrity of State exams. Why put this at risk?

Opinion: As teacher union conferences get underway, there’s no shortage of urgent issues

Against the backdrop of an extremely challenging period for the Irish education system, the Annual Congress of the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) will this week take place, in Wexford, in its traditional, corporeal form for the first time in three years.

In 2020 and 2021, our annual congress was held remotely so there will undoubtedly be an element of novelty in the return to a “regular” conference with the filter of screens removed. There will of course be sadness too as we remember those members and other loved ones who passed away since we last met.

The TUI is the second largest Irish teacher union, representing over 20,000 teachers, lecturers and other educators across second level, third level and further and adult education. This breadth of expertise gives us a unique understanding of the needs and dynamics of the Irish public education system, an understanding that we will share with Minister Norma Foley and Minister Simon Harris, both of whom will address our Congress.

There is no shortage of significant issues.


Unprecedented challenges

As in so many other areas of society, the unprecedented challenges posed by Covid-19 continue to have a massive effect on teaching and learning. Our schools and colleges have had to tackle the huge challenges of the pandemic on top of coping with the deficits caused by the chronically low level of investment in education by successive governments - including large class sizes, over-stretched pastoral support systems for students and education facilities which are often in a poor state of repair, inadequately ventilated and unsuited to modern teaching and learning.

Nonetheless, when emergency remote teaching and learning were required, our members and their students displayed innovation and dedication from the outset. However, there were worrying signs during these periods that not all students were in a position to engage fully due to a variety of reasons, the majority of which were beyond their control. It is a sad fact that there is nothing new in educational disadvantage, but it was clearly exacerbated by the pandemic. Already marginalised students lost out more than others. Targeted investment must be made available to assist those who struggled and continue to struggle.

While Covid-19 has created a multitude of new challenges and problems for the system, other key issues did not disappear.

Pay discrimination

Eleven years since its unilateral imposition by Government, pay discrimination still affects large numbers of teachers and lecturers, who earn less than their colleagues for carrying out the same work.

To resolve this scandalous injustice once and for all, it has been the TUI’s longstanding position that members, in solidarity with their colleagues, will forgo a 1 per cent pay increase payable on 1st February 2022 so that the equivalent value can be used to eliminate pay discrimination through a sectoral bargaining process.

For teachers, this money will allow payment of the Professional Master of Education (PME) allowance (currently valued at €1,314) to those who have commenced teaching since 2012. It will also allow a return to the pre-2011 system of commencing new, fully-qualified post-primary teachers on a higher point of the scale in recognition of their six-year, unpaid training period.

The money to end this scandal is resting in exchequer coffers, effectively donated by teachers themselves. Therefore, it is bizarre and perverse that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is dragging its heels and delaying resolution of the issue. This must be dealt with as a matter of urgency, not least because pay discrimination remains a central cause of the teacher recruitment and retention crisis in second level schoocruls.0

Extermal assessment

Senior Cycle reform will also be addressed. The TUI welcomed many elements of the Minister's recent announcement in relation to this area, but also made it very clear that State certification and external assessment are key to all developments and must be retained. The TUI has always been in favour of additional components of assessment - where appropriate - such as orals, aurals, project and portfolio work. Right now, 27 of 41 subjects at Senior Cycle have second (and sometimes third) components of assessment. These are externally assessed by the State Examinations Commission and this protects their integrity and reliability. This system works very well and - crucially - maintains public trust in the process. Why would anybody want to put this at risk?

In responding to the Minister’s proposals, the TUI will of course state what is blindingly obvious - the changes require resourcing, including time, and cannot be allowed to increase the already severe workload of teachers.

Funding crisis

At third level, the ongoing failure to address the funding crisis continues to have a significant negative impact, resulting in larger class sizes and less access to laboratories, equipment, materials, libraries and tutorials. Amid the opportunities which we all hope will be realised in the Technological University (TU) sector, there are enormous challenges - challenges in funding, in establishing a coherent, unified identity and mission for the sector and in finding the mechanisms to include Dundalk IT and IADT within TUs.

Meanwhile, in the Further and Adult Education sectors, it beggars belief that many staff members still do not have recognised, agreed terms and conditions of employment. This abject failure of management must be addressed urgently.

Overall, additional resourcing far beyond what is currently available is essential if our policymakers genuinely want to ensure that every learner is provided with as level a playing field as possible. Shamefully, the latest OECD Education At A Glance report (2021) shows that of the 36 countries for which figures are provided, none spends a lower proportion of national wealth on education than Ireland. The pandemic has brought the effects of this sustained and wilful neglect into sharp focus.

Safe sanctuary

The appalling devastation visited on the people of Ukraine by Russia's brutal invasion makes the need for decisive action extremely urgent. Ireland has acted honourably and swiftly in offering safe sanctuary to many thousands of the many millions forced from their homes and homeland. Irish educators, including the members of TUI, stand ready to do all we can to provide an appropriate, high quality education service to all who need it. We hope and trust that government will release the resources required to make this possible.

Now more than ever, appropriate investment in education must be seen as an essential expression of our core societal values. Investment in quality public education will secure the welfare of our people (both young and not-so-young), our economy and our society.

Michael Gillespie is Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary