Internal politics in teacher unions has become obstacle

Analysis: Cooperation with junior cycle plan may be used as a bargaining chip

Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan announcing she intends to continue rolling out the planned new junior cycle programme without the agreement of teacher unions while at the Labour Party annual conference. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The decision of Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan to push ahead with junior cycle reform without the agreement of teachers may seem drastic. But it comes after more than 50 hours of talks between the two parties, during which only one side made any clear movement.

Last November, Ms O’Sullivan watered down the plan of her predecessor Ruairí Quinn, proposing just 40 per cent of the new junior cycle certificate would come from school-based assessment, instead of 100 per cent. The unions still went ahead with strike action, shutting schools for two days in December and January.

Last month, she then accepted a compromise plan drawn up by talks chairman Dr Pauric Travers to split the new junior cycle certificate in two. Students would take exams as per usual but these would be combined with school-based assessments recorded separately on a “Profile of Achievement”.

This met a key demand expressed by the unions that they did not wish to assess their own pupils for state certification.

However, the executive bodies of the ASTI and TUI decided after a long and fractious meeting on Friday to reject the thrust of Dr Travers’ plan, and to seek further concessions.

The nature of Friday’s joint union meeting highlights the challenge the department has been facing in talks. There are splits within and between the ASTI and TUI over how best to advance their grievances.

And, as Dr Travers has pointed out, some of the issues being raised by the unions have nothing to do with the reforms per se.

“A decade of rapid social, demographic and educational change followed by salary cuts, deteriorating career structures and casualisation have left many teachers alienated and distrustful, even of initiatives which may be to their professional benefit,” he said.

Dr Travers is no department stooge. Yet he has emphatically rejected what he called the “well-articulated concern” that school-based assessment would expose teachers to undue pressure or corruption.

It must also be remembered that, prior to direct talks with the department, the unions had other opportunities to influence the reforms.

Union representatives made up nine of the 25 seats on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which agreed the reform plan in the first place in 2011. In contrast, just two of the seats are reserved for parents’ groups.

Union leaders are now coming under pressure to put Dr Travers’ plan to ballot. Many principals – who are also ASTI members – have backed the reforms, and there is increasing disquiet among young teachers in particular about the prospect of more strike dates and the consequent loss of pay.

Hardliners believe, however, that cooperation with the reforms could be used as a bargaining chip in the talks later this year on a public sector pay rise.

Complicating matters is that the two unions are heading into congress season when a number of officials will be going forward for re-election.

A hangover from the days of social partnership is that any official seen to be “deal-making” with the department is immediately regarded as suspect.

But leadership means more than saying “No”, and it would be a great shame if the unions’ internal politics was allowed to trip up a modernisation programme that teachers themselves say is long overdue.

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