Leading the teachers and facing the media

My Education Week: Gerard Craughwell, President of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland



5.30am and I leave Castlebar for Dublin as the rain buckets down. Floods are shutting down large parts of Ireland. The N11 is closed.

As a month’s rain bears down on the capital in the space of a day, we are locked into a six-hour meeting of the TUI’s executive committee. In the room are 22 elected members of the TUI executive, along with the union officials. None of us is shy. It can get heated.

Five hours later, resolution is in sight. We have discussed what is coming up at the annual TUI congress. Everyone is on tenterhooks about an upcoming vote. Next Tuesday, we will know whether the TUI’s 15,000-strong membership has accepted or, as recommended by our executive, rejected the latest round of the Croke Park proposals. In our view it attacks our members pay, contains too many ambiguities, and doesn’t address the issue of the casualisation of the teaching profession at both second- and third-level.

I grab a few moments before bed to work on my conference speeches.

Up this morning at 6.30am. I try to get as much as I can done before the family are up and moving around the house. I engage in some of my better pastimes, including cooking a beef and Guinness stew for later on. But with congress coming up, I’m busy.

The TUI has a very broad remit. Our members include teachers in the vocational schools from Donegal to Wexford, further-education teachers, lecturers in institutes of technology, and apprentice teachers. That is why I love this job.

Breakfast with my wife, my son and his partner. My son is a super guy with a real commitment to natural justice, but he loves ribbing me about trade unionism. Often my daughter, who is an active member of the Irish Bank Officials’ Association, backs me up and my wife has to intervene to referee. Our exchanges can be heated and furious, but there’s never a dull moment.

I’m a bit of a latecomer to education. I spent some time in the army and, in 1980, set up my own business. I was successful, but very ambitious. Too ambitious. I overtraded, overextended myself, and went bust – rather dramatically so. We lost our family home. I understand the hardships that people are facing right now.

We had to start again. I rebuilt. After some study and retraining, I began working as a teacher in the further-education sector. From around 1999, I began to witness a deterioration in the conditions of teachers. However, I was permanent, pensionable, and had nobody to be afraid of, and so I could speak out.

In the morning, I meet the TUI’s principals and deputy principals association to talk about changes to the junior cycle.

We cautiously welcome modernisation, as long as teachers are trained, given time to do the work and paid properly for it. Most importantly, it needs to be externally moderated. We have to be realists: Minister Ruairí Quinn can impose change through legislation. But the issue of a schools-based certificate is a serious bone of contention. Will a cert from a school in a disadvantaged part of inner-city Dublin have the same value as, for instance, a certificate from Blackrock College?

For some students – the most vulnerable – the Junior Cert will be their end-point in education. We need to make sure it has a real value for them.

In the afternoon, there’s a staff meeting to look over next week’s conference agenda. I have to leave to be in Cork for a meeting about proposed reductions to the pupil-teacher ratio in the further-education sector. In three city schools, 29 teachers may be dislodged, while large numbers of programmes are under threat. It’s causing grave concern. Underlying all this is the need for a proper structure for the further-education sector, which is currently tied to second-level.

We are hoping that the Minister, who seems to listen, will act on our concerns.

Up at 5:30am to drive back to Dublin. We’re awaiting the ballot result at TUI head office.

At around 5pm, the result comes in. It’s a huge No, with more than 80 per cent against. Our members have followed our advice to reject these proposals. The proposals are terrible and an affront to educators. They are full of grey areas and lack clarity. I go straight out to RTÉ for an interview for the Six-One news.

I feel a little challenged. This changes everything. We must redraw our conference agenda. It’s now going to be about strategising. Where do we go from here? There is a lot to be done.

Our members’ vote is a game-changer. The phones are hopping with media requests. In some respects, for me personally, the No vote brings other problems.

I have to look down the barrel of a gun that has been pointing at the unions since this started, wait until mid-April when we cast our 14 votes in the Ictu public services committee, and await the overall outcome.

Will there be a Yes vote? I’m not so sure that public servants have been sold on this. It will be interesting to see what other trade unions do now.

The challenges for TUI are changing. In Croke Park I, for the first time, the negotiations resulted in worse terms and conditions for members. Since then, young teachers and lecturers have been cynically targeted by the Government. Unions are running to catch up. This is a critical issue for theTUI. We have our work cut out to engage with new teachers and lecturers who demand a solution-driven approach.

The vote against Croke Park makes changes in our congress agenda necessary and inevitable. This will present challenges for the Standing Orders Committee. Congress usually begins with a challenge to standing orders, and this year could be no exception.

I expect discussion at the conference will be animated with plenty of anger directed at the Government.

The issue of casualisation of teaching and lecturing will be high on the agenda. This is destroying job security for young teachers and lecturers and is causing a lot of resentment. Contrary to popular opinion, teachers are not well off. A large proportion of our members, employed on less than full hours, scraps of jobs, are living in poverty.

The crux of the problem here appears to lie with management rather than with the Department of Education. I lay the blame solidly at the door of some principals and HR departments in the institutes of technology who seem to believe that employing teachers or lecturers by the hour facilitates flexibility.

I receive a high volume of calls from teachers during the Easter break about personal issues. As the day closes, I stand in front of the mirror, writing, rehearsing, practising, and changing my speech. Have I covered everything? Possibly.

My brother sends a text threatening to sit in the front row and disrupt my left-wing rhetoric. He very well could. Am I nervous? Yes. But I’m excited about what this profession can achieve. Bring it on.