Our annual congress is not a whinge-fest. It is about defending education quality

Opinion: This year’s annual congress of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland online will set the union’s priorities from delegates’ kitchens and sitting rooms up and down the country

Members of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) on strike outside Mount Temple Comprehensive in Clontarf, Dublin, over equal pay.Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Members of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) on strike outside Mount Temple Comprehensive in Clontarf, Dublin, over equal pay.Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

The annual congress of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) returns to its traditional post-Easter slot in 2021, albeit in a format that would have seemed barely imaginable just over a year ago. As with so many engagements these days, both professional and personal, this year’s event will be a remote one, online, and the traditional social interactions and mundane freedoms that we may previously have taken for granted will be sorely missed.

Despite how it will no doubt be characterised by some, our annual congress is not a whinge-fest; it is an important manifestation of robust democracy that seeks to defend the working terms and conditions of our members and that, in doing so, also defends the quality of our public education system. As the second largest Irish teacher union, TUI represents members working across a wide range of grades and levels. This gives the union a unique overview of the Irish education landscape.

Challenges

In terms of themes, the significant health and safety challenges posed by Covid-19 will feature prominently, as will the educational challenges - present and future - posed by the pandemic. In the 13 months since the Government initially closed the bricks-and-mortar structures of education workplaces, educators have continuously and consistently risen to a succession of significant challenges. They have provided high quality, remote teaching and later returned in person, despite serious concerns and anxieties, to barely recognisable working environments to provide more of the same. In this regard, we will make no excuse for raising our justified concerns and defending the health and safety of our members, our students and their families. It is our duty to do so.

Despite their clear preference for the trusted, conventional Leaving Certificate, teachers, recognising the unprecedented nature of the public health emergency, have also displayed significant flexibility in facilitating calculated grades in 2020 and accredited grades in 2021 to allow final year Leaving Certificate students to progress to the next stage of their lives.

Critically, our engagement with these alternative models has been strictly on the basis of necessity due to Covid-19 and cannot and will not be regarded as a precedent for, or as agreement to operate, any such measures in future years. Indeed, the same “no precedent” sign hangs on every emergency response to the pandemic.

While student engagement with remote learning improved in 2021, there were also worrying signs that many students were not in a position to engage fully for a variety of reasons. Regrettably, there is nothing new in educational disadvantage, but, as a society, we cannot allow it to be further worsened by the pandemic. In whatever form of “normal” we ultimately return to, targeted investment must be made available to assist those students who have lost out the most.

Pay discrimination

Meanwhile, other key issues have not gone away. Far from it, in fact. TUI members took strike action in February 2020 against the pay discrimination that affects our more recently appointed members, including teachers and assistant lecturers. Despite some modest gains under the new public service agreement, teachers employed after 2011 will still earn euro80,000 less over the course of their careers than colleagues teaching the same subjects in the same schools who commenced employment earlier. The 8 per cent fall in applications for second level teaching courses through the CAO this year shows the damage that a decade of pay discrimination has inflicted on the profession’s attractiveness, as does the huge struggle school principals continue to face in terms of teacher recruitment and retention across the country and across the breadth of subject areas. With student numbers set to rise sharply in the coming years at second level, resolution of this gross injustice must take on a new urgency.

In higher education, the abject political failure at national level to address the funding crisis continues to have a significant negative impact. There are also serious concerns over both resourcing and consultation in the move towards technological university status by consortia of institutes of technology, while the union will not tolerate breaches by management or by the Government in what has already been agreed.

Concern

In the hugely innovative further and adult education sectors, which can now assume an even more valuable role in upskilling post-Covid-19, the absence of recognised, agreed terms and conditions for many staff remains a matter of serious concern.

And across all education sectors, there has for many years now been a dizzying rise in bureaucratic and administrative demands, which, to the great frustration of our members, including those in educational leadership roles, deflects from teaching and learning.

Clearly, enhanced investment is required to tackle disadvantage and to provide all learners with as level a playing field as is possible. Yet successive governments have failed lamentably in this regard, with the latest OECD Education At A Glance figures showing that only three countries spend a lower proportion of national wealth on education than Ireland.

At second level, the situation is worse again with Ireland’s spend the lowest of the 36 countries for which figures are provided, leaving us trailing unacceptably far behind the OECD and European averages. The process of reversing this dereliction of duty must begin in earnest. Appropriate education spending must finally be seen as a necessary investment in the interlinked futures of our young people, our society and our economy.

While we look forward to a more traditional annual congress where old friends meet and new bonds are formed, this year’s will set the union’s priorities from the kitchens and sitting rooms of delegates up and down the country. However, the event remains a vitally important one.

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