State of the unions: eight key issues to dominate teachers’ conferences

New entrant pay looks set to dominate teachers’ Easter gatherings

Delegates display their votes at the ASTI’s annual convention in Cork last year. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Delegates display their votes at the ASTI’s annual convention in Cork last year. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

 

When Minister for Education Joe McHugh arrives at teachers’ conferences this week, he will find a profession highly exercised about a number of key issues which they say are vital to protecting education standards. These are the key themes which are set to dominate:

1. Pay equality: closing the gap

Eight years on and the pay gap between teachers hired since 2011 and their longer-serving colleagues remains an ongoing sore at the heart of teaching.

Last Easter, all three teacher unions provided a united front by passing motions demanding that if this issue was not addressed by early May, a campaign of industrial action, up to and including strike action, would be pursued. May came and went, however, with no action.

Ultimately, the Government published proposals to narrow the gap further by for so-called new entrants by allowing two “jumps” in increments.

While the Government argued that this would effectively close the gap, unions argued that new entrant would still be on inferior terms in their early years.

The united front by teachers’ union was shaken when the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) voted in favour of the deal. It was rejected by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI).

The conferences this year will provide a chance for unions to seek to inject new energy into tackling the issue.

Motions at all three conferences are set to debate calling for Government to commit to the principle of equal pay for equal work and a timetable for its realisation in the coming pay deal.

While there have not been fresh threats of industrial action recently, it remains to be seen whether delegates – emboldened by recent action by nurses – demand to go down this road again.

2. Teacher supply

Teacher shortages are a problem right across the primary and secondary system, though they are impacting in different ways.

At primary, a shortage of substitutes means principals are often left desperately trying to find cover for sick leave, maternity leave or teachers involved in training.

At second level, schools are being left without qualified teachers in areas such as Irish, science, foreign languages, maths and other subjects.

All three teachers’ unions say that providing equal pay for equal work is the first step towards solving this problem.

In addition, expect calls for the establishment of teacher supply panels at primary level, which the INTO says would help provide a ready source of qualified teachers.

These are panels of substitute teachers who would be employed on full-time salaries to help schools source teaching cover at short notice.

While previously dismissed as too expensive, Minister for Education Joe McHugh has signalled that he is open to considering them in light of ongoing shortages.

3. Education reforms

Change traditionally comes slowly to education – though there’s quite a lot of reform taking place right across the education sector.

A new curriculum is in development at primary level, while junior cycle reforms are being rolled out at second level.

The biggest flashpoint, however, is likely to be reform of the senior cycle. While it is at a very early stage, both the ASTI and TUI will demand that any changes must involve externally-assessed, State-certified exams.

This was a key stumbling block in talks over junior cycle reforms a few years ago – and an area where teachers were, ultimately, victorious.

The ASTI will debate an undertaking from the Department of Education that the Leaving Cert will remain in place until the junior cycle is fully implemented and comprehensively reviewed.

Many teachers argue that we should proceed with caution on the road to reform and insist that the points system, rather then the curriculum, is to blame for the pressure on students.

4. Initiative overload

Teachers across the board say there has been a sharp increase in work caused by bureaucratic demands and “initiative overload”. They argue that this is deflecting them from core teaching and learning functions.

Simply put, teachers and lecturers want to teach, not to devote valuable time to what they see as frequently pointless box-ticking exercises. They are demanding a reduction in workloads and a slowdown in initiatives.

Luckily, they have a Minister for Education who is broadly on the same page and has pledged to slow down the pace of reform.

5.Special needs

While there has been huge investment in special education in recent years, many vulnerable children are still slipping through the cracks of the education system.

Many children face long delays in getting vital assessments which are key to helping tackle their conditions. Other do not have the support they require in the classroom.

The INTO is to debate motions calling on education authorities to ensure that schools have the right allocation of special education supports for pupils, while it will also argue the merit of including mental health as a special educational need. It will also seek more timely assessment of children who need access to therapies.

The ASTI’s focus, however, is a motion to resist the rollout of measures aimed at supporting students with special needs “until such time that every teacher is trained and equipped to offer these students the support and education they deserve”.

6. Underfunding of schools

While our education system is up there with some of the best in the developed world, OECD figures indicate that we invest significantly less than comparable countries.

Expected teacher unions to remind us of some of the following: class sizes remain significantly above international averages; capitation rates – the amount of funding per student – are too low to meet the basic needs of students; and cuts to guidance counselling and middle-management posts have yet to be fully unwound.

All three teachers’ conferences will debate different motions calling for investment to help address these austerity-era cuts.

7. Treatment of trainee teachers

As part of the two-year professional master’s of education – which replaced the old H Dip – teachers spend much of their second year of their education in the classroom.

However, teacher unions say they are highly vulnerable and often end up with pay for attending in-service training. Another bugbear is many are without official timetables, so they can often work longer hours and miss out on pay.

The ASTI is to demand that such students should be paid in the same way as other teachers and receive official timetables to ensure that at risk of exploitation.

8. Violence in the classroom

In primary schools, teachers and pupils say they have been the subject of assaults and violence carried out by pupils with behavioural problems. At second level, teachers, too, say they have been victims of violent incidents.

Many teacher feel unsupported and say they face growing levels of work-related stress but feel they have been disregarded by authorities. A number of motions are set to be debated which may call for school management bodies and the department to do more to respond to teachers’ concerns.

What’s on where:

INTO annual congress:

Galamont Hotel, Galway

April 22nd-24th

ASTI annual conference:

Clayton White’s Hotel, Wexford

April 23rd-25th

TUI annual congress:

INEC Killarney

April 23rd-25th