Secondary-school teachers return to class on Monday after yet another Easter of negative headlines. The rowdy scenes at their annual conference, first shouting down Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and then feuding about allegations of bullying between members, blotted their copybook badly.
And the irony is the biggest policy decision taken by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) this week was to improve its external communications. Deciding against any escalation of their industrial dispute over Quinn's Junior Cycle reforms, delegates voted instead to organise a PR campaign "to inform parents of the many issues and consequences" surrounding the plan. (Presumably, it won't be done through a megaphone.)
In many ways, ASTI’s woes are reflected in the broader trade union movement. Austerity has had a traumatising effect; the bargaining strength of officials evaporated overnight after so many years in which they effectively negotiated their own pay increases.
Like other unions, the ASTI now stands accused of "pulling up the ladder" on younger members of the profession, and this is what lies behind much of the current tensions. ASTI Fightback, the group that initiated the protests against Quinn by shouting him down with a loudspeaker, has become a voice for teachers with little job security, according to its co-ordinator, Mark Walshe.
A teacher in north Dublin and a member of People Before Profit, Walshe rejects the claim that he is unrepresentative of the union. “I speak more than anybody else at convention; I speak on every single motion,” he said, and sure enough he could be seen trooping up to the podium with indecent frequency over the three days. Walshe is the secretary of the Dublin North East branch and sits on the ASTI education committee. He says he was approached to run as vice-president a few years ago but couldn’t do so because he did not have a permanent teaching post.
The other face of ASTI Fightback this week was Andrew Phelan, a PE teacher from Coláiste Phádraig CBS Lucan in Co Dublin, better known simply as "Megaphone Man". He provided not only the picture moment of the congress, but the most memorable soundbite, likening the union leadership to the pigs in Animal Farm who had morphed into their masters.
“They dress the same as the Government Ministers; they talk the same as the Government Ministers; they eat in the same restaurants as the Government Ministers . . . They are just effectively another arm of the Government.”
According to Walshe, the disruption to the Minister’s speech – and it came from many quarters, including career guidance counsellors who are furious about the slashing of posts – stems from the union’s reactive culture. He says attempts were made to debate the Junior Cycle reforms as early as January 2013, but the ASTI officials delayed holding a special convention, “and now we’re a year behind in terms of opposing this. That was all down to the fact of the leadership not willing to listen to ordinary members on the ground who were saying they don’t want this Junior Cert, and unfortunately it has bubbled up into angry outbursts of frustration.”
The union's president-elect, Philip Irwin, whose initial attempts to bring order on Tuesday were ignored, describes the protests at "disappointing". But he takes issue with headlines saying the teachers had behaved like schoolchildren. "Teachers are adults and citizens, and therefore they have civil liberties like everybody else. So the comparison is not really a valid one."
A history teacher and transition-year coordinator at High School in Rathgar, Dublin 6, Irwin says delegates were angry with Quinn because they felt “extremely frustrated and excluded. I was surprised at how provocative he was; he says he didn’t set out to be provocative but I think he was.”
The Minister himself attracted a few critical headlines this week after he committed the faux pas of linking what he called the “highly feminised” nature of primary schools with a perceived weakness in mathematics among teachers. Quinn was also accused of “talking down” the education system – a charge he denied – and of heaping too many initiatives on an already stressed-out workforce.
The Dublin South East TD has made clear to his party leader, Eamon Gilmore, that he wants to stay in education and see through a set of reforms that he really believes in. But this week's controversies may make the Tánaiste think twice about keeping him there in the upcoming reshuffle.
All three union conferences proved contentious, including the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) meeting, at which teachers in further education expressed shock at proposals for extending courses through the summer. Quinn was accused by different quarters of not consulting properly – a claim he strongly rejected. However, he made clear there was a distinction between consultation and negotiation.
“The reform of the Junior Certificate is a political decision that I took following advice from a whole array of informed academics and educational experts. How it’s implemented – the way we approach it and the way we can do it – is of course subject to consultation.”
On a number of occasions, in defence of his position on the Junior Cycle, he referred to the more positive comments of TUI president Gerry Craughwell towards the plan. Craughwell described it as an "exciting development in Irish education", supporting the concept of overhauling the curriculum after 25 years but, critically, he said it wouldn't fly without added resources in schools.
Back at the ASTI congress, this analysis was greeted with an element of scorn. Among many ASTI delegates, the TUI is too soft – and also too fragmented, representing both secondary teachers and those in further education. A regular debating point is that the ASTI fought the hard fights with previous ministers and made all the major gains in terms and conditions which were then extended to the other teacher unions.
Irwin says the ASTI is open for talks on the planned Junior Cycle but regards as “a necessity” the retention of both external assessment and State certification at the end of third year. He suggests, moreover, that Quinn is tipping the balance too far away from traditional practices, and worries that Quinn “is not actually au fait with what is going on” in classrooms. While the concept of “rote learning” has become unfashionable, Irwin says, “We do want to see students getting knowledge as well as skills.”
A tougher stance will win the ASTI leadership some popularity, although probably not unity. A small number of delegates who spoke privately this week said they were growing more exasperated with the union’s rejectionist culture. One delegate rather cruelly described it as “learnt helplessness”, and there were several calls in public session for teachers to produce a concrete vision for their profession.
Whatever the reasons for the current standoff, it’s not good news for young people going through the education system. Students need teachers who embrace the curriculum at hand enthusiastically, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming towards it.