Teachers working in commercial English language schools are poorly paid, on precarious contracts and employed in a sector where low morale is commonplace, according to a Government report.
The findings are contained in a report by an independent mediator who was tasked by Minister of State for higher education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, to engage with teachers and employers on employment standards in the sector.
The move was prompted by the sudden collapse last year of Grafton College, an English language school, as well as long-standing concerns over working conditions in a sector with more than 100 schools.
The mediator, Patrick King, found the great majority of teachers he interviewed were "highly critical" of the working conditions in English language schools. He said most expressed concerns about the "precarious nature of their employment" given the closure of a large number of schools with little or no notice to staff.
Teachers also complained about the uncertainty of their teaching hours, inadequacy of their contracts, low pay, lack of payment for non-teaching work and absence of leave entitlements.
In separate meetings with almost 100 employers, he said there was little evidence of a desire for statutorily-based minimum working conditions. However, he found there was a strong desire expressed by employers for a “strict accreditation regime for schools with adherence to common standards being consistently applied to all schools”.
Mr King’s report recommends the introduction of minimum employment standards to protect employees and prevent schools from undercutting each other through the use of lower standards.
Ms Mitchell O’Connor said she has reviewed the mediator’s recommendations in detail, and accepted his advice that an employment regulation order is the best way to proceed in regulating employment conditions in the sector.
She has written to Pat Breen TD, the Minister of State for employment matters, formally requesting the establishment of a Joint Labour Committee.
This body would address all aspects of the working conditions and pay of employees in English language schools with a view to setting minimum standards for the sector. Similar agreements are in places for contract cleaning and security industries.
Ms Mitchell O’Connor said “substantial progress” had now been made in securing agreement for a set of appropriate employment standards for this sector.
"I would like to acknowledge the engagement of all sides in the mediation process," Ms Mitchell O'Connor said. "My key objective is to ensure that Ireland has an English language sector that we can all have confidence in and which provides a quality education to international students coming to Ireland to learn English.
“Strengthening the employment terms and conditions of teachers and staff working in this sector is a central element in ensuring the quality of that educational provision.”
Mr King’s report notes that many thousands of students travel from all over the world to attend English language courses in Ireland.
He said this, to a great extent, was due to the excellent standing Ireland has as an education provider. However, this reputation was “fragile and is damaged each time an English language school closes at short notice”.
“It is also damaged when there is evidence that school employees are poorly paid and have unfair working conditions. Teachers in the schools state that low staff morale is commonplace, and some cite examples of high levels of stress and distress caused by their poor working environment.”