Voting No in anger is not a luxury teachers can afford

Opinion: The difficulties in schools arising from cutbacks made little impression on a public distracted by heckling

Delegates convey their anger as Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn addresses the ASTI convention on Tuesday. Photograph: Patrick Browne

The education conferences are over for another year, and the opportunity that Easter week offers to teachers through their trade unions to communicate their key messages has again been squandered. From a Government perspective the events of the past week have been a huge public relations success. None of the problems now arising in our schools and colleges from the cutbacks imposed in the past four years, which should be causing the Government acute political difficulties, made any impression on the public consciousness this week.

This was because of the unruly conduct of a small minority of conference delegates. For the casual observer going about their day-to-day business, the only aspect of the conferences which hit home strongly was this behaviour by teachers, holding up red cards to Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, while others heckled him constantly as he delivered his address. The fact that the Minister was treated in this manner on the day he celebrated his birthday, while he attended the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland conferences at their invitation, magnified the public relations disaster this week became for the entire education sector.

All of us have an innate sense of how we expect an invited Minister to be treated, even if you fundamentally disagree with how he is formulating and implementing policy. The most common public reaction to this behaviour which I encountered this week was the question of how those same teachers would feel if their own students behaved in that manner, when they return to their classrooms on Monday morning?

While the public were distracted by these antics there were really important debates taking place at all three conferences during the week, on a wide range of educational issues, which teachers really wanted the public to engage with. As indicated in the Millward Brown survey published by the ASTI on Wednesday, 98 per cent of second-level schools have lost an average of two full-time subject teachers since the onset of the education cutbacks.


Many schools have also lost specialist teachers (such as resource teachers, home school liaison teachers etc.). Forty per cent of schools have lost learning support/ resource teaching hours, while 37 per cent have lost English-language support teaching hours. Thirty-eight per cent of schools said they had dropped at least one subject at Leaving Certificate level as a result of losing subject teachers.

Huge pressures
As the guidance counsellor in Oatlands College myself, I am acutely conscious of the huge pressures which have built up in schools as a result of the cutbacks imposed since 2008. As reported by Louise Holden in The Irish Times yesterday Ciara Kinsella, a teacher of Irish and history at St Raphael's secondary school in Stillorgan, stated at the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland conference: "This year is the worst I've ever seen. It's not your typical adolescent stuff. Their parents have lost jobs and in some cases the girls have had no breakfast. They're hungry."

Career guidance services in the school were stretched very thin and the school counsellor was “shattered and exhausted”, she said. In her Irish class, she had 35 students and not enough chairs. “I find myself hoping that students will be absent.”

The effects on the lives of our children of the cumulative effect of all the cubacks in our education system imposed in recent years, including the abolition of dedicated hours for the provision of guidance counselling and the resultant loss of one-to-one counselling in 70 per cent of schools, as indicated in the Millward Brown survey, was totally overshadowed by the public reaction to the unruly behaviour of a small minority of teachers, expressing their anger at the ongoing cuts to their salaries, and to the resources invested in our schools.

Efforts by ASTI general secretary Pat King to rescue the situation through his statement publicly condemning the behaviour of the teachers who engaged in those actions, and the more disciplined approach of the Teachers' Union of Ireland delegates on Wednesday, did little to repair the damage caused by Tuesday's events.

What happens now? It is clear that there is huge anger among teachers at the effects of the cutbacks on the quality of education which can now be delivered in our schools as well as over how the cutbacks in salaries have impacted on their personal lives. I am still not certain that this anger will translate into a No vote on Croke Park II within the INTO, although the mood at its conference this week would indicate that anger may yet override all other considerations.

Crucial vote
What is clear is that the INTO vote is crucial as to whether the proposed Croke Park agreement will secure a majority at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu). On the ground, most teachers earning less than €65,000 realise that the loss of substitution and supervision, which after tax is worth about €600 per year, is a far better deal than the across-the-board cut of 7 per cent which the Government has indicated it will impose, if the proposed package of measures is rejected.

Having said that, the TUI seems to be determined to possibly break with Ictu and consider strike action if the proposals are accepted by a majority at congress. The ASTI went down that route some years back and deeply regretted it. Nobody within the teacher unions or the wider public service is coming forward with proposals as to how far they are prepared to go to defy the Government's determination to cut the public service pay bill by a further €1 billion over the next three years.

Calls from the chairwoman of Impact’s education division, Gina O’Brien, who represents 10,000 lower-paid staff working as special needs assistants and school secretaries, on teachers to support the proposals, may yet be heard at school level, as members fill in their ballot papers on Croke Park over the coming week. The voices of recently recruited teachers who will have their increments restored under the proposals may also sway some of their colleagues to support the deal.

Whatever happens, teachers need to remember that anger is not a policy. Voting No simply to let the Government know the level of our frustration at the effects of the EU-IMF is not a luxury we can afford, unless we can see a clear pathway of actions following such a vote.

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and a member of the ASTI