It’s been a stormy few years for education. Since the recession arrived in 2008, teachers have protested, loudly, about cutbacks and changes to the education system. Like it or not, the teaching profession has arguably the most vocal of all trade unions, and they have some degree of clout in deciding where the money goes and what the policies are.
Secondary-school teachers have received most of the media coverage, with a seemingly endless parade of strikes, threatened strikes and various forms of industrial action – and the proposed junior cycle reforms top the teacher grievance list. By contrast, primary teachers appear, at least on the surface, to be happier with their lot, but this belies simmering grievances.
With an election on the horizon, teachers and their representatives will go into conferences this week fighting for increased investment in education. We asked teachers what the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, should fight for in Budget 2016. If there’s more money for education, where should it go?
Teacher with the autism unit at Carrigaline Educate Together National School, Co Cork. He wants funding for learning support
“Money should go to increased funding for special needs and learning support. More and more children with special needs are being integrated successfully into Irish primary schools, but to continue to do this they must get the support they need. Special-needs assistant provision must be increased to ensure these children are fully supported in class. Many of these children require specific equipment or materials to allow them to fully participate, and, while costly, these must be provided. It isn’t enough to just provide them with the same materials as other children. If we are going to label them as ‘special’, then let’s also treat them as such.”
Cahill also wants to see more continuous professional development in information and computer technology, as well as more funding for research by teachers.
Teaching principal at Faugher National School, Donegal. Her priority is investment in special education
“With all the recent cuts in this area, I feel, as a principal, I have to fight to get special-needs children assessed and then get them the help they need. The demands for these resources are always rising, yet the amount of help and support available to schools is not there. Despite sending countless reports and having meeting after meeting with various professionals, we have to tell the parent that their child did not qualify under the criteria and will not receive the support needed to reach their full potential in the most important years of the child’s education.”
McDaid also says the workload of teaching principals has increased dramatically over the past few years and is continuing to do so. She feels this must change.
Drogheda College of Further Education. He is keen to address the inequalities imposed on young teachers
“There are now three different pay scales for teachers. Our youngest, most enthusiastic and brightest teachers are now devalued compared to the rest of their colleagues, simply because of the date they joined the service.
“The disappearance of a degree allowance further compounds the problem. I recently had to tell a teacher with a PhD that she was not entitled to an allowance despite her spending over 10 years at third level. This young teacher is undervalued. If we don’t reward teachers who educate themselves to the highest level, then we are effectively sending out the message that we don’t value education when it comes to teachers.
“If we are not careful we will have a massive flight of young teachers from the profession, as is happening in the UK. But if we reward our young teachers, they will reward the system with loyalty and commitment.”
Williams, who has more than 30 years’ teaching experience, is also concerned about the casualisation of the profession. He believes that if a young teacher is lucky enough to secure a full-time job, there is little or no prospect of promotion, and this should change.
Learning support teacher in a four-teacher primary school in Trim, Co Meath. He would prioritise early-years funding
“Poverty, disadvantage and inequality are having a major impact on pupils: the accident of birth is the principal source of educational disadvantage.
Research has shown that investment in the early years can make a substantial difference. Placing 30 five- and six-year-olds into a classroom and keeping them engaged and learning is a difficult task. The children most in need of individual attention gain the least. We need to develop proper prenatal care, preschool care and other resources.”
Teacher at Coláiste Íde agus Iosef in Co Limerick. He believes we must ensure equality of access and opportunity
“It’s a constant challenge, but resources in areas like learning and language support must be maintained and developed.
“We must also reverse the cuts in guidance counselling so all students will get the one-to-one assistance they need in choosing a career and getting pastoral care.
“This must also involve developing strategies to raise the percentage of Traveller students completing second-level. And students from minority backgrounds should not be faced with a narrowing choice of second-level schools: nobody should feel their school is a ghetto.”
Curtin also wants to see a restoration of the common pay scale to all teachers, and thinks all school buildings should be brought up to a minimum standard.
Principal of Ballybrown National School in Limerick. He wants investment in continuous professional development
“Teachers have taken cuts of 30 per cent to their income. We’ve taken on so many new initiatives, and it’s time to show some appreciation. It’s time to pay it back.”
Lyons wants to see increased investment in continuous professional development so they don’t have to pay for it themselves. He says this is provided for principals and literacy and numeracy co-ordinators, but all teachers could benefit from this training. He also wants to see teacher salaries restored to 2008 levels.
Teacher at Muckross Park, Donnybrook, Dublin 4. Seeks improvement in pupil-teacher ratios
Pupil-teacher ratios currently stand at 19:1 in non-fee paying schools and 23:1 in fee-paying schools. Improving this “would allow schools to employ more teachers, reducing some class sizes and providing a wider range of subjects in many areas. More staff gives us options for providing smaller classes for weaker students. In recent years, schools have had to drop subjects and many teachers are employed on contracts for a few hours a week. This ‘hours culture’ is having a seriously detrimental effect on our newly qualified teachers and on education as a whole.”
Lynch also wants to see an abolition of the Croke Park hours, under which teachers agreed to work for an extra 33 hours per year on planning, administration and professional development. She says the extra hours are demoralising and have eaten into time that would be spent on extracurricular activities and correction time, and pose huge difficulties for teachers with childcare arrangements.
Lecturer at the school of technology, engineering and maths at the Institute of Technology Tralee, and a member of the TUI. Her main concern is raised repeatedly by her colleagues in institutes of technology and universities throughout Ireland: casualisation
“Casualisation is a scourge. Picture this: your child has studied for years at third-level and graduates with a master’s or PhD. You hope she gets a very good job from her years of study and research. She wants to teach, and is full of ideas and enthusiasm for her subject area and how she wants to impart it. She gets part-time work at an IT. She hopes this will lead to a full-time job. Over three years later, if she is lucky, she has a contract of indefinite duration of five hours per week and has to compete with many others for additional part-time hours. Competition is high. Sometimes she gets the additional hours, sometimes not. She has just a fragment of a job.”
In Courtney’s college, up to 25 per cent of academics are part-time temporary and part-time CIDs. Some are on as little as 2.25 hours per week. She says they feel very isolated from everyday academic life and may not even have office space.
“Over the next years, the third-level sector is going to lose more and more full-time staff due to retirement, and there is a danger they are going to be replaced solely by larger numbers of part-time teaching staff on few hours. Giving people full-time jobs allows them to make full use of their knowledge and skills to make a greater contribution to their institutes, programme development and students. It is important to ensure that teaching and lecturing is an attractive option.”
A second-level teacher at a Deis school in Clondalkin, Dublin. Her main priority is to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio
“In a disadvantaged school, the number of students in a class has a huge effect on the learning outcomes for the students, who begin second level with depressed literacy and numeracy attainment.
“If the Government really wants to see improvements in this country’s scores on international tests such as Pisa, then they must invest in education and reduce class size.”
O’Connell also wants to see a reversal of cuts to guidance counselling.
“Sometimes, principals may maintain the guidance service but have to increase the numbers in other classess and sometimes drop other subject options. Other times, guidance counsellors have been given class groups to teach, meaning there is no longer a counsellor on call in the school. The most vulnerable children – those who need counselling – are severely disadvantaged.”
Teacher at Mount St Michael, Co Cork. She wants to see the restoration of an equitable salary scale for all teachers
“Over the last six years, teachers, and other public servants, experienced an average 19 per cent pay cut as a result of austerity. The additional cut for younger teachers, starting on a considerably lower point on the salary scale, has been the most cynical by far. More than half of teachers under the age of 30 are on short-term, part-time and substitute contracts. This is unsustainable.”
THE UNIONS: WHAT THEY WANT
The three main teaching unions will hold their annual conferences this week. Where do the union leaders think the money should go?
Sheila Nunan (below) is general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO). She says the union has a number of priorities, starting with a reduction in class size to the EU average, which could be achieved over the next five to six years. Average class size in Ireland is 25 pupils, the second highest in the EU. One in five is in a class of more than 30 pupils. The norm across the EU is 20 pupils per class.
The union will push for a doubling of release time for teaching principals. “A teaching principal has only 22 days to do increasing amounts of leadership, paperwork and administration. It cannot be done in that time.”
The INTO will fight to increase the number of assistant principal posts at primary level and for principals and deputies to be paid an increase of 2-4.5 per cent. It will argue for greater levels of spending on education as a percentage of GDP; currently it is 6.6 per cent compared with 8.8 per cent in Scandinavian countries.
The two second-level unions have similar concerns.
Pat King, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) will argue Ireland's secondary schools are underfunded. He says there should be an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, more guidance counsellors and a reversal of the public service pension levy.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) says if there is more money available, it should first be directed towards increasing the number of teachers in schools and colleges of further education as well as lecturers in institutes of technology. The union says the increasing casualisation of teaching and lecturing should end, viable career paths are needed, and salary scales should be equal, irrespective of when teachers started working. Finally, it says, cuts to guidance should be reversed, while year heads should be appointed and paid to provide student supports.