Breda O’Brien: Government is holding back education

Instead of trying to solve ASTI row, bullying tactics are being used on teachers

Minister for Education Richard Bruton: says there is no way of managing current crisis. Photograph: Eric Luke

Matching the number of qualified teachers to the needs of schools and to available jobs is not an exact science, but the degree to which it is going wrong in Ireland is frightening. It is almost impossible to get teachers in specific subjects such as Irish, physics, home economics and European languages.

Yet Minister for Education Richard Bruton said this week there was no way of managing this crisis as there was no system in place and no money to create one.

So teachers in some subjects have virtually no hope of getting a job but entrants to the teaching profession are still being accepted in large numbers in those very subjects. Meanwhile, finding someone qualified to teach our native language or many other languages is virtually impossible.

It is yet more evidence of how little regard the Government has for young teachers. As a teacher, it is dispiriting to watch as the Government appears to have set its face against any resolution of the ASTI dispute.


It is a very difficult dispute to explain to the parents and the public. They can understand the relatively simple issue of teachers who do the same work receiving very different levels of pay. They sympathise with the difficulties newly qualified teachers face in securing enough teaching hours to make a living and understand how demoralising their greatly reduced level of job security is.

The public definitely does not understand the somewhat arcane problems of supervision and substitution, which concern supervision of pupils when not in class and providing cover for colleagues who are absent due to sickness, bereavement or other issues.

Drastic change

The general public knows even less about junior cycle reform. Even parents of children who are sitting the new exam in English this June are stunned to learn that the new exam will be one exam which is two hours long, whereas an older child in the same family would have had two exams, which lasted for five hours.

Longer exams are not by any means better, but it is a very drastic change, particularly given that there has been absolutely no change to the very long exams they will sit in English for their Leaving Cert.

Of course, education is not all about exams. Every teacher hopes to spark a real love for their subject in their students.

One of the most depressing aspects of the current dispute is the media coverage which implies that education has not advanced very far from Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dickens's Hard Times who was obsessed with "facts, facts, facts" and determined to repress emotion and creativity.

When I read about some of the so-called innovations in education, it is hard not to smile wryly. When I attended the teacher-training college Mater Dei decades ago, many of the strategies now being heralded as ground-breaking were in active use.

You faced the terrifying prospect of failing your teaching practice if you stood at the top of the classroom and lectured or depended on “chalk and talk” as it was called at the time.

There was a strong emphasis on active learning, of understanding how young people learn and leading them to higher levels of analysis and synthesis rather than depending on memorisation without understanding.

It gets so tedious to be lectured by journalists about the new and exciting educational methods we are allegedly failing to implement, given that many of these people have not been in a classroom since they sat at a school desk.

Pervasive feeling

There are new and exciting possibilities in the area of information and communication technology (ICT). There have been some grants recently in this area, but they remain pathetically inadequate.

Most teachers like to learn. There is a great buzz about learning new ways to use technology for educational purposes.

It is fantastic to see ways to get young people to move away from being passive consumers of social media to being producers of original content. It is very difficult to do that when the whole area of ICT has been so woefully neglected and underfunded.

There is a pervasive feeling among teachers that they are not trusted as professionals and that they are being overloaded with faddish initiatives and committees while their working conditions deteriorate.

A post of responsibility is the jargon-ish term used to describe roles other than teaching. It could cover anything from being a year head to organising the school’s own regular in-house exams. They represent one of the few means of promotion as a teacher.

However, these posts have also been subject to savage cuts, to the extent that many schools are limping along and cannot properly meet the needs of students. At a time when many young people are more vulnerable than ever, guidance counselling has disappeared completely in some schools, and there is serious underfunding of the educational psychology service.

Instead of attempting to resolve the dispute, the Government seems determined to escalate it.

Threatening teachers with redundancy while suggesting that those that leave the union will not be subject to such draconian penalties is the kind of bullying tactic that teachers would be expected to eradicate in their classrooms.