Irish Times view on teachers’ annual conferences

Minister for Education Joe McHugh must follow words with action

 Minister for Education Joe McHugh speaking  at the ASTI annual convention in Wexford. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Education Joe McHugh speaking at the ASTI annual convention in Wexford. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The bitter legacy of two-tier pay dominated teachers’ conferences again this year as unions argued that members hired after 2011 continue to face financial losses compared to longer-serving colleagues. This pay discrimination is having a negative effect on the attractiveness of the profession, they say, and on the recruitment and retention of teachers. Minister for Education Joe McHugh said this “unfinished business” will be considered in either a pay review or the next pay deal which is due to come into force towards the end of next year. The Department of Public Expenditure was more cautious.

Most would agree that significant progress has been made in narrowing the gap between younger teachers and those hired prior to 2011. However, many new entrants continue to face financial losses, especially in the first few years after recruitment.

Eight years after these austerity-era measures were introduced, a resolution is needed. But that alone will not resolve the many urgent issues facing the education sector. As many as half of secondary schools are struggling with unfilled teacher vacancies in key subjects such as Irish, maths and science, according to surveys. Many primary schools are also unable to source substitute cover for short-term absences.

A contributory factor is the high cost of completing post-graduate teaching qualifications. In fact, it can take almost as long and cost more to become a teacher than to become a doctor. Many teachers are also struggling with fragments of work in the early stages of their careers. It is no surprise that many graduates who might have considered teaching as an occupation are attracted to more lucrative work elsewhere. As a result, students are being left with unqualified staff or teachers without expertise to deliver subjects.

The solutions – matching teacher supply with demand or incentivising certain subjects – are not all that difficult. Yet, most of the remedies offered by the Government so far resemble sticking-plaster solutions or pledges to further explore proposals in greater detail.

There is also the wider issue of under-investment in the sector. This week’s conferences heard that many schools, especially at primary level, are struggling with low levels of funding. Many say they are forced to hold raffles or cake-sales just to pay electricity bills. They have a point: international research indicates that the Irish system is being run on a relative shoe-string compared with many other top-performing countries.

McHugh, who was met with an untypically warm reception from conference delegates, made many promises to tackle these issues. He has raised expectations that solutions will be found and that funding will be increased. Teachers will judge him by his actions, not his words.