Recently, secondary teachers from the ASTI and TUI unions met at two separate conferences to discuss the state of Ireland’s post-primary education system and to outline their demands and vision for the immediate future.
One particular issue dominated both: guaranteed pay parity for new teachers. Because of austerity-era pay cuts, newly qualified teachers hired from 2011 are paid less than their more established counterparts.
The situation was made even more complex when ASTI voted against the Lansdowne Road deal and refused to participate in Croke Park hours.
As a result, some of its members are paid less. TUI members, who accepted the deal, work the Croke Park hours and have received the additional benefits, such as payment for supervision and substitution.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the divergent stances adopted by the unions on Croke Park, and the two-tier pay scale that has emerged as a consequence, is having catastrophic consequences not only on morale, but on the overall quality of Ireland’s education system and the delivery of meaningful reform.
The continued brinkmanship on reform will severely undermine the welfare of individual teachers and schools
The TUI recently released results of a poll that showed nearly one-third of new post-primary education graduates think it is unlikely or very unlikely that they will still be in the job in 10 years.
Should even a small percentage of this group follow through on their sentiment, Ireland will be left with a massive shortage of teachers in a relatively short space of time.
The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), which I represent, does not have an industrial relations remit.
However, it is the job of the school principal to lead, ensuring that the school environment is a harmonious and equitable one for both teachers and pupils.
It must be said, therefore, that this continued brinkmanship on reform will severely undermine the welfare of individual teachers and schools, and the education system as a whole.
Indeed, it has already slowed down one of the most important and much needed changes to the Irish education system in recent times: junior cycle reform.
Left unresolved, the conflict will damage the quality of education provided in those schools where teachers are granted “professional time”, in particular dual union schools and the voluntary secondary sector.
Anecdotally, parents are voting with their feet and sending their children to TUI schools where there is no fear of industrial action; not unreasonably, teachers, too, will seek out a more positive and fulfilling workplace.
This “brain drain” effect will mean that in some schools, certain subjects may disappear from the curriculum as a result of teacher shortages and timetabling anomalies.
Some senior cycle subjects such as chemistry and physics may see the merging of fifth- and sixth-year classes, ultimately disadvantaging every pupil and putting further pressure on teachers.
Even now, for schools with staff in both the TUI and ASTI, scheduling timetables for teachers on different hours has become a logistical nightmare.
Without certainty on what hours which teachers can work, pupils returning for the 2017/18 school year could be shuffled into different classes or find their subject choices are no longer available.
The longer the dispute continues, the more profound the effects will be on the quality of our children’s education.
Internal strife will also make meeting the Government’s ambitious Action Plan for Education targets by 2026 difficult, if not impossible.
While Ireland is recovering economically, there is a limit to the amount of additional funds available for education, and investment in education is vital.
On a macroeconomic scale, we are living in a period of huge opportunity. The UK’s protracted departure from the EU will undoubtedly see increased multinational investment in other European countries.
We are seeing the emergence of a gap between teachers based on their union membership
To what extent that investment is targeted at Ireland is up to us. For big business decision-makers eyeing up new spots for offices and headquarters, a certain, long-term supply of well-rounded, educated graduates is a fundamental consideration.
If it is clear to them that our schools are not adequately providing children with the right skills, they will simply choose rival countries.
This is particularly true from a Stem perspective. The importance of science, tech, engineering and mathematics skills in the global economy of the 21st-century simply cannot be overstated.
To really get ahead in today’s world, fluency in a programming language is just as important as fluency in French or German, if not more so.
Without a uniformly agreed method of delivering a certain standard of Stem education at all levels and without an adequate number of teachers to provide it, we will be severely disadvantaged in the long term.
Our education system is therefore in a delicate position. Tensions are high. Important practicalities, such as timetabling and day-to-day management, are proving frustratingly complex.
All of this is happening at a time when equal access to education is at the forefront of the national agenda.
Reform is needed, but we are seeing the emergence of a gap between teachers based on their union membership.
Without a common position, this rift will widen, while pupils, parents and the country as a whole will suffer.
Clive Byrne is director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD).