Teachers go bottom of class for menacing new Minister


Delegates at last week’s teacher conferences started to look like playground bullies, writes ANN MARIE HOURIHANE

WHEN IS the last time you were at a conference? Me neither. Conference, it’s an old-fashioned word. We seem somehow to be in conference season – a phrase that always reminds me of the tower at Blackpool prom, but that’s what happens when you grew up in five-channel land. Conference season – it seems to unspool in black and white, under leaden skies.

I have been to conferences of course, and I can see their attraction – conferences can never be all bad for those of us who love hotels. But a conference does seem a strange strategy in modern times.

Presumably conferences started in the days when the workers and party activists had no access to personal telephones, foreign holidays or motorised transport of their own. Off they all went in a charabanc for a bit of communal bonding. And jolly good fun it must have been.

I do not wish to take even more business from the unfortunate Irish hotel industry; it is always most enjoyable walking up and down carpeted corridors, running very deep baths and meeting your mates in the bar. Nor do I underestimate the thrill of plotting amongst the other backroom boys and girls. But now we all have e-mail, mobiles, Twitter and the telly, what is the point of having a conference?

It is interesting to note who holds conferences – or should that be throws conferences? – these days. The political parties. The trade unions. The bishops. Uh oh, it is quite a list. On the other hand, lawyers, it is somewhat disturbing to note, do not seem particularly fond of the conference. And given lawyers’ ruthlessness, famed opportunism and shameless love of luxury, that fact can probably be taken as a bad sign for the conference in general.

Of course lawyers, like doctors, are appallingly well paid and in constant competition with each other. They’re not really the communal type. Everybody understands that the conference is about mustering the troops, and making them feel better about themselves. And of course it is also about showing your enemies how many boots you can put on the ground, should you decide in your wisdom to do so. But the conference can backfire.

Take the teachers’ conferences, which were held last week. I never thought that I would feel sorry for Mary Coughlan. But I did. Not that Mary Coughlan needs anyone to feel sorry for her. She’s a tough girl, bless her. That’s why the Taoiseach appointed her as Minister for Education and Skills – an illiterate title if ever there was one – because she could cope with the teachers’ conferences.

Toughness is a political skill. But there was something embarrassing about the reception Coughlan was accorded by the various teachers’ organisations. Our view of each other’s jobs is influenced by stereotype, no matter how hard we try to resist it. Therefore it doesn’t look very becoming to the great unwashed when we see the Minister for Education escorted from the hall at the annual congress of . . . er, teachers.

Similarly it may be old-fashioned but it sounds a bit peculiar when you hear the head teacher pleading for good behaviour from a conference of teachers. And then having to encourage teachers to restrain themselves. Yet this is exactly what the general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, Peter MacMenamin, had to do before Mary Coughlan arrived at the TUI conference in Ennis, Co Clare, last Wednesday.

You would not have thought that any representative of this Government, at this moment, could arouse your sympathy. But with so many teachers, and only one live target, the teachers surely gave away the slim public relations advantage they had. And started to look like playground bullies. This is the constant danger of the conference, which can tip from impressive show of strength to mob rule with a buffet.

The Minister knows this well. Her own organisation, Fianna Fáil, is expert itself at the rabble rousing everybody-hates-us-and-we-don’t care conference, which they call an ardfheis. At all conferences the overwhelming sound is of logic biting the dust, just before the organisation cheers itself to the rafters.

If this sounds mind-numbingly boring then that’s because it is. One of the most striking things to emerge from the acres of coverage of last week’s teachers’ conferences – and there was far too much coverage of them as far as a lot of us were concerned – was the point made by Seán Flynn , Irish Timeseducation correspondent, on Thursday. At the annual convention of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (Asti), which took place in Galway, Seán Flynn noted that “the mood was one of congratulation as delegates applauded their own militancy”.

Crucially for all conference holders, Seán Flynn went on to observe that the age profile of Asti members present, which included retired teachers with full voting rights, was dominated by teachers in their 40s and 50s. Younger teachers were notable, as the headline over the article had it, by their absence. Conferences are for old people and for the middle-aged. Every organisation that relies on the conference is going to have to rethink the whole format, if it is even to succeed in its task of talking to itself.

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