Wednesday 22 October 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Asti has no strategy, no endgame, just a No vote

Teachers are feeling increasingly angry about being hung out to dry by their union, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 24/11/2013 | 01:00

PAT KING: The Asti general secretary 'seemed relieved he had something to hang his hat on' when talks produced a proposal for members to vote on.

A few weeks ago, in this paper I wrote that the Asti was like the Grand old Duke of York, who marched his men up the hill and then marched them down again. I thought the union would have to march back into line as there was no chance of the Government bending the terms of the Haddington Road agreement for one union. Anyway I was entirely wrong, as the union's central executive committee in advocating another No vote last week wants the second-level teachers to go farther and walk lemming-like over the cliff.

Last week it appeared as if the Government had thrown the union a bone to get it off the hook it had managed to impale itself on. But the loony left have taken over and there is no surrender. Quite what the union now wants is unclear, there is no strategy, no endgame. Just No. It appears that Haddington Road will have to be scrapped for one small group, and even what is sought after that is as clear as a black night.

When Asti general secretary Pat King emerged from talks last week he seemed to be relieved that he had something he could hang his hat on. Now it has got much worse, there was movement on several issues and even if they were coming anyway it was no harm for the Department to allow the union to claim credit.

A review of anything is easy to promise, and it will happen in a few crucial areas. Finally the fiasco of the Croke Park hours seems to have percolated through. The sensible application in a new system will set aside a certain number of hours for parent-teacher meetings, staff meetings and subject planning outside school hours, while the rest of the 33 hours can be at the discretion of individual schools. Therefore things like sport, drama, some school educational trips, debates, professional development courses (at night or weekends) and so on can be sanctioned by the school principal and signed off on. At the beginning of each year staff could set out exactly how they intend to use this time, and this will encourage teachers to get involved in extra school-based activities.

Some are putting in 100 hours or more at present and it is only right that they get recognition for it. For others it will mean looking at various ways to make a contribution, as not everyone is going to get involved in sport or music. At least I hope this is the way it will turn out.

When the central executive committee of the Asti urged a No vote on Saturday, it seemed the game was up and it did not take long for the skeletons to start falling out of the cupboard. All along, Asti said it was was not after money, now it had got movement on extra posts of responsibility (a very important concession), as middle management in schools has been decimated, Croke Park hours and a few other things and it still was not acceptable. Nobody now knows what the union wants. In the end it is always money with the Asti.

It looks as if the Asti is caught in some type of time warp. The first thing that most sensible people realise at this remove is that the benchmarking process of a decade ago was a mess and the reforms promised never materialised. It was a pure slot-machine exercise. Then when the wheels fell off there was a general feeling among public servants that they had to carry the can for others' mistakes. On the other side there are the arguments about public servants' pay being still far too high, so you could argue around this all day and not square that particular circle. And lingering resentment solves nothing.

Yet a new reality has dawned for all public servants, and most teachers do realise it. They have jobs, and understand fully that parents will not look favourably on any disruption of the school year. Already half days are being called to cater for parent-teacher meetings – meaning a loss of tuition time, and parents who are working are being severely inconvenienced.

Parents also see family members unemployed, young people emigrating, some going to England from Monday to Friday or even longer and compare that to the teacher who is in a much better position. We may not be comparing like with like, but parental anger with teachers who could be damaging their children's education is not far away.

Where does this go now? A No vote means war, as the full implementation of the Haddington Road agreement means supervision and substitution for all teachers. The Asti is refusing to do that so schools will automatically close – that is the path we are on at the moment and the union can whistle Dixie if it somehow believes that the Haddington Road agreement will be changed just to suit it. How many teachers would like the prospect of walking up and down with a placard outside schools? The union of course will say this is scaremongering, but that is what we are facing.

The genuine concerns about the new Junior Cycle, especially about teachers marking their own students, can be addressed in some of these new forums. A little bit of lateral thinking could get over some of the problems, with cluster groups of teachers in areas being formed to evaluate students so no teacher marks their own. If you are inside the tent there is a chance of progress on these things, outside nobody really listens.

This dispute is not good for anyone and has also the potential to cause much tension between teachers of different unions working in the same school, especially where management opportunities with extra pay cannot be filled because of the standoff.

Under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, the new legislation which was brought in to deal with any union outside Haddington Road, teachers in the Asti – and many others like me who would have nothing to do with the union – are experiencing much more severe pay cuts than other public servants. For young teachers particularly, who are in the Asti, the cutbacks are draconian. Yet the same Asti still wants these members to continue to support the emperor with no clothes.

I do sense a rising anger among many teachers against the union for being left to hang out to dry on this. There will be a much bigger ballot this time round, the ordinary members will have their say. If it is a Yes vote, will the central executive committee – that is shown to be out of touch – resign? More likely is that a lot of ordinary members will vote Yes and then themselves resign from the union.

Yet there is a need for a strong body to renegotiate the alarming and seriously damaging cuts to education, but the Asti is not fit for that either. There is a major contradiction for it even to raise cutbacks with the damage it is doing.

I really pity poor Pat King trying to defend all of this. Teachers now have a choice and, as I wrote before, there is no good option.

But teaching is still a noble profession and a home to the very best of people. They are hardly going to vote to continue a dispute which could turn very sour, very quickly. They just want to get on with their jobs and be respected for the major sacrifices, both financial and in extra work, they have made and will continue to make in the interest of the nation's youth.

Sunday Independent

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