News Colm O'Rourke

Friday 29 August 2014

Haddington Road only way out of chaos

Asti had a chance to negotiate but bottled it and must accept the consequences, writes Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Published 06/10/2013 | 05:00

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The latest Exocet from the Asti has left most partners in the education process confused and probably bemused as well. It has lined its troops up for battle without any fallback position and argues that its dispute is not going to hurt parents, students or teachers. That is, of course, the first bogus argument: if parent-teacher meetings have to move back into school time then it will immediately impact on teaching time and cause great inconvenience for parents – both in minding students who are at home, and possibly getting off work during the day to attend these meetings.

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Of even more immediate concern are open nights for next year's intake of students into secondary schools. These meetings are generally held over the next couple of months and many in the next couple of weeks. These now have to be abandoned as the Asti wants to singlehandedly break an agreement which has been accepted, however narrowly and with little enthusiasm by all others in the public sector.

This dispute could escalate very quickly once the Department of Education withdraws supervision and substitution payments to Asti members, something which will have to happen fairly quickly. This anomaly has arisen as those who have accepted the agreement will lose this payment while those in dispute hold on to it, at least for the moment. You can imagine the friction in community-type schools where Asti members are paid to do work which TUI members will have to do for nothing. And while Asti members walk out at four o'clock and head home, those who have accepted Haddington Road have to stay on and work longer. That cannot last, and if supervision and substitution payments are withdrawn – as they will have to be – and there is no supervision and substitution, then the reality is that many schools will have to close. That is the situation which will unfold soon. Does the Asti think that won't affect all the students?

Teachers will be loathe to leave their work. They are not that type, but if you keep sleepwalking down the tunnel the chances are you will run into a speeding train. And parents will have absolutely no sympathy.

Last week St Vincent de Paul revealed that there is a big increase in families seeking assistance to pay fuel bills. These are the type of people whose children will be inconvenienced by public servants who are in reasonably well paid, permanent positions. That will be the parents' attitude. They can hardly be blamed for having little sympathy for teachers if their own situations are a whole lot worse.

And while the Asti is manning the barricades, the young teachers who it should be representing are going to be more than a couple of thousand euro a year worse off than under the Haddington Road Agreement. Will these teachers jump ship and ask for the department to treat them as accepting the agreement? Especially as they can have a permanent contract in three years under Haddington Road rather than four under the old system. Certainly nobody would join the union to be penalised in this way, while those like myself who are not members of the union have to wait and see how we are treated vis a vis the agreement.

The other problem seems to be that the union doesn't know what it wants itself, the militants are in command and confrontation is the policy. Maybe they think that teachers should be treated differently to all the others who have signed up to the agreement; if that is the case we had better not hold our breath for a solution.

It is a right mess for the payroll division in the department, which may have to filter through union members who accept Haddington Road, like the TUI and Into, those who don't (Asti), and those who are not members of unions at all. With the amount of labour legislation which has been enacted to protect workers' rights over the last 30 years, there is little need for any worker to be part of any union anyway as their rights are protected under law – and it will be interesting if young teachers realise they have nothing to gain by paying a big sub to a union.

For all that, the frustration among teachers is real and morale has been damaged by the utter stupidity of some of the department initiatives over the last few years. Having Croke Park hours after school is in general a waste of time. It took no account of the work that a lot of teachers were doing outside school anyway. Teachers who spend time on drama, debates or sport, among other things, were getting no recognition and were being penalised for doing those extra hours. It should not have been beyond the ingenuity of officials in the department to come up with something which would have encouraged teachers to contribute more outside class rather than penalise them by allowing these activities as Croke Park hours.

Many schools are finding it difficult to field teams as a lot of teachers are finding Croke Park demands on their time very onerous, while these time-wasting activities inside school are cutting across the hours needed to devote to teams so they are opting out.

While one department, Health, is encouraging extra activities with young people because of increasing obesity, the Department of Education is actively working against this. The Department of Education officials who negotiated the extra hours under Croke Park don't know what they are at. If these hours were given at the discretion of management for timetabling purposes or for extracurricular activities they would have a beneficial effect, but not in this present format.

The incompetence of the department is also highlighted in things like in-service training for new courses and oral exams. These should have been removed from school time and made part of the extra hours demanded under Croke Park. Not only that – it would also save money.

The extra Croke Park hours saved nothing in money terms but caused a fortune of annoyance – all of it justified. Most ordinary people would find it unbelievable that last week, for instance, there were in-service courses for Project Maths where the same course is given day after day to different teachers instead of one day for all. When a department in charge of education cannot get something as small as that right, it is little wonder most teachers have no confidence in it.

There was also the opportunity to put oral exams during the Easter break; again more teachers would be available and there is a cost saving for substitution, not to mention protecting the integrity of the school year.

Anyway the train has now left the station and no one knows where it will end up. The Asti is like the Grand old Duke of York: it has marched its men and women up the hill and now

will have to march them back down again because there is no other way out.

The Asti had a chance to negotiate but bottled it and now has to accept the consequences. Most teachers are not happy with this impasse but those who did not vote have only themselves to blame. If a little over half voted and a little over half of those who voted opted for industrial action, then it means about a third of teachers in the voluntary sector schools are leading the rest. Yet democracy works only when people use it.

As a principal of a big school I would be seriously concerned that the results of this action could spiral out of control. The teachers I come into contact with every day are loyal colleagues, who work really hard and are committed to the welfare of their students in every way. They just want to get on with doing a good, honest day's work.

I don't think they are being led or advised very well by the union hawks even if they are dealing with a department that seems to have little knowledge or willingness to learn about the nuts and bolts of how a school works. The Government preaches about saving money yet could not even manage simple things under Croke Park to do just that, without any inconvenience or confrontation with teachers.

A few years ago I wrote an article for this paper where I said that the Croke Park Agreement on pay was the greatest deal possible for teachers and that they would be foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was roundly condemned for that by teachers. Now there is a very different reality. This time there is no good option, but Haddington Road is the best of two bad deals. Otherwise there will be chaos.

Sunday Independent

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