Katherine Donnelly: Less drama at teacher conferences - but behind the scenes a crisis looms
Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30
Teacher conferences were short on the usual histrionics this year. The absence of a minister removed an important actor from the stage and with it, the loss of a dynamic that gives rise to the displays of amateur dramatics that we have come to associate with these events.
Over the years, ministers attending the annual Easter conferences have been confronted with attention grabbing behaviours such as stony silences, boos and walkouts, designed to exert maximum discomfort on the incumbent and gain maximum exposure in the media.
Sometimes, the minister plays no small part in stirring things up, even if somewhat inadvertently. A few years ago, while addressing the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) congress, then minister, Ruairi Quinn suggested that poor maths performance in Ireland was linked to having a highly feminised primary teaching profession, who were not required to have honours maths in the Leaving Cert in order to get into their training course.
The minister received an unscripted, rapid-fire, Oscar-winning response from INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan, who reminded him that it was the boys who did honours maths who brought the country to financial ruin, bringing the audience to its feet.
The one that everyone remembers best was megaphone man, a delegate at the annual conference of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) two years ago, who pulled out a loud-hailer to roar his disapproval at Ruairi Quinn. It was an unacceptable low in audience participation.
So, without delegates, or the minister, behaving badly to dominate the headlines, more of the routine debates filled the media space in the past week.
A common theme across the three conferences was the huge sense of injustice among newly qualified teachers, who are on lower pay rates than their more senior colleagues arising from austerity-era cuts to salary scales. Now that they have moved beyond the initial euphoria of getting a job, and are settling into their career, they are wondering out loud why the hell they are being paid less than everyone else in the staffroom. We will be hearing more of this from young gardaí and prison officers.
Teacher also got to vent disquiet over other issues that they see need highlighting, such as the impact on schools of inadequate State funding, and how it forces principals to prioritise paying utility bills over enriching their classrooms with more education resources.
So, there was a certain coherence to the conference messages and coverage this year.
Except, what are parents, pupils and politicians to make of a decision taken by the Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) that is intent on unravelling progress already achieved between the union and the Department of Education on the issue of junior cycle reform.
Last year, after painstaking negotiations, the ASTI hailed as a "significant achievement" the demise of the most contentious proposal associated with the new junior cycle, which would have seen teachers assessing their own pupils for State certification. It was replaced with a dual system, allowing for classroom-based assessments (for school certification) and traditional June exams (for State certification), which ultimately would be stapled together for parents.
An Irish solution to an Irish problem, and enough for members of the Teachers' Union of Ireland to drop their opposition and get off a hook that many found uncomfortable. TUI members are now being trained in the new junior cycle and by all accounts are lapping it up.
A lack of engagement by ASTI members in union affairs (it has internal problems too, with staff taking a case against the union, as an employer, to the Workplace Relations Commission) was evident in a low turnout for its ballot, which delivered a "no" vote.
While, in any deal, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, there was an understanding that the assessment hurdle had been crossed. Union hardliners are now rewriting that script.
And that is only one of four fronts that the ASTI has opened up with the Government.