Conflict in whatever form, comes with a price.
The current dispute between the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) and the Department of Education is no different.
Pressured with the vista of industrial unrest, the Government negotiated the Haddington Road Agreement with the trade union movement which ultimately received broad but reluctant support. However last August the ASTI rejected the agreement which subsequently led to industrial action that commenced last month. Around 16,000 teachers withdrew from after-school meetings and refused to do additional unpaid administrative work. As well as that, the ASTI stated that they would not cooperate with training for the new Junior Cycle programme.
Almost a month on from the start of the industrial action, parents are beginning to report their concerns to school principals because there appears to be no immediate resolution to the impasse. In the short-term, open nights for prospective students and parent- teacher meetings in many schools have been postponed.
Although this has not affected the day-to-day operations of schools, many problems lay later in the school year as postponed meetings begin to mount on the school calendar. A worrying situation today could turn into a difficult one tomorrow.
The dilemma is that the ASTI is sticking to its democratic mandate which binds members to reject the Haddington Road Agreement. On the other side the Government is committed to implementing the Haddington Road Agreement which has been accepted by all other unions in the education sector.
The concern is that students are the real victims, particularly those studying for their Junior and Leaving Cert exams. The present industrial action is causing significant difficulties for National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) members, most acutely in schools which have ASTI and TUI members. As well as that, many principals and deputy principals are themselves members of the ASTI and are caught between the duties of leadership in the school and the bond of solidarity with their fellow union members. Despite this conflict, one unifying focus for school principals is to cater for the well-being of students and teachers.
In response to the ASTI's industrial action, the NAPD felt compelled to act. Last month I sent a letter to the ASTI which stated that the current situation could damage collegiality and diminish the capacity of schools to meet the needs of students, teachers and parents. Furthermore I called on the ASTI to ensure that its members recognise and respect the responsibility that the principal and deputy principal have for the welfare of all students and all staff employed in the school.
The ASTI has already stated that they are willing to talk to the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn. In response I think genuine leadership is now required from Mr Quinn and the Department. I urge the minister to invite ASTI to sit down now to resolve the current impasse. Ultimately it is the students whose education is disrupted when meetings have to take place during the teaching day.
Both sides, Government and union, must sit down without further delay to reach a consensus on Haddington Road that will allow all schools to return to providing the optimum education for their students.
The NAPD does not underestimate the difficulty of the path ahead for both sides but the rewards for resolving this conflict would result in greater benefits for students. The very least the Government and the ASTI owe students is dialogue. It will cost nothing and the potential outcome is priceless.
Kay O'Brien is President of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD)