Teachers can sometimes find it difficult to maintain order in class these days, now that the use of the stick is banned and students feel more free about expressing themselves. Education Minister Ruairí Quinn definitely got a feel for how difficult it can be to face an unruly class when he addressed the teacher's union conference last week and was met with heckles, jeers and taunts.
It wasn't a great display of decorum by the teachers and not very polite treatment of an invited guest. But then, teachers are under a lot of pressure and they couldn't very well pass up the opportunity to vent their feelings - particularly when the source of much of their troubles was standing in front of them.
It's no surprise that teachers are angry. They are currently grappling with two very contentious issues - pay cuts and educational reform. They are quite separate matters and should be dealt with as such. However, with teachers feeling so set upon, there is a tendency to lump the whole lot together as one big assault on their profession and this is hugely detrimental to proper consideration of the proposed reforms.
Minister Quinn's planned reforms amount to a substantial shake-up of our educational system. Two key areas of reform are the Junior Certificate and school enrolment policies. As far as the Junior Certificate is concerned, the Minister's plan is to replace the June exams with a programme of continuous teacher assessments of their own pupils. There is a good case to be made for scrapping the Junior Cert as it currently stands, not least the focus on rote learning and regurgitating information to achieve exam grades that serve little purpose. Meanwhile, other areas of learning are neglected, to the extent that pupils are able to go through the entire second level education system without learning to string together a coherent sentence. Basic numeracy skills don't fare much better.
Minister Quinn's reforming zeal is being met with strong resistance from ASTI whose general secretary, Pat King, has said the "Junior Cert is seen as having a high status by students, teachers & parents... and this provides a focus for student , motivation, learning and achievement". ASTI is also against school-based continuous assessment as something that could give rise to perceptions of bias and favouritism. It goes without saying that they also aren't impressed with putting in extra hours to correct exam papers.
Changing the existing system of school enrolment is no less problematic. Currently, about one fifth of schools don't automatically accept students just because they are in their catchment area. Instead criteria such as family links to the school and academic achievements are applied. Sometimes this can work well; sometimes it amounts to discriminative cherry-picking of the best and brightest to maintain a school's status.
All of these are issues that deserve serious consideration. It is not - or should not - be about teachers' unions squaring up to a Minister who is regarded as some kind of axe-wielding monster. Instead, it should be about doing what is best for students. Unfortunately, a situation where teachers are angry and fearful is not conducive to reasoned debate and that is exactly what we saw last week. What is even more unfortunate is that those most likely to lose out as a result are the students.