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Norma Foley heckled at teachers’ union conference

Norma Foley spoke to the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland about Government plans to reform the Leaving Certificate.


Education Minister Norma Foley (Brian Lawless/PA)

Education Minister Norma Foley (Brian Lawless/PA)

Education Minister Norma Foley (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Education Minister has been heckled and interrupted during a speech to a teachers’ union.

It came as Norma Foley spoke to the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) about Government plans to reform the Leaving Certificate process in Irish secondary schools.

She also told teachers that the Government was aware of concerns about pay and the cost of living.

Ms Foley had listened through an address by ASTI president Eamon Dennehy, who took aim at some of her department’s policies.

“There can be no change to our working conditions without negotiation,” he warned.

“The cost of driving through Senior Cycle reform without proper research and reflection could be very high and could lead to a fall in the standard, status and credibility of our second-level education system.

“The policymakers must tread carefully when it comes to changing the Leaving Cert.”

Mr Dennehy told the minister: “We want the best for our students and our future students. We always want education to improve.

“We are always concerned where we see regression. No education plan can succeed without the trust of teachers.”

Ms Foley repeatedly faced shouts from the floor of the ASTI conference as she discussed planned education reforms, with ASTI vice-president Miriam Duggan forced to intervene at one stage to ask delegates not to interrupt the minister.

“We will together design and build a system for Ireland that is made in Ireland for Irish students, but one which harnesses experiences internationally, and the professional and other experiences gained here at home,” Ms Foley told teachers.

“I know that in moving to externally moderated teacher based forms of assessment, some teachers will have concerns or indeed reservations. I do understand that.

“One of the strengths the education system has had over the last two years in particular is the commitment and willingness to engage with what have been really challenging and difficult times.

“This is a huge asset and should stand to us as we begin this work.”

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Despite the heckles, Ms Foley was applauded at the end of her remarks.

Earlier, Ms Foley spoke to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) conference in Kerry, where she praised the work of school staff during the pandemic.

She also said she was confident that schools in Ireland would now rise to the challenge of welcoming Ukrainian refugees into their classrooms.

Ms Foley spoke of her efforts to improve pupil-teacher ratios in Irish schools and of plans to create “more digitally aware schools”.

The Education Minister was speaking as she unveiled an extension to a languages programme for primary schools, with the Say Yes to Languages module now running from six to eight weeks.

The module, Ms Foley told teachers, can also be used to support incoming refugees by teaching or incorporating Ukrainian into Irish classrooms.

“My department is working with all relevant authorities, education partners and school communities to ensure Ukrainian children of school-going age arriving are provided with access to appropriate supports to allow them to continue their education in Ireland.

“Our schools are already welcoming children who have arrived from Ukraine. It is yet another testament to the well-earned reputation of schools to be inclusive, welcoming and nurturing places in our communities.”

Ms Foley also addressed growing concerns among teachers about the impact of inflation and the rising cost of living.

Fresh talks on a possible new public sector pay deal will take place later this month and Ms Foley told the audience that the Government “is strongly aware of the cost-of-living pressure being felt across all of society at the moment”.

She added: “It is of the utmost importance to me personally and to this Government that we achieve a fairer, more inclusive and compassionate society and that spirit should also pervade our schools.”

But after her speech, the head of INTO rebuked Ms Foley over ongoing Government failings, with the Education Minister hearing a demand for a pay increase for primary teachers.

INTO general secretary John Boyle received repeated bursts of applause as he namechecked key concerns facing teachers.

“There has been a lot of talk about a return to normal. Normal assumes everything was fine before crisis hit. This was certainly not the case,” he told delegates.

“Four years ago, Richard Bruton, then-minister for education, stood here and declared that Ireland would have the best education system in Europe by 2026.

“Music to the ears of our delegates. It was then and is now an ambition we share.

“But there were many missed opportunities during Mr Bruton’s time in office, and you will find our delegates here today this morning will be moved more by action than by oratory.”

Mr Boyle said that it should not have taken a pandemic to deliver increased funding for school cleaning, while stressing that the lack of ICT resources was a concern only recently addressed by the Government.

While he praised the response from Ms Foley and her officials to trade unions’ concerns during the pandemic, Mr Boyle also issued several stern warnings to the minister.

He said: “We are slowly emerging from a pandemic, but Covid-19 hasn’t gone away. We are in a new phase, and we must ensure we continue to do what we can to protect our schools.

“We must resolve to never again leave our education system so exposed.”

Mr Boyle also said that Irish children “deserve nothing less” than smaller class sizes.

He spoke frankly about the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on teachers and warned that the current pay agreement will “collapse very, very soon” if not improved upon.

Teachers, Mr Boyle said, need a “pay uplift”.

He added: “This week we are more worried about our members’ ability to make ends meet than we have been for a long, long time.

“Our members have struggled to cope with the rising cost of living, and they have been locked out of affordable housing as rents skyrocketed by another 10% last year.

“When the (pay) agreement was negotiated 16 months ago, inflation was below 2% and was not expected to rise. Inflation has now spiralled out of control.”

“Every teacher’s household is feeling the pinch,” Mr Boyle said.

“Yet our members are promised a measly 1% uplift next October. That’s only a quarter of a per cent for 2022. It will not suffice.

“This agreement that we’re in is no longer fit for purpose and if it is not improved upon quickly, it is due to collapse very, very soon.”

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