In-person teacher conferences are back after a lengthy absence – and there was plenty of ground covered
IN-PERSON teacher conferences were back this week for the first time in three years.
A lot has happened, and is still happening since then, including a global pandemic, war on the edge of Europe and galloping inflation. They all have significant ramifications for Irish schools and the people who teach and learn in them. That’s on top of the usual concerns that get an airing at the annual conferences.
Here’s a recap on the week.
This is the third school year impacted by Covid and Education Minister Norma Foley paid tribute to the sterling efforts of principals and teachers.
The pandemic has caused huge disruption to education, including full-scale school closures and an overnight switch to online learning.
There have been tensions along the way, such as rows over vaccinations of teachers. The biggest worry is the loss of learning experienced by pupils, especially those who are disadvantaged, and how long it will take them to catch up.
But it’s not over yet and the conferences were looking ahead to September. Unions are concerned that schools get all the supports they need for next year, arguing that the additional resource rolled out because of Covid should have been there anyway .
No-one wants to cut back on measures such as enhanced cleaning. Schools also want to retain the extra staffing supports.
For instance, primary teachers are very clear that they need further expansion of the system of regional supply panels of substitute teachers. This makes it easier for principals to find cover for an absence, and not only for Covid-related absences.
Ms Foley told journalists this week that she would be guided by public health advice in terms of what’s needed for September.
The exceptional funding for Covid-related reasons aside, Ireland does not rank well internationally in terms of its State spend on education. Unions see this as the long-overdue moment when that under-investment should be corrected.
The conferences provide unions with a platform to air whatever pay grievances they have. Three gatherings running together make for lots of noise. It may seem like teachers are looking for more than everyone else but, in reality, they are tied into public service pay deals.
For a decade, the unions have been complaining about and battling to restore salary cuts imposed after the banking crash. Apart from the hole it left in individual pockets, it was blamed for mass emigration of newly-qualified teachers at the wrong end of two-tier pay scales. That contributed to teacher shortages so the implications were far-reaching.
It has taken 10 years, but just as that is pretty much resolved, inflation came along, with demands mounting for a cost-of-living rise and the potential to lead to conference decisions on strike ballots. Recent Government agreement to set up a negotiation process has taken the heat out of it, for now at least.
After years of research and consultation, big changes to both the curriculum and assessment of senior cycle students were announced last month.
It includes new subjects, updating of existing ones and flexibility for students to mix subjects from the various Leaving Cert programmes. It also proposes a spread of assessment over two years, rather than the heavy reliance on traditional June exams.
Unions welcome much of what is proposed, but they pledged to resist the plan for teachers to assess their own students for 40pc of the marks in each subject. They say it will change their relationship with students and that Ireland is too small a country for this.
Ms Foley, a former teacher, says she understands why teachers may have reservations, but insists there is no alternative if Irish school-leavers are to develop the necessary skills, such as critical thinking, for the 21st century.
These can’t be developed if students are learning answers “off by heart” in the hoping of gaining extra CAO points.
She told delegates that teacher assessment is the norm in many other countries, but teachers are not buying it and they say the CAO should be fixed instead.
TUI delegates have thrown another spanner in the works with an instruction to the union leadership to oppose another part of the plan – the permanent scheduling of oral and music exams during the Easter holidays.
Before the holidays, Irish schools had enrolled about 4,000 pupils, but delegates at the three conferences were told to expect a lot more when schools reopen next Monday, and in the weeks and months ahead.
Individual schools and the Department of Education have responded rapidly. However, the conferences sent out a signal that the long-term response must match the numbers, as well as the complex problems that inevitably come with children forcibly displaced from their home because of war.
Ms Foley has said all necessary resources, such as teacher, English language and psychological supports, will be provided
Outgoing TUI president Martin Marjoram cautioned that the strain on the system and the resources required may be at an unprecedented level. That need comes on top of whatever ever extra Covid-related spending is required.
Conferences are used to articulate and reaffirm union positions on a whole range of matters that impact on teachers, pupils and everyday school life. They then remind the Department of Education, or other relevant authorities, of gaps in policy, or lack of resources and hope that whatever it is will be sorted by this time next year. If not, the matter will probably be back on the agenda in 2023.
Issues this year included the heavy workload carried by principals, online abuse suffered by teachers at the hands of their own pupils and the concern that many LGBTQ+ teachers still fear coming out in their school community.