Is it time for a 'New Deal' with teachers?
John Walshe explores a recently published book containing the views of five education experts on the strengths and shortcomings of the Irish school system
Teaching can be emotionally exhausting, and nothing drives practitioners up the walls more than to be told they have a "grand job with short hours and long holidays". Quick as a flash they will cite OECD statistics which show the time they spend actually teaching is very high compared with other countries.
The contract for teachers in Ireland differs from many other countries. In Ireland, it predominantly covers teaching time - 28/22 hours a week, as well as 37/33 'Croke Park' hours annually, depending on whether primary/post-primary. It is also common practice to give many hours voluntary activity, such as for sport and drama.
In other countries , the teachers contract could be for up to 40 hours a week to incorporate a range of non-teaching duties.
Should we look anew at the time they spend in schools, on teaching and on non-teaching activities? Should we have a "newly designed working agreement, or contract" for those to whom we entrust our children's education?
Is it time for a 'New Deal' in the words of five experts, who devoted much of their working lives to the education departments of our universities? Between them, they have spent almost 200 years preparing tens of thousands of young teachers for their chosen careers.
The idea is put forward in a new book written by three former professors of education - Áine Hyland (UCC, pictured), Sheelagh Drudy (UCD) and John Coolahan (MU), as well as Seamus McGuinness, former senior lecturer in Education (TCD) and Padraig Hogan, senior lecturer in Education (MU).
They cite the EU Commission, which noted that overall working time is a concept used in the majority of European countries and includes activities in school such as meetings or management duties. It corresponds to the total number of working hours a week, as set down in collective bargaining agreements or other contractual arrangements.
The authors remind us about the high quality learning environment in Finnish schools where a 'less is more' approach to the school timetable is concerned. Proportionate reductions in teaching time are matched by increases in time for collaborative planning, reviewing and evaluating activities. Research shows that it is practitioners' capacity in collaborative planning, reviewing and evaluating activities that enables schools to take ownership of their own professional work and to grow as professional learning communities.
Where scheduled time isn't made available for such activities, it's difficult to see how things like school self-evaluation, mentoring of newcomers or indeed systematic feedback to students can become hallmarks of the professional cultures of teaching. International experience, they say, has shown that time for professional development is best provided for as part of a negotiated settlement.
There are big issues here, which must be carefully identified and faced. "A New Deal begins with a public acknowledgement on all sides of the hurts and hardships caused by a prolonged economic downturn," they write.
The phrase a 'New Deal' was popularised by former US President Franklin D Roosevelt to focus collective energies on achieving a brighter future, which is also the underlying optimistic tone of the book. The authors borrow another American expression, this time from educationalist John Dewey, who wrote about "collateral learning" in the form of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes that are often much more important than the spelling lesson or the history or geography that is learned.
"For these attitudes are fundamentally what counts in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning."
The book recommends different ways in which learning and collateral learning can be helped, such as enhanced professional development; a cap on the size of reception classes in primary schools; an increased allocation of school-based, teacher-led assessment (yes, they back Junior Cycle reform); strengthening educational leadership and governance; an integrated public policy approach to equality; closer liaison between the inspectorate and the Teaching Council; and, predictably, more funding for the sector, from pre-school upwards.
"Increased investment in education will be essential as the economy recovers if the Government and the Department of Education and Skills (DES) are to achieve the targets set out in the DES Action Plan 2016-19 and other targets that may be considered necessary as policy develops, particularly in relation to marginalised pupils," it adds.
Nobody, not least the senior DES officials who attended the launch of the book recently, would disagree. But education is competing with other demands on the public purse which are commanding greater urgency, such as homelessness, the never-ending health crisis and transport infrastructure. A lot of political lip service is paid to the idea of investment in education but it's not accompanied by enough hard cash.
At the launch, a gentle warning was given about jumping from the introduction to the final chapter as the reader would miss many worthwhile chapters in between. These include a very useful discussion on what equality and inclusion really mean in education; how the role of the inspectorate has changed; the transition from second level to higher education; and the long history of attempts to introduce school-based assessment.
'Towards a Better Future - a Review of the Irish School System' was published by the Irish Primary Principals' Network and the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals
The book, published by the Irish Primary Principals Network and the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, is yet another example of the part both organisations have played in showing and developing leadership in Irish education.