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Pay, support for refugees and exam reform top issues at teacher union conferences

Education Minister Norma Foley to address gatherings in person for first time since taking cabinet role


Education Minister Norma Foley. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

Education Minister Norma Foley. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

Education Minister Norma Foley. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

Education Minister Norma Foley heads into the teacher conferences this week facing demands that Irish schools get proper supports to deal with consequences of war in Europe – and emerging battle lines at home over Leaving Cert reform.

About 4,000 Ukrainian pupils have already enrolled in schools. The Department of Education is bracing for a surge of new enrolments after the Easter holidays, and again in September, as refugee numbers grow. 

In terms of capacity, it believes there are about 25,000 spare places in primary schools and 15,000-18,000 in post-primary schools.

The department and schools have responded rapidly to welcome Ukrainian children, but teacher unions are concerned to ensure that resources, such as additional teachers and English language and psychological supports, will be on the scale required to match the expected influx.

It is the first time since 2019 that “live” teacher union conferences have been held, making it also the first time that Ms Foley has addressed delegates in person as minister.

The pandemic forced the 2020 and 2021 conferences to go online, but while these annual gatherings and the education system are returning to normal, the legacy of Covid lives on.

The enrolment of thousands of Ukrainian children into schools poses new funding challenges, but the three teacher unions are also concerned that extra supports provided to deal with the Covid crisis continue.

A motion at the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) congress, which opens today, seeks the retention of a range of measures introduced or bolstered during Covid.

It notes that the pandemic highlighted “the inadequate resourcing of and support for primary schools” and “the failure of the current funding model to meet the most basic needs of schools”.

Pre-pandemic, it was estimated that parents were paying about €46m a year to keep primary schools going, with the average State grant for schools’ operating costs at €46,000 a year, against average annual bills of €91,000.

A lot more State funding was pumped into schools because of Covid, such as the provision of one-day-per-week cover for teaching principals, establishment of a wide network of panels of substitute teachers and enhanced grants in areas such as cleaning, equipment, IT and minor works.

The INTO is now seeking to ensure that a permanent system of funding is put in place that reflects the real needs of schools.

At the conferences of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), Ms Foley faces condemnation of her plan for teachers to assess their own students for 40pc of marks in the Leaving Cert, under her recently announced senior cycle reform package.

While the two unions welcome other key elements of the package, they are fundamentally opposed to teachers assessing their own students for a State certificate.

A motion to be debated by ASTI delegates calling for a refusal to engage in discussions on the changes – which has the potential to delay, if not block, the reforms – gives a flavour of union sentiment.

Pay is always the dominant issue at the conferences and this year will be no exception. Two-tier pay scales, which saw post-2010 entrants on lower salaries due to cuts introduced after the banking crash, have dogged the conferences for a decade.

Pay inequality has been substantially addressed, although unions will continue to pursue outstanding issues, and the main focus this week will be on demands for a general increase to deal with the spiralling cost of living.

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