Monday 27 January 2020

Teachers may grumble now -- but things were much worse

A new book says that 100 years ago, they used to earn less than chauffeurs

Life through a lens: Margaret O'Riordan, a teacher at Malahide Community School
Life through a lens: Margaret O'Riordan, a teacher at Malahide Community School

In the early part of the last century, the writer Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was moved to remark that female second level teachers were "the most harassed and exploited class in the whole country".

The position of their male counterparts was not that much better.

Their jobs were insecure, they had little or no opportunity for promotion in schools that were dominated by the clergy, and their pay was meagre.

Padraig Pearse was fiercely critical of the education system of his time: "We are all alive to the truth that a teacher ought to be paid better than a policeman, and to the scandal of the fact that many an able and cultured man is working in Irish secondary schools at a salary less than that of the viceroy's chauffeur.''

The dramatic improvement of pay and conditions of teachers over the past century is chronicled in a new book Unlikely Radicals: Irish Post Primary Teachers and the ASTI, 1909-2009. Written by historian Dr John Cunningham of NUI Galway, the book provides a social and historical account of the ASTI's role in the development of second-level education and the teaching profession in Ireland.

During the present difficult period for teachers, the book may offer some kind of consolation. Over the past century, with effective union leadership, their relative status, pay and conditions have improved dramatically.

By the end of the last century, Irish teachers with 15 years' service were the third highest paid in developed countries.

Teachers and others involved in education frequently complain about the pressures of the points race and the concentration on rote learning. But there is nothing new in this.

At the time of ASTI's foundation in 1909, the focus on exams was if anything more intense. Schools were funded and teachers paid according to results. Padraig Pearse described the highly competitive education system of his time as a "murder machine''.

With their poor pay, teachers of the early Twentieth Century struggled to keep up appearances, according to John Cunningham's account.

The signifiers of middle class status -- respectable dress, a decent address and keeping a servant -- were not easily afforded on salaries that were at the discretion of employers.

Cash-strapped teachers who are struggling to get by in our current recession after two pay cuts may care to copy the example of Joe O'Connor, a Kerry teacher who struggled to get by on his salary of £100 per year in the early years of the last century.

He supplemented his income by selling cups and medals won at village sports, designed shop fronts for draper stores, and drew illustrations for magazine stories.

At the time of ASTI's foundation, teachers seemed to fall into the profession because they did not fit in elsewhere. In a memoir of the time, teacher Micheal Breathnach said his colleagues in one school included a theology graduate who had last-minute qualms about becoming a priest; a man who had failed his medical exams; and a former civil servant, sacked for drunkenness.

Although conditions gradually improved following the ASTI's foundation, lay second level teachers were largely left out of the loop when it came to managing their schools and influencing government policy.

The most dramatic changes at second level came in the 1960s and 1970s when the Government introduced universal free second level education and the Catholic church began to relinquish some of its control over schools.

The recent public sector strikes which affected schools were small beer when compared to some of the disputes that broke out in earlier decades.

In February 1969, teachers in every second level school in the country, except St Columba's College in Rathfarnham, went on strike for three weeks. Over 600 pupils marched on the streets of Dublin in support of them.

While pay for teachers had improved dramatically by the Celtic Tiger era, there was still a feeling that the profession was being left behind by those in the private sector. Now that so many of the perceived benefits of the Celtic Tiger era have proved temporary, and in some respects illusory, young people are again likely to view teaching as an attractive option.

Despite the pay cuts, John White, ASTI's general secretary, argues in the book that "teaching remains a worthwhile profession, one with a moral dimension, one that provides job satisfaction, one in which the working conditions are generally good".

'Unlikely Radicals, Irish Teachers and the ASTI, 1909-2009' by John Cunningham is published by Cork University Press, €39.

Irish Independent

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