With most of the attention firmly focused on the election, the issue of public sector reform will rear its ugly head during the debates.
To most people who are not in the public sector these reforms should mean more work from fewer workers and for less money too. Of course, it should be about most of those things but the whole idea of efficiency and getting rid of bad practice should be at least as big a part of it all.
When I see the Croke Park agreement as it applies to teachers, it certainly does not fill me with much confidence.
Last year, I wrote that the Croke Park agreement was the deal of the century as far as pay was concerned and teachers should grab it. The unions, of course, did not agree, they had still to acclimatise to the reality of the slot machine having no arm anymore so they led the troops up the hill and eventually back down again. That article did not do me any favours with many of my colleagues either, who thought that I should have been showing much more loyalty to the cause.
Things have changed a lot since then though, and a bit like the economist John Keynes who changed his mind when the facts changed, I am doing the same when I see the full import of this deal.
This probably again puts me in a minority position with most teachers, who, like most public sector workers are angry, frustrated and probably, most of all, fearful.
They worry about the future like everyone else.
But even though we have all taken a hit of about 20 per cent in salary in real terms, there is a fear of saying anything in case we are told that we are lucky to have a job.
Most of the teachers I know are quite happy to play their part in recovery and will probably sign up to Croke Park.
But for me it neither guarantees future income or most of all brings in the proper efficiencies. So it is not much of a deal and does not save any real money either. The main areas that all school principals like myself have difficulty with are in supervision, substitution and in-service training.
All in-service training or up-skilling in things like the new Maths and Irish subjects, which are absolutely necessary, should be outside school time.
That will not all happen under this deal. A supervision and substitution scheme that was introduced in the early 1990s was half-baked and does not address the needs of schools.
This should have been made compulsory for every teacher under the new contract talks. It would solve a whole raft of problems at a stroke and save hundreds of millions of euro over the next decade. Instead, a completely unbaked system has been introduced. It may appear to the general public that there is a major departure here, a big improvement. It is nothing of the sort and won't save a red cent. Unions have given no lead on any of this. In the past they represented their members well in the narrow confines of getting pay increases.
But there is a bigger picture in something as important as education. They have protected incompetence and inefficiency and have read the public mood very badly. They've given no leadership to an honourable group of people, who are wounded financially and are now suffering from low morale.
This was an opportunity to turn things around. All of these inefficiency issues should have been dealt with once and for all. There will never be a better chance.
In truth, teachers would have accepted them too as they will ultimately benefit from a better way of doing things. The big-ticket item is the extra hour to be worked. If the Government wanted to
tackle the issue seriously then the extra hour should have been available in direct tuition time.
Instead it's things like subject planning meetings, parent- teacher meetings (quite a bit of this is outside school time anyway) and whole-school planning. Desirable and all as these are, this only adds to difficulties for school managements in setting out these things and getting agreement from staff on how they are implemented.
Worse still from my viewpoint, there is no consideration of the hours and hours that my staff and many others give in extra curricular activities which create and foster the spirit of a school.
My concern would be that some of these great people who give so willingly of their time in these activities and are bewildered by current events might just say, "to hell with this," if they are not going to be recognised and appreciated for all the extra work outside school hours.
Then we would be left with schools with no soul or individualism and teachers who look on what they do as a job instead of a vocation.
Students in our schools get a chance to shine in music, science exhibitions, drama, debates, concerts and a lot of other methods of personal development. If there was no sport it would be an entirely bland landscape. If all those things were removed school would certainly not be such a happy place and would just resemble many schools in Britain where sport has almost completely disappeared. This would have serious repercussions for most of the big sporting organisations too. The GAA in particular would suffer very badly, rugby maybe less so as many of the fee paying rugby schools could pay people to take over the role of teachers. No matter the specifics, the overall result would be bleak.
This agreement gives rise to a two-tier system. New teachers earn 10pc less and start on a lower point on the pay scale. That is patently unfair and young people are now being asked to pay the price for the failure to sort out the costly mess created over the last 10 years. Benchmarking has indeed come home to roost for the whole country. Slower pay increases accompanied by the necessary efficiencies would have been much better for teachers in the long run and would not mean new entrants being treated like second-class citizens.
Of course, the concern for all teachers is that by not accepting the deal, things might be worse and redundancies could then be on the table. If it is, like in the HSE, then the only guarantee is that the Government will mess this up as well. Giving generous voluntary redundancy terms only encourages the best and most ambitious to leave. If you want redundancy then the Government need to be brave enough to decide on who to get rid of. That means the lazy and inefficient.
The unions of course don't like this approach. This is a bit like emigration. It is a fact of life that many of the best people without responsibilities emigrate as they are not happy to hang around the social welfare offices. And they go, often angry and confused. A dozen GAA clubs in Sydney bear testimony to that.
So teachers are now crossing the Rubicon. They are being asked to decide between the devil and the deep blue sea. Most will probably accept out of fear. Like many other groups they are in negative equity. Health insurance, petrol, diesel and utility bills have gone up and there is no end in sight. Personally, I would prefer no deal to a bad deal, and to me this is not a blueprint for the future no matter what it is peddled as.
As a group, teachers have suffered badly with negative publicity over the last few years. They have been depicted as a crowd of whingers with no sense of reality. That is not fair on the rank and file and the loud noise of union activists gives a wrong impression. I don't know one teacher who would not respond to a properly organised and efficient education system which would guarantee the future and boost morale.
Unfortunately I don't see the Croke Park agreement responding adequately to any of these concerns. If this is what is meant by public sector reform then we are all in trouble.
Colm O'Rourke is principal of St Patrick's Classical School, Navan