The Africans have an old proverb which states that when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled on. It means that there is a bit of damage elsewhere when two sides lock horns.
When the unions go on strike next Tuesday, those who are getting trampled on are students and of course their parents, particularly those working outside the home who have to make arrangements for this unscheduled break. Perhaps too the teachers' unions sense a soft underbelly in the Government ranks and believe that the water difficulties present a teacher's opportunity.
Last week, parents were asking me continually, why are you going on strike? Not me personally as I am not a member of any trade union and would be quite opposed to most of what the ASTI has come out with recently.
I have no answer to the question though nor has any other teacher I have spoken to. People cannot understand why the teachers don't just refuse to correct the portfolio work which the Minister wants as part of the new Junior Cert. Teachers are quite prepared to teach the new courses and help students prepare the extra work but have solid grounds for not wanting to mark it. Why not leave it at that? There is absolutely no reason to strike as a refusal to correct part of the exam in the schools means it cannot go ahead.
The general public should realise that these new courses at Junior Cert are not a radical departure. As it is there are a number of courses where portfolio work completed by the students on projects of their own choosing are included for final assessment in both Junior and Leaving Cert exams.
The only real difference sought now is that part of this work would now be marked by teachers in their own schools. At present the work which is completed in the classroom is normally submitted in a special envelope to the State exams Commission for external marking. This system works well so why change it?
There are very sound educational reasons for teachers not marking their own students. It is not like third level where students are largely anonymous. At second level they may be your friend's son or daughter, they may be involved in a team, musical or other leisure activity outside school with the teacher or be friendly with your own children.
It would only be human nature if teachers did not want to mark their own too harshly, it may reflect badly on them within their own school too and also relative to other classes in the same school. One teacher will not like to have his class look poorly relative to other classes in the same subject.
Having outside assessments of up to 15pc of this work does not change that general principle. And for those who may argue that the Junior Cert is not of much relevance anyway then why bother with it at all if it is not going to be done right?
It is a State examination Certificate which is the highest level of attainment for many; it is an avenue into apprenticeships and other jobs so it is important.
That is why having independent verification is necessary and having it completely free of any potential conflicts of interest is about the only thing that I could agree with unions on.
Their tactics in achieving that are completely wrong. There is no good reason for strike action, not even a bad reason. Why should Leaving Cert classes be inconvenienced by a dispute about Junior Cert?
The loss of goodwill with parents is another important factor while a decade ago a teachers strike unleashed anger among students which was quite unpleasant in many towns and cities.
There is, of course, a longer game at play here. If ultimately the whole exam process moves to continuous assessment then the month of June will not be needed for Junior Cert exams. The Leaving Cert will follow suit.
If June is not needed for exams then it is available for tuition time. Is that the long play by the Department of Education? And of course teachers would not be paid to mark exams so there would be a substantial saving in that area. As Travis Tritt wrote in the song "it's all about the money". A little of that to mark the new Junior Cert exams could easily get the teachers onside too.
Reform of Junior Cert is welcome, the same is true of Leaving Cert but there is nothing wrong with any student building up a body of learning in any subject anyway. There is no doubt that this learning process can be vastly improved and the system has to encourage more learning through personal discovery and research rather than being fed information by teachers. It is both a strength and a weakness of the system at present.
Teachers often times look after students too well and many are not able to make decisions for themselves when they leave school.
In the past, parents and teachers let young people fend for themselves to a greater extent, the education system needs to adopt a policy of benign indifference to force students to think for themselves in a more creative manner. Schools are a bit like assembly lines, structured and organised with a welfare system thrown in, that needs to give way to a more problem-solving model.
The only conclusion I can come to in this dispute is that the militants are now in complete control of the shop in both the ASTI and TUI as I have not spoken to one teacher in my school or any other who thinks this course of action is a good idea.
As well as that, teachers leave themselves open to ridicule from the public who think this is another cheap shot from a relatively privileged group in terms of job security and the teachers will get the comments about having a nice day of Christmas shopping. This is what happens when there is a dispute that even the teachers do not believe in.
Over the last number of years there were far more important educational issues to fight over. For example the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, the removal of career guidance hours, the yellow packing of young teachers, the proper resourcing of a new model for education and the lack of promotion prospects for young teachers as a result of abolishing necessary management posts in schools.
Not to mention the very serious cut in teachers' pay which has left many with expensive mortgages sick with worry. All of these have had a much more severe negative impact on education than the new Junior Cert.
There are few jobs where workers have little or no prospect of improving themselves in their own management ambitions quite like teaching at the moment.
A young teacher could spend at least a decade without a real prospect of promotion, unless older teachers die or retire young. So for the vast majority the future is entirely limited to just a regular teaching post. This is far more serious than throwing shapes next Tuesday.
The ASTI-led teachers up the garden path with the Haddington Road agreement and the same is happening again now. It does appear that within the unions those who wish to take the most extreme actions have prevailed.
It also means that the vast majority of teachers who will picket their own schools on Tuesday hate what they are doing but worse still, do not believe that this is the right way to be doing business.
As I said at the beginning, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled on.