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Andrew Lynch: Teachers risking a very painful lesson with today's strike


Minister Jan O'Sullivan.

Minister Jan O'Sullivan.

Minister Jan O'Sullivan.

"Is our children learning?" was one of George W Bush's priceless contributions to the English language.

Today, at least, the answer is no. Ireland's secondary schools have gone dark for 24 hours, thanks to a teachers' strike over planned reforms to the Junior Cycle system.

As pointless gestures go, this one really deserves to be sent to the back of the class.

It will achieve nothing, has virtually no public support and can only add to our teachers' unfortunate image as a bunch of work-shy dinosaurs.

Even the school dunce can see why Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan (below) is refusing to cave in - she knows that for once the voters are overwhelmingly on the Government's side.

In John Walshe's recently published book, An Education, which recounts his three years as an adviser to O'Sullivan's predecessor Ruairi Quinn, he admits that changing Ireland's public services is a painfully long process.

The basic problem, he explains, is that too many vested interests are involved, and any one of them can throw a spanner in the works.

As Quinn himself often put it: "The caravan is only as fast as the slowest camel and, in education, that can be very slow indeed."

Today it is easy to spot the camels who are holding up the entire show.

Teaching unions were warned over two years ago that the current Junior Cert system is badly outdated and needs a radical overhaul.


They are now throwing a hissy fit - exactly the sort of childish behaviour that would hardly be tolerated in their own classrooms.

Everything comes down to the sticky issue of internal or external assessment. Under Ruairi Quinn's original plan, teachers would have had to correct 100pc of their pupils' work for a new state certificate.

Jan O'Sullivan has offered a major concession, proposing that teachers only have to award 40pc based on project work - the rest to be handled by the Exam Commission.

Sadly, even this is not enough to keep the unions happy. Their basic argument seems to be that Irish society is too corrupt and the new system would be open to all kinds of abuses.

Never mind the fact that the National Parents Council, Irish Second Level Students' Union, school principals, boards of management, industry groups and international experts are all in favour - the unions have decided that this is their ball and they are taking it home.

You do not have to be a complete cynic to wonder about the motives for all this grandstanding.

Some teachers earn an extra few quid every June and July by acting as exam superintendents or grading papers from other schools.

Not surprisingly, these teachers are reluctant to lose such a nice little nixer.

It might also be noted that the last time teaching unions went on strike in December, the trains were suspiciously full of people heading up North for a spot of Christmas shopping.

Of course, it would be hugely unfair to tar all teachers with the same brush.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), the two bodies behind today's strike, could only achieve turnouts of 44pc and 62pc when they balloted for strike.


This suggests one thing very clearly - many decent muinteoiri would be happy to implement the new reforms but are being drowned out by their bolshier colleagues.

So where to from here? Jan O'Sullivan says her door is still open, but right now the unions are refusing to budge an inch and are threatening another work stoppage next month.

In fact, whether they realise it or not, ASTI and the TUI have lost already.

Jan O'Sullivan may be a softly spoken woman, but on this issue the Labour minister is acting like an iron lady.

Her secret weapon is the parents of Ireland, who can see for themselves that our Junior Cert system is woefully out of date and will respect O'Sullivan's determination to overcome these roadblocks to reform.

Just like the soldiers of World War One, Ireland's secondary teachers are starting to look like lions led by donkeys.

Today's strike should be their final roar - because otherwise they will start 2015 by learning an extremely painful lesson.