Irish Teacher: Spats between unions and Government affect quality of education in Ireland

Jennifer Horgan says the argument over continuous assessment has a lot to do with poor communication and deep mistrust between the interested parties
Irish Teacher: Spats between unions and Government affect quality of education in Ireland

I enjoyed a conversation this week between Dr Jane Mulcahy and educator Gerry Diamond as part of her Relationships Matter interviews. During the chat they discussed how relationships come before everything because they affect everything.

Up until this week, I hadn’t thought about bigger relationships this way — the relationships that make up our systems and determine policy. But the relationship between teachers’ unions and the Government is affecting me, my students, and the quality of education in Ireland. It’s broken, and the toxicity of the split, the parting of ways, pervades the profession.

It seems to have congealed most recently around the topic of continuous assessment.

When you dig a little deeper, the argument over continuous assessment is a symptom rather than the cause. The disagreement has far more to do with poor communication, a certain degree of power-play, and a deep level of mistrust. We’re in mid-divorce here and continuous assessment is the family home. Like children, teachers are the fallout, with understandable concerns about any new measures because they can’t trust how they’re going to be managed. They also hate the CAO system – how it distorts teaching and learning in their classrooms. I’ve come across only a handful of educators, mostly union leaders, who would still reject continuous assessment if the third level entry system were removed or reconfigured.

I met with fellow English teacher Conor Murphy this week to discuss Foley’s plans. Conor is Chairperson of INOTE (Irish National Organisation of Teachers of English) and I arranged to meet him because we disagree a lot, but we disagree respectfully, something I value.

As it turns out, although he has concerns about continuous assessment, and is vocal about them, Murphy thinks it is ‘the least bad option’ because he hates how the lengthy written exams in English account for 100% of our students’ grades. He doesn’t like the atmosphere of our terminal exams — so much so that he doesn’t even like supervising them.

So, we start to discuss ways in which continuous assessment might work.

To ensure equity, Murphy suggests that coursework, or whatever continuous work we might devise, remains in the classroom, along with any materials or resources. This would prevent third parties becoming involved, influencing output.

We metaphorically shake hands on it, on opposite sides of a bench, sitting outside the ASTI conference.

To ensure transparency, we agree that teachers should meet throughout senior cycle to moderate marks and support one another. Disparities between coursework and exam results will need to be checked. Inflation and corruption are valid concerns; we need measures in place within and beyond the school to prevent them. But he doesn’t want teachers to be ‘managed in a business-like fashion.’ He’s right of course. We’ll need more respect and autonomy, not less, if this is going to work.

We spit on it. At least in my head we do.

We agree that the CBAs at Junior Cycle aren’t working because teachers and students haven’t bought into them. He worries that the same thing will happen now, and that continuous assessments will end up accounting for close to nothing. If that happens, students will have been let down. Again. Because most students want a variety of assessments.

Again, the real issue, for Murphy and for all of us, is the storm cloud of the CAO hanging overhead. He assures me, “if it has got nothing to do with college entry then it’s fine. If it’s not tied to that, if we can overhaul the CAO system, then there is no problem.” We discuss whether unions can do anything about it. Perhaps TUI can, as they also represent third level? We’re unsure. Again, our dysfunctional leaders don’t seem to have got that far.

For Murphy, the only way to avoid the pressure of the CAO is to send the coursework off to be externally assessed. We would simply bag and post it, as is currently done in many subjects. For me, that’s less than ideal; it’s a missed opportunity but at least my students would get a chance to gain points through different means. At least that’s something.

Our conversation is a good one because we trust one another. We’re willing to talk it out and offer suggestions, make compromises. The sad fact is that the same cannot be said for our leaders. I’m terrified to see what will come out of secondary teacher conferences this week. I genuinely don’t want to look.

If it ends in a stand-off, then we’re all stuck in a bad relationship that’s likely to continue. And as Dr Jane Mulcahy’s series reminds us, in whatever way they come, big or small: relationships matter.

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