Quinn and the teachers avoid mutually assured destruction — for now

THE concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) ensured the world was safe from nuclear war during the Cold War as each side knew that pushing the red button would trigger the same response from their opponents.

Although not quite as grave, a similar scenario emerged this week as the leaders of two teacher unions were told by conference delegates they must ballot the full membership on industrial action if the Government does not fulfil its guarantee in the Croke Park agreement of no compulsory redundancies or further pay cuts. This follows warnings to public servants from a number of ministers earlier this month that the pay question would be revisited if they do not deliver reforms and efficiencies they committed to providing under the deal.

The motions passed by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) would see such a move triggering a strike vote. In the TUI’s case, this would even be done if the coalition cited the “unforeseen economic circumstances” clause of Croke Park which could allow them make more cuts to pay, something most public servants must surely have feared strongly after the EU and IMF landed on our shores before Christmas.

But even with the brinksmanship of such policies, the INTO delegates backed away by two-to-one and more from two chances to instruct their executive to start campaigns that might lead to a strike. Proponents of the motions — opposing cuts that would effect disadvantaged children and those with special needs — said Croke Park had stripped the union of its strongest weapon: the right to withdraw labour.

INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan was one of the chief architects of the Croke Park deal and serves as a union representative on the implementation body charged with overseeing delivery of the reforms. Her union was among the first to back the agreement — by a two-thirds majority last May — but the fine details were only accepted by Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) in February and by TUI members last month.

ASTI delegates were once the most likely to back hardline action on issues relating to pay and conditions, but motions threatening non-compliance with Croke Park did not even make it onto their convention’s agenda in Cork.

TUI delegates were more vociferous in their opposition to the deal, after a much tighter result last month on the Croke Park deal, with just 56% of its third-level members approving the reforms required of them in return for protecting their pay.

But as the reality of the country’s economic situation was spelled out clearly to all three unions by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn this week, a reluctant acceptance of the consequences for education services appears to have sunk in. The burly protests experienced by his predecessors Batt O’Keeffe and Mary Coughlan the last two Easters were replaced by polite, if somewhat muted, applause for the Labour incumbent.

Delegates at the ASTI convention in Cork were seen to be in touch with reality and taking the minister at his word, although one union figure said that this does not mean strong representations will not continue to be made about cutbacks.

As the minister repeated his mantra to teachers that cuts already in place or announced by the last government will not be reversed, delegates made no apology for fighting to retain services helping the most vulnerable reach their potential.

It is hard to argue with warnings that Mr Quinn’s ambitions to reverse dwindling literacy standards are doomed to failure when supports for disadvantaged and special needs pupils are withdrawn.

INTO delegate Barbara Jones described the removal of home school co-ordinator posts she and almost 50 others fill in rural disadvantaged communities as a direct attack on rural children. Since 2007, Ms Jones has worked with parents and pupils of six Co Leitrim primary schools to make reading and maths part of the regular interaction at home and she has seen attendance and school performance rise as a result.

Speakers at all three conferences she warned that every student will be affected by the loss of care and teaching supports for children with special needs as classroom teachers’ time is diluted to make up for the loss.

While he expressed an understanding for their empathy and passion about the issues, Mr Quinn could offer no solace. And as he invited unions to talks with his department on how to save tens of millions of euro more in pay from 2012, there is an increasing likelihood that he may have to increase class sizes by repeating mainstream staffing cuts brought in two years ago in the absence of anywhere else to wield the axe.

Either way, despite improved class contact time in schools arising from Croke Park, it is hard to see how the continued erosion of staffing in education will return Ireland to its once-proud position near the top of the global leagues for student standards. The situation is not helped by the use of more than 3,000 people without primary teaching qualifications by schools since last September. Mr Quinn has promised to try and resolve this problem with the INTO before their ban on members working alongside unqualified people begins in September.

But given the potential for industrial unrest that has emerged from the teacher unions in previous Easters, Mr Quinn could be forgiven for being relieved that this appears to be the biggest headache created for his department this week. Finding a solution could also help boost the government’s record on jobs if it creates more regular work in the classroom for those properly trained to be there who are understandably frustrated at being kept out of schools by retirees and the unqualified.

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