Any hike in teachers’ pay means struggling children will get less

Nearly €4 out of every €5 spent on education goes on pay and pension, writes Gerard Howlin

Any hike in teachers’ pay means struggling children will get less

can remember the name and the face of every teacher I ever ha

Some were brilliant. Mr Joseph Lyons wrote the geography text books we used, and if occasionally irascible, was always compelling.

Mr Brendan Ryan taught us English for the Leaving Cert. An understated man he had something of the substance of Robin William’s Mr Keating in Dead Poet’s Society. He didn’t need the razzmatazz or the antics.

He could very quietly elucidate the great moral issues in texts like Coriolanus and Silas Marner. It was as far back as 1981/82 but I can clearly remember him saying that he couldn’t understand how anyone with one house, could want a second. He thought it was greed.

And Brother O’Reilly who taught religion and French, had lived and worked for years in Argentina.

He had a hinterland that was rare in an Ireland where contact with anything foreign was largely limited to looking at an atlas. In the end, 42 of us sat the Leaving Certificate. Only three went to university. It was a different era, and not much more was expected. But my memory of my teachers is largely very positive. It was all of its time, and of course times have changed.

One of the things that has changed is that teachers are under a lot more pressure. Another is that they are lot better paid. It is 33 years since I left school, so the chances are that very few remain now who were teaching then. But one thing I do remember is that teachers were usually regarded as being in the right. Like gardaí and priests, there was a status and authority that went with the job.

The default position of most parents, was if you got a slap, you must have done something wrong. It is a very good thing that times have changed.

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Being in a classroom now, however, is probably a lot tougher. Reading about the 20% of classes with 30-plus students being debated at the INTO conference reminded me of Sister Bonaventure. Not quite with a rod of iron, but certainly a stick that could occasionally slap little fingers to full attention, she coped with nearly 40. She was a reverent lady who truly believed that cleanliness was next to godliness. Sister had a horror of dirty hands receiving any punishment, however regrettable. Only when washed, was the appropriate correction applied. In 1970, what did you do to survive incarceration with 40 six year olds?

Perhaps the truth is you could do more with 40 then, than you can with 30 now. Maybe it was simply about warehousing weaker children. There certainly wasn’t much of an offering beyond the one-size-fits-all. If it fitted, well and good. But if anything more was required, you probably sank rather than swam in our education system.

It is supposed to be different now. I suspect that short of consistent, educational incompetence about two-thirds of pupils will do all right in school. They may not reach full potential, but after a fashion they will swim, rather than sink. There are about a third who at some point, require a special intervention.

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It may be simply more time from their own teacher. It may be an additional support with a particular subject. It may be pastoral support, with a personal issue. It may be passing, but if not forthcoming there will be a seriously retarding effect on the educational attainment of that child. Class size is just one part of it; access to other educational supports is another.

What is not part of it, however, is teachers’ pay. The teacher unions take their subs, to keep those wheels greased. But this week while the teacher conferences are in full swing, we should not confuse their vested interest with the public interest. Nearly €4 out of every €5 spent on education goes on pay and pensions.

It’s the third-largest public expenditure, after social protection and health. Any increase in pay, or worse a fundamentally inequitable row-back on the public sector pension levy would cannibalise available funds for investment in education, especially for vulnerable children.

OECD figures for 2012 showed that, taking account the cost of living in different countries, teacher salaries in Ireland are high by international standards. Those figures take account of some, but not all of the pay cuts imposed on the public service. Our primary teachers work on average more days than a lot of their European colleagues, our secondary teachers just a little less.

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New teachers here, of course are doing less well than their established colleagues. But that was part of the sell-out to better preserve the pay of incumbents, at a cost to them. It is too late now and a bit rich for teacher unions to talk about equality.

A particularly vicious form of inequality would be to row-back on the public service pension levies.

About 900,000 workers in the private sector have no pension at all. First they have to pay through their taxes for the State’s contribution to public pensions, before they can set aside a cent for their own retirement.

Yes teachers do pay towards their pensions, and correctly now pay a lot more. In time new teachers will have a far less lucrative pension based on average salary, then the pension based on final salary enjoyed by nearly all current incumbents.

But, however, you contrast the apples and oranges, any defined contribution, public service pension is far more lucrative, levies and all, than compared to anything that can be afforded on an equivalent salary in the private sector.

If you are likely to live on until you are nearly 90, the pension bonus enjoyed by all public servants, teachers included, is enormous.

But back to children — education does depend on teachers, who compared to others, are reasonably well paid. What we don’t have are sufficient levels of supports for children who are struggling. Any general increase in pay or pension for teachers, means we are less likely, to have it either.

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Yesterday, Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan spelled out the benefits of the DEIS scheme for disadvantaged schools. School attendance has improved and DEIS has delivered “sustained improvement” in “literacy and numeracy”. On the go for 10 years now, the scheme she believes has delivered “sustained improvements” unequalled by “few educational interventions anywhere in the world”.

DEIS means that children from very disadvantaged areas, have a better chance, all things considered.

It’s money well spent. Of course class sizes are important too. So are resource teachers for children with special needs, across the board. And the list goes on. Mainly it’s a list of good and necessary interventions that make a lifelong difference, one young life at a time. The lesson is, having decided on what is really important, there isn’t one for everyone in the audience.

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