Daniel McConnell: Teacher unions need a lesson in partnership

Our schools must reopen and unions must not stand in the way of it happening, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell 
Daniel McConnell: Teacher unions need a lesson in partnership
Picture shows Minister of State Josepha Madigan; An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, and Education Minister Norma Foley at the Department of Education, Marlborough Street today at the briefing on plans to reopen the schools in August. Photo: Julian Behal

“Remember, we are all in this together,” the incessant radio adverts tell us.

The daily reminders as to how we, as a country, are to deal with the fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic paint a picture of equality and solidarity among us all.

Any of us who stood on our doorsteps and applauded the work of our frontline healthcare workers or who watched that extraordinary RTÉ documentary on the workings of St James’ Hospital through the pandemic recognise the sacrifices made in the national interest by so many.

Indeed, the death of Dr Syed Waqar Ali, who died this week after contracting Covid-19, shows the price paid by some in the effort to battle the coronavirus. 

Dr Waqar Ali was rightly described as a "hero" by his eldest daughter Samar Fatima, who said there are "no words for the pain they are experiencing". He was "incredibly selfless", she said.

Dr Waqar Ali was the eighth healthcare worker to die because of Covid-19.

Without question, the flexibility shown by healthcare workers at every level has been simply incredible and their trade unions have shown a great deal of willingness to roll up their sleeves and amend the work practices of their members in the country’s hour of need.

A similar willingness to put the shoulder to the wheel has been demonstrated across many sections of our public and civil service and those members can be rightly proud of their efforts so far.

But sadly, others in the employ of the State have flunked in their efforts.

As Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry pointed out at his parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday, there are many state agencies and department staff working from home effectively “doing little or nothing”.

While some departments and agencies have returned to something resembling normality, others have not.

As one official let slip to me this week, their department, which would normally have 400 people working in it, had just 15 present with many essential duties not being performed.

Many private sector companies also remain locked out of their offices, this newspaper among them, but their staff are still working at full tilt if not even harder than before, while managing to tend to their little ones in the absence of schools or creches in recent months.

The matter of schools reopening at the end of August has become a critical issue and, while this correspondent was deeply critical of new education minister Norma Foley last week, the performance and stance of teaching unions must also be examined. 

When I say examined, I really mean excoriated.

I say this as a former union official in the NUJ and someone who recognises and values the presence of collective bargaining and workers’ rights.

Not for the first time, some of the representatives of our teachers have behaved appallingly and selfishly and contrary to the united spirit we have seen from our healthcare workers.

I will give some credit to the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) for showing willingness to be innovative and flexible, but the same can not be said for their second-level colleagues, particularly in the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI).

Their continued hardline approach was evident at a recent hearing of the Covid-19 committee where we were told teachers must return to a Covid-19 secure workplace and nothing else will be acceptable. 

ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie said that under the current medical advice schools would return on a restricted basis.

However, in response to a question from People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny about what a classroom with 30 students, two SNAs, and a teacher would look like in September, Mr Christie said it would look empty because ASTI members would not be there.

He said the advice was that a return to a classroom was an impossibility due to the requirement to maintain social distancing and that was a reality that has to be faced. 

He also said guidance on social distancing from the Department of Education means schools will not be back full-time for all students.

Schools will only be able to open on a restricted basis because of sizes of schools, he said.

Added to the suggestions from Joe McHugh, the previous education minister, that children may only return one day a week to school, the collective anger of parents was palpable.

No one is advocating staff being placed in a dangerous working environment but compared to hospitals, all the medical advice and expertise so far would show that schools would be among the safest places to work in under Covid-19.

For far too long, the “stakeholders” as they are referred to in the education sector, have held far too much sway.

This is a by-product of successive governments refusing to stand up to them and also by the recurring pattern of changing ministers every two and a half years or so.

There, of course, is the old adage of unions “never wasting a crisis” in order to forward their agenda but, come on, can we get real here.

Behind the scenes, one hears of the deep level of resistance from the unions despite “considerable effort” going in to delivering a workable solution to ensure kids can go back to school.

“When you look at what the health profession have done and you see the carry-on of the teachers’ unions, it is deplorable. Despite investment, protections, promises of extra staff, they are still not happy,” said one senior government source.

It is now July 25 and parents are only now being told that they will find out next week what is happening with their children come the end of the summer.

This is disgraceful.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Ms Foley said yesterday the reopening of schools at the end of August is the highest priority and will happen.

The funding to make it happen will be the subject of a Cabinet memo on Monday from her which ministers will approve.

This is most welcome, but long overdue.

Ms Foley stressed that getting agreement on this issue from the stakeholders took time but it was another example of the unions and the partners in education having too much power.

Such power should never be an impediment to progress and too many times the balance of power has tilted out of control and in my own profession in the 1980s, especially in the UK, it amounted to no more than a shameful racket.

The lingering power of the teaching unions or ‘education partners’, as they like to be called, is one of the disappointing legacies of the once-useful social partnership process.

Their insular focus on their own well-being has been exposed by the generosity of effort by their counterparts throughout the public service.

It is welcome the country’s kids are going back to school.

They have suffered enough.

Their parents have suffered enough.

As Tánaiste Leo Varadkar put it in the Dáil on Thursday, there is no good reason for the schools to have been closed for so long.

“My view, if you look at it rationally, the shops are open, the restaurants are open, the hotels are open, hairdressers, the barbers are open ... There's no good reason why we should be the only country in Europe that doesn't have its schools open,” he added.

Varadkar was absolutely spot on. But when we ask why the education response to Covid-19 was such a shambles, the teaching unions need to take a long, hard look at themselves.

It should never have come to this.

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