Jess Casey: A lot to occupy the minds of teachers at their union gatherings

Leaving Cert reform and funding — along with the challenges presented by Covid, the cost of living, and war in Ukraine — will be on the agenda at this week's teachers' conferences
Jess Casey: A lot to occupy the minds of teachers at their union gatherings

Leaving Cert reform will be one of the items discussed as the TUI, the ASTI (above), and the INTO, hold their annual conferences this week. File picture: Eamonn Keogh

It is a very different world since the last time the country’s three teachers’ unions held their annual conferences in person.

In 2019, not many of us could have foreseen the impact a global pandemic would have on our daily lives, and now we’re also facing war in Europe, and spiralling inflation.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), and the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) are holding their Easter conferences this week, the first time each of the annual proceedings will be held in the same room since they were cancelled during the initial stages of the pandemic in March 2020.

TUI president Martin Marjoram responding to the  Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris at the annual congress of the union last year. File picture: Tommy Clancy
TUI president Martin Marjoram responding to the  Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris at the annual congress of the union last year. File picture: Tommy Clancy

Much has happened in the education sector during the pandemic. We’ve had online learning, waves of Covid impacting every level in schools, and changes to the Leaving Cert.

Relationships between the teachers’ unions and the Department of Education and its respective ministers have been fraught, if not downright fractious. What are the key issues that will form the agenda this year?

Leaving Cert reform

The Leaving Cert, and its planned reforms, will certainly get a good billing on the agenda of second-level teachers.

Reforms announced last month will need considerable buy-in from teachers, considering the revamped senior cycle looks set to include 40% teacher-based continuous assessment. Teaching unions here have always been fundamentally opposed to teachers grading their own students, as they’ve maintained keeping the role of teacher and assessor separate is key for retaining trust in the State exams.

This was strongly tested during both 2020 and 2021 as Covid besieged the country, and emergency measures saw schools providing students with estimated grades. Whether or not this experience will change minds now will be tested this week.

Two motions at the ASTI conference will discuss the proposed reforms. One calls for the union to insist that the assessment and grading of the Leaving Cert will remain the “sole remit” of the State Examinations Commission.

Another will call for the ASTI to refuse to take part in any discussions on planned reform until a “full, open, and transparent” study of the junior cycle has been conducted, and its findings made public.

Third-level funding

What follows the Leaving Cert will also feature prominently at the TUI conference, which looks set to discuss third-level funding. The union, which represents 4,500 academic staff in institutes of technology, technological universities, and St Angela’s College, as well as second-level teachers, is calling for a levy to be applied to corporate profits to generate a dedicated fund for higher education.

It believes that serious consideration should be given to the imposition of a 1% levy on corporate profits. According to Martin Marjoram, TUI president, such a levy could have yielded a €947m education fund in 2020.

“The corporate sector has consistently derived benefit from Ireland’s excellent graduate labour pool which is largely the product of the public education system — funded by taxpayers and the students themselves,” he said.

The introduction of a levy would protect and enhance the capacity of institutions to meet an evolving need while allowing the unreasonable financial burden on students to be relieved. 

Pay and recruitment difficulties

A topic never far from everyone’s mind these days — the cost of living crisis — will also feature on teachers’ agendas this week. Scarce accommodation, high rents, and inflation have all exacerbated ongoing recruitment difficulties, leaving many schools struggling to fill posts. Covid and virus-related absences haven’t helped the crisis either.

Research carried out by ASTI found that many schools have experienced situations where no teachers applied for advertised jobs this year.

More than half of the schools surveyed last month reported they had unfilled vacancies. Principals cited an inadequate number of teachers graduating in certain subjects, the high costs associated with the two-year master’s degree teaching qualification (PME), and the “decline in attractiveness” of teaching as a profession.

In light of these current teacher shortages, its convention next week will debate if the ASTI should adopt a campaign to have a one-year PME course be made available to graduates. Teachers will also hear calls for PME students to be paid for all teaching hours worked through the academic year.

Tomorrow, the INTO conference will hear calls for its central executive committee to immediately seek an increase in pay to compensate members for the cost-of-living increases, and to campaign each year for pay increases for teachers “that at the very least keep up with the rate of inflation”.

The influx of thousands of Ukrainian students in the coming weeks is also likely to be discussed. It is not clear yet what impact adding to the school system at this scale will have. Ireland’s larger class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios are always among the perennial issues debated annually.

Covid certainly dominated industrial relations discussions over the past two years and the virus hasn’t exactly gone away. Expect to hear plenty about education policy post-emergency, and about addressing the ongoing fallout in classrooms.

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