Teachers need to face up to grim realities outside the school gate

I can’t shed many tears for the teachers. Especially when I reflect on the sleepless nights we are all having in coping with our fears of job insecurity and falling incomes.

Average teacher pay is €52,000 per annum. This has increased by 85% over the past 12 years. Extra allowances and increments are payable on top of this

LAST week’s teacher conferences provided an excellent synopsis of all that has gone wrong with politics over the past decade. Ordinary taxpayers were taken aback by the outspoken nature of contributors. They appeared like spoiled children demanding that they and their sector be exempt from the economic depression. Their anger and vehemence appeared totally disproportionate when set against the devastation that so many are suffering through unemployment and financial stress.

We should not be surprised. Batt O’Keeffe is reaping the bitter harvest of a decade of Bertie Ahern politics. Fianna Fáil had a simple education strategy. The minister for education was in fact a minister for teachers. Micheál Martin was not only a secondary schoolteacher but a former ASTI shop steward.

Mary Hanafin (also a former teacher) prided herself on implementing the teachers’ agenda for education. She was so successful in this regard that a teacher’s union leader advocated during the last election that she be returned as minister.

Education policy was simple. You implemented the demands from the teachers’ representatives.

If the Department of Education failed to deliver, then the partnership process could be relied on to grant other benefits such as benchmarking. This resulted in 92,480 public servants being employed in education in 2008, compared to 65,900 in 1995. Yet we hear education didn’t benefit from the Celtic Tiger.

Let me get my retaliation in here. My wife and her mother are former national schoolteachers. My sister teaches at secondary level. My daughter is training to be a primary teacher.

As a parent I appreciate and respect the dedication of the vast majority of teachers. I greatly value education to the extent that in my frugal Protestant lifestyle my one excess has been on education expenditure for our four children. Despite all this, I can distinguish the wood for the trees.

I can’t shed many tears for the teachers. Especially when I reflect on the sleepless nights we are all having in coping with our fears of job insecurity and falling incomes. Average teacher pay is €52,000 per annum. This has increased by 85% over the past 12 years. Extra allowances and increments are payable on top of this. Favourable pension terms lie at the end of the rainbow of these permanent posts.

The pay rate is especially good when the hours are calculated. No other worker in the entire labour force enjoys such productivity terms. On average, a secondary schoolteacher has 19 weeks off school each year. Their median teaching hours are 22 per week — varying up to 30 hours per week. A national schoolteacher enjoys 15 weeks off annually. They perform on average 30 hours teaching per week. This contrasts with an industrial average of a 40-hour week and up to four weeks holidays yearly.

There is copious data from the EU and the OECD that allows a transparent comparison of pay and working conditions for teachers across Europe. The average EU teacher’s pay is somewhat less than half that payable here. Teachers’ holidays in Britain are six or seven weeks for the summer. This compares with our vacation period of June, July and August.

These are among the longest summer holidays anywhere. Let’s hope the education day of protest can be squeezed into the holiday period.

Of course, our teachers aren’t concerned about their personal circumstances. It is their vocational commitment to their sector and pupils that motivates their campaign against cutbacks.

In the 2009 budget, arithmetic provision was made for a double-digit increase in capital spending on education from €788m to €880m. The school building programme was treated as a priority. Current spending was increased from €8.2bn to €8.4bn.

If we are to adhere to the fiscal responsibilities, as a member of the eurozone, Government spending needs to be cut by 12%. This is based on total public expenditure of €54bn, while total tax revenue is now estimated to be €36bn.

If the Government fails to address the need to reduce costs, it is almost inevitable that the IMF or an equivalent will have to do the job. The choice will be radically to cut welfare, health or education spending — or all three.

Education expenditure may be cut by €1bn. Given that there are one million people in full-time education, we will require some courageous and innovative education policies.

Let’s ask some hard questions:

nCould or should we cancel the transition year in the secondary school cycle?

nHow come, despite almost €10bn spending on education, one in four adults can’t spell properly?

nWhy have we resisted proper accountability of individual school performances? nWhy do we tolerate a system whereby inadequate poor performing teachers are not removed?

Reductions in the pupil/teacher ratio cannot be ruled out. At post-primary level this issue can be reduced to one of subject choice. It simply is not possible to retain the full range of course options. The number of practical subjects, foreign languages and arts options may need to be rationalised. Will this shatter the lives of these pupils? Surely, lifelong learning allows the option to widen your skills in later years. We need to establish clear priorities of essential subjects.

There are a few myths about education that have never been confronted. We are told “education is the best investment we can make in our country’s future”. This theory would lead you to believe we can educate our way out of a recession.

THERE is a false notion that a “knowledge economy” can achieve full employment. This is self-serving. I recently met a 29-year-old graduate who was seeking her first job. Having been through a series of different third-level courses and attaining excellent qualifications, she couldn’t now get a job.

My harshest criticism of education unaccountability lies at third level. Only 15% of students attain third level. University lecturers and professors have been awarded, by the HEA, special pay hikes since September 2007. The top 50 earners in our universities share a whopping €10m pay gravytrain. Many dons lecture, on average, six hours per week. There is inadequate appraisal or quality assurance. The arts research budgets are highly questionable.

Our colleges all agree that taxpaying parents should pay third-level fees. Value for money is not part of the lexicon of the education sector. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of school buildings. In business, the biggest killer of profits is poor asset utilisation.

School buildings are the least availed of state assets. The taxpayer is being ripped off by exorbitant rent costs on prefabs. Commercial centralised renegotiation of lease/purchase terms is imperative.

Before the INTO, ASTI and TUI ratchet up a campaign of industrial action, perhaps they might reflect on the grim prospects of unsustainable fiscal deficits, Ireland’s sovereign credit rating sinking further, an exploding national debt and 500,000 unemployed. Union leaders are still advocating higher taxation as the panacea to fund unsustainable public services. Bertie’s era is over. Teachers’ leaders should join the real world soon.


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