Today my union, the ASTI voted to reject the Haddington Road Agreement. This agreement is the latest cut in the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that is being inflicted on education in our country, and the public service in general. In the same ballot, my union voted in favour of industrial action. In each case the vote was carried by about two thirds.
Much of the commentary against teachers in this has been in relation to pay. The refrain from our leaders has been ‘the public service is our biggest bill, and that’s where cuts need to be made.’ The implication, of course, is that everyone in the public sector is overpaid. I’m talking to you, Nurses, Guards, our Army, our Civil Servants.
And yes, there have been brutal cuts to our pay. This month my take-home pay is about 25% less than it was in September 2008. In fact, my wife now works weekends, and we still have less money than we had in 2008.
But money is not the only issue that teachers are angry about, and pay is not the primary driver that led us to vote for industrial action. Here’s some of the things that have upset us:
Class – Teacher Ratios
Ratios are a funny thing. It’s possible to say you have one ratio, but the reality in classrooms can be very different from the official picture. I wrote before about the numbers in my daughter’s classroom in Primary School. Nowhere do official documents state that 34 is an acceptable number of students for one teacher, but that’s what happens when you start pushing up numbers. In secondary schools numbers are creeping up as well. This impacts on a student’s ability to learn, and puts more part-time teachers out of work.
Budget 2013, when it was announced, had a hidden gem for schools. Guidance Counsellors were no longer ex-quota. (Wha?) That means that If a school wanted to keep a guidance counsellor working in their job, then the school had to lose a job somewhere else. So, in a recession when students could really do with advice regarding careers and higher education, the government tries to strip that away. Don’t forget the great work in pastoral counselling that these people do. They help so, so many students out in quiet and important ways.
The numbers of people providing assistance to students has been cut. These Special Needs Assistants, Learning Support Teachers, or Resource Teachers are incredibly important for students. Imagine a student landing in Ireland from another EU country and unable to speak English. He or She may get one or two class periods a week to help his or her English. Imagine a student with a recognised learning disability. Imagine a student with a physical disability, with dyslexia, with ADHD, with ODD, with dyspraxia, with visual or auditory difficulties. The resources for all these children have been cut. And if you cut their resources then you cut their opportunities to do well in school, and you cut their future chances in life.
As has been well-publicised, the Junior Cert is being changed. Unfortunately, many of the changes are not what was recommended by the teacher unions and the National Council for Curriculum Assessment. In other words, the Minister ignored best advice. Add that to the perception that teachers need to do more work on literacy, numeracy etc. All of this is being foisted upon the profession in the expectation of better results with fewer resources.
The National Educational Psychological Service is the official body that assesses students who may have a learning disability. The budget of this body has been severely cut meaning that it is much harder to get resources for students who need help.
Capitation is the grant that schools receive from the Department of Education and Skills to run the school. Schools receive a grant for each student who is registered. This grant then goes towards paying the heating, the light, the maintenance, the repairs. The capitation grant has been reducing constantly for the past five years.
We have a myth in this country that teaching is a secure job. That, frankly, is rubbish. I have friends who have been teaching for up to 15 years who still don’t have a full-time job. Seriously. This affects everything – up to and including their pension contributions. As the teacher-pupil ratio changes those who retire are not being replaced. Newly-qualified teachers would be incredibly lucky to get even a part-time job.
Schools are complicated organisms. In order to keep a student body of 300+ students working, involved and learning then lots of jobs need to be done. You need year heads and class heads, you need State exams to be co-ordinated, you need matches to be played, you want the school play to run, you want the kids to more than just learn, you want them to develop. Many of the tasks listed are undertaken by teachers given special posts (called Assistant Principal and B posts). Traditionally these posts have earned some extra pay and a time allowance to carry out the duties attached. These posts are being phased out. Now a teacher hoping for professional development will need to be willing to do it on a voluntary, unpaid basis. In addition to their full teaching duties.
At the moment a number of Primary Schools are advertising for classroom assistants under the Job Bridge programme. Essentially, they want to find an unemployed teacher (and there’s lots) and get that teacher to work for their dole plus about €50. In this situation it’s a pure numbers game. The teachers do not stand a chance of getting full employment as Job-bridge positions come with an expiry date.
I’ve gone on quite a bit there. If you’ve read this far, then thank you. As you may gather, I both reject the Haddington Road Agreement, and support Industrial Action. And I’m glad that the majority of my union of 17,000 members has done the same.