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Minister 'insults' unions

The Irish education minister Noel Dempsey has upset the three teacher unions by demanding a Question Time-style debate at their annual conferences at Easter instead of a ministerial address.

He told them bluntly the traditional speech followed by union response was dated. "More weight is placed on the setting out of positions than on communication and listening," he said.

He said he would accept invitations to the conferences only if there were discussions with delegates on the future of the education system, with an independent facilitator and observers. This would preferably be along the lines of his Yes to Education discussions at 17 venues around the country where people are invited to air their views on the future direction of education.

The unions have reacted negatively to his "insulting" suggestion, but parents and school managerial organisations are more open to it.

Mr Dempsey had earlier angered teachers by sending in inspectors to see if schools were open on December 23 in accordance with a new agreement on a standardised school year. Then he caused further friction by delaying a pay rise for two months until they agreed to move parent-teacher meetings outside school hours. He wanted them at night time but an arbitrator ruled in favour of a 4.15-6.45pm time slot.

A politician who likes to think "outside the box", it was disclosed last week that Mr Dempsey wants electronic voting for the election of parents and staff representatives to 33 vocational education committees around the country.

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