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A rude awakening from the God slot

A broadcaster's prayer for teachers has hit a tender spot, reports John Walshe. It's not often that a two-minute "thought for the day" on radio grabs the headlines. But comments made about teachers during the normally innocuous Matins slot on the the national network, RTE, have caused a furore.

The teacher unions' strong reaction to the broadcast led to an apology from the station's director of radio broadcasting who also cancelled the evening repeat slot for the item.

The row highlighted the very considerable influence of the teacher unions, but has also focused public attention on a number of issues - such as incompetent teachers - that they might have preferred to keep for the negotiating table.

The prayer that rounded off writer and broadcaster Bill Long's Matins contribution ran as follows: "Dear Lord, help the many good teachers to see that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Help them to admit such weak links exist in their profession and give them the moral strength to take some drastic remedial action. Help them appreciate that they are dealing here with children's lives.

"If a 'weak' worker on a production line produces a faulty product it doesn't get past quality control and is instantly put right. With young lives it is different; the damage is always irreversible and irreparable."

More provocative for the teacher unions was Mr Long's run-up in which he related two anecdotes from his personal experience. In the first, he told listeners that he had complained about the consistently "unethical and unprofessional behaviour" of a particular teacher to his son's school, but had got nowhere. "While the man's colleagues all agreed that he was 'weak', they cynically assured me that they would always close ranks, protect and carry such a person," he said on air.

He went on to describe a secondary school where he had given a course of lectures. The "very frustrated" headmaster had told him that not more than six or seven of the 29 teachers there were even interested in what they taught.

"Many of them, he said, had interests outside the classroom to which they gave their best. One bred horses, another sold insurance, another sold used cars. They stayed in teaching, he said, because the money was regular, the hours good, and the pension guaranteed."

Many teachers were infuriated by the suggestion of moonlighting. The volume of complaints received by the station on the day of the broadcast led to an apology for "personal distress" being issued. The station's intervention has led to accusations of censorship from some commentators.

Writing in The Sunday Independent, Mary Ellen Synon commented that RTE had not apologised because Mr Long had got his facts wrong. "The apology was made because the teachers - that powerful political lobby of feather-bedded trade unionists - did not like what they heard."

The teacher-union lobby is certainly powerful. It has secured considerable improvement in pay and conditions over the past two decades and negotiated redeployment deals (rather than being made redundant when rolls fall, teachers are redeployed and are generally given priority over newly qualified teachers for vacancies).

Teachers in the Republic are better paid than their colleagues north of the border and it is very difficult to sack them. Although the schools are mainly private, salaries are paid by the state.

In secondary schools, promotion to middle management is often on grounds of seniority rather than merit with obvious consequences for morale among young, enthusiastic staff. Meanwhile the education ministry has allowed the school year to be eroded so that the maximum days taught are 183 in primary schools and 167 at secondary level - one of the shortest teaching years in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries. In a report on the Irish economy earlier this year, the OECD said the teaching year should be lengthened.

In the past the unions have been able to point to the non-timetabled contribution of teachers and to the high standards in Irish schools. But the OECD has pointed to international studies which showed that Irish pupils tended to rank below average in standardised tests, although the extent of the shortfall was small in mathematics and reading. The OECD report was not particularly well received by teachers.

Fionnuala Kilfeather co-ordinator for the National Parents Council believes that until recently there was a sense of complacency about the Irish education system. She says that in general people tended to look to authority figures in the Church or in education but adds that now there is more questioning of teachers' status and calls for greater accountability.

There is a growing sense, as another seasoned observer put it, that "the party is over as far as teachers are concerned . . . many of them work very hard . . . the job is becoming more stressful, but they have some very generous work practices with no questions asked until now."

The irony is that the unions themselves may have provided an opening for serious discussion about some of these issues as a result of their high-profile campaign to secure early retirement. The Government has agreed to a limited scheme and is willing to make concessions on a range of claims for allowances - but in return for increased productivity. It wants teachers to teach the minimum school year with an extra six working days for in-service training, school planning days and parent- teacher meetings.

The ministry also wants to make provision for forcing out bad teachers from the system. School managers who are party to the talks currently taking place have warned that they will not sign a deal unless it strengthens middle management. Talks will continue during October and a final package will have to be voted on by all teachers.

Bill Long's contribution and the discussion it provoked could hardly have come at a worse time for teachers, who until recently were not used to hearing direct criticism of their professionalism. Meanwhile Mr Long is bemused at the strong reactions to his Matins item.

Among the many letters he received after the controversial broadcast was one from a farmer who congratulated him and said "my wife is a schoolteacher and she is backing you all the way, but she can't say so". The farmer went on to say "you are a great man to have stood up and been counted; men like you are scarce", but concluded: "Bill, I can't sign my name, I hope you will understand."

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