'In Ireland, it's not which school but which country'

17th June 2011 at 01:00
UK is beacon of hope as Irish teachers face emigration or 15 per cent income drop

Eleven minutes. That was how long it took Irish education minister Ruairi Quinn to start talking about education - in front of 700 members of the union for primary teachers. First, he had to hammer home that Ireland was in a crisis such as it has never known in 90 years of independence.

English teachers, embroiled in their own battles over pay and conditions, may be surprised to hear that, at the same conference, their employment prospects were being held up as a beacon of hope.

The raw facts and figures are eye-watering. While their counterparts on this side of the Irish Sea struggle with a two-year pay freeze, Irish teachers have suffered a 15 per cent drop in their income, including a pension levy.

In September, new teachers will be paid a further 14 per cent less. There is an indefinite freeze on promotions and 1,200 teaching posts will be cut in 2011-12, mostly in primary schools.

Speaking at the annual conference of primary teachers union the Irish National Teachers Organisation, executive member John Boyle pointed out that, at current trends, 166 teachers in every 1,000 would be on the dole within five years.

"We're in unprecedented times," said Peter Melrose, vice-president of the student union at St Patrick's College in Drumcondra, Dublin. "I'm going back to tell 450 students that next year is going to be the worst year for teacher unemployment. It's dispiriting that when I signed up in 2007 I was told I would walk into a job.

"Now it's not a case of what school you're going to, but what country you're going to - I know people who are heading to Australia, France, London. People are giving up on getting a teaching job."

The view is not much better from the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), which carried out a survey which found that 12 per cent of graduating teachers did not plan even to try to find work in Ireland.

Aoife Ni Mhaille, a student teacher from Trinity College, Dublin, who will soon have a postgraduate diploma to add to a master's degree, received a standing ovation from the conferences' 450 delegates when she described emigration, not posts in Irish schools, as "the new permanency" for teachers.

As a teacher of Irish, moving abroad is not an option for Ms Mhaille.

"I'm going to stick at it - I don't want to do anything else," she said. "I'll do whatever teaching hours I can get. I've put so much into this. I intend to teach."

ASTI believes only one in 10 students will get permanent posts within 12 months and that a quarter of all teachers are on temporary contracts.

"These teachers face poor job prospects, a severe pay cut and a pension scheme which will see them pay more in contributions than they will ever receive in benefits," said general secretary Pat King.

Come September, more than 2,000 primary graduates alone will be competing for already scarce jobs; tales abound of advertisements attracting hundreds of applications.

Their chances are not helped by a recent controversy involving low-paid, unqualified teachers. A freedom of information request by the Irish Independent newspaper revealed that, between September and February, 400 people with no teaching qualifications had worked at least 50 days each in primary schools; half of the country's 3,200 primaries had employed an unqualified person.

Emma Douglas, 25, and Adelene McWeeney, 22, travelled to the INTO conference to join protesters in slogan-covered T-shirts: "I didn't bankrupt the country", "You paid to train me ... Now let me work".

Ms McWeeney graduated in 2009 and has worked as a "home school liaison co-ordinator", as well as doing part-time hours in English-language support, but neither counts towards her probation. Emma, a fellow primary teaching graduate, from Dublin, has been covering long-term sick leave for a learning support post, but this does not count either.

"It's just so competitive," said Emma. "More and more people are coming out every year."

A block on promotions to all middle-management posts came into force in 2009, but its impact has been exacerbated by a rush to retirement. The average reduction in pension payments imposed by the government will be 4 per cent for those retiring before February 2012, and 7 per cent thereafter.

ASTI surveyed 20 schools in 2009 to assess the impact of cuts, returning a year later to see if the situation had deteriorated. A total of 53 middle-management posts had been lost across 19 of the 20 schools. To make matters worse, the losses come just when the pupil population is about to rise by tens of thousands, teachers point out.

At the cliff-top St Joseph's Secondary in Ballybunion, County Kerry, headteacher John O'Donovan has lost one promoted colleague.

But as chair of ASTI's principals' and deputy principals' committee, he knows of schools that have lost seven or eight. One headteacher learnt that seven of his pupils were suicidal, but the year heads who used to work one-to-one with troubled pupils were gone.

It pains and bemuses Mr O'Donovan to see the opprobrium levelled at the public sector in Ireland.

He winces at the memory of a television debate in which teachers drew much of the ire from a hostile audience keen to flag up three-month summer holidays, if not the 70-hour working weeks.

More cuts are inevitable, and Mr O'Donovan's best-case scenario in the coming years is the modest ambition that pupil-teacher ratios are kept stable.



Ireland is not the only European country where teachers have borne the brunt of the global economic downturn, as Educational Institute of Scotland general secretary Ronnie Smith knows from his role as president of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) whose member organisations have 12.8 million members in 45 countries.

"It is necessary to go back a very long time to recall a time when the pressures bearing down on public services in general, and on education in particular, have been so severe," he told a congress of the Czech teachers' union in Prague last month.

In Latvia, wages have been slashed by a fifth, while in Greece more than 1,000 schools have been earmarked for closure. Poland has seen threats of mass privatisation of schools.

Portugal is cutting pay and the hours of pupil instruction, and increasing student-teacher ratios in vocational education.

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