'It's not what school to go to, but what country'

17th June 2011 at 01:00
Scottish teachers feel embattled after their worst pay deal since devolution. But when Henry Hepburn visited Ireland, he found its teachers in a far deeper crisis

Eleven minutes. That was how long it took the Irish education minister, Ruairi Quinn, to start talking about education - in front of 700 members of the trade 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.

Scottish 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 paragon of hope.

The raw facts and figures are eye-watering. While Scottish teachers 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 promoted posts and 1,200 teaching posts will be cut in 2011-12, mostly in primary schools.

Cast your eyes to Scotland, suggested John Boyle, an executive member of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), at the annual conference of the primary teachers' union: only six in 1,000 teachers were unemployed over there; in Ireland, current trends would lead within five years to 166 teachers on the dole in every 1,000.

"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 was not much better from the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), which held its annual conference in Cork the same week. A survey by the union found that 12 per cent of graduating teachers did not plan even to try finding work in Ireland.

Aoife Ni Mhaille, a student teacher from Trinity College, Dublin, who will soon have a postgraduate diploma to add to a masters degree, received a standing ovation from 450 delegates after a speech in which 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 Aoife, 24. "I'm going to stick at it - I don't want to do anything else," she told TESS. "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. Graduates who do get jobs after this summer will receive salaries 14 per cent lower than other teachers, the government has decreed.

"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 adverts that attract several hundred 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 recently 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, (pictured, page 14) 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". Both are in limbo: unlike Scotland, Ireland has no guaranteed year of work for probationers; graduates must seek out work themselves in order to become fully qualified.

Adelene, from County Leitrim, 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 large numbers of teachers rushing to retire; the average reduction in pension payments imposed by the government will be 4 per cent for those retiring before February 2012, thereafter it will be 7 per cent.

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.

Gloom has not overwhelmed the 230-pupil school. Staff are showing the "we're all in this together" spirit that national crises tend to bring about. "If anything, it's had a positive impact on students," he added - recession having made painfully clear the importance of leaving school with skills and qualifications.

But the strain is starting to show; it may even be a matter of life and death. Pastoral commitments are under most pressure, explained Mr O'Donovan. One headteacher learned that seven of his pupils were suicidal, but gone were the year heads who used to work one-to-one with pupils to counter such thoughts. The head set aside all other work for four or five days, working with parents and support groups to avert the worst. It pains and bemuses Mr O'Donovan, in such circumstances, to see the opprobrium levelled at the public sector in Ireland.

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

Read the Irish papers or visit an Irish bar and it soon becomes evident that, unlike its relatively benign image in Scotland, the public sector is widely considered just as bloated and just as culpable for the country's economic carnage as fat-cat bankers and corrupt politicians; teachers are a softer target here. 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.

"Special education is the big area under pressure in Irish schools at the moment," said Louise Holden, who writes for The Irish Times on education. Just as in Scotland, recent budgets have shown that special needs is still one of the first areas to suffer during economic downturns.

Special education needs organisers (Senos) are employed to assess applications for support. Increasingly, Ms Holden said, requests are being turned down, or fewer support hours allocated than requested.

Dublin-based INTO delegate Eilish Kerrisk told colleagues: "When a Seno comes into your class and suggests that the solution to a child with autism who cannot button his own coat is a coat with Velcro and not an SNA (special needs assistant), you know you're not having a conversation about a child's future - you're in a battle about money."

Mr Quinn, in near-identical speeches to the main three teaching unions at the end of April, took a step back from teachers' concerns and repeatedly highlighted Ireland's frail condition: it was "a time of national emergency"; the country was "in receivership"; it had lost economic sovereignty. In the politest possible way, the message was clear: you might have it bad, but so does everybody else - so don't even consider anything rash like going on strike. Even if they wanted to, last year's Croke Park agreement, which persuaded public sector unions to agree severe cuts in order to protect jobs, outlawed strike action on any of the terms of the deal.

The education minister - a Labour politician and former civil rights activist who took up the post in March as part of the coalition between his party and Fine Gael - has ruled out recouping EUR100 million (about pound;88 million) by scrapping the state funding of teachers' salaries in fee- paying schools.

And yet he was applauded as he told teachers he felt their pain, despite making clear he would not reverse the cuts agenda. A year before, his predecessor, Mary Coughlan, of the Fianna Fail party whose neo-liberal policies and cronyism precipitated a landslide general election defeat, was met with stony silence.

Media commentators highlighted the significance of Mr Quinn's decision to travel between education union conferences by car. In previous years, education ministers got around by helicopter, symbolising for many the excesses of elected representatives in a country of 4 million whose taoiseach (prime minister), the Financial Times calculated in 2009, was paid more than any other European leader. Mr Quinn at least showed some humility and empathy, many delegates reasoned. In these times, that is enough to curry favour among teachers.

Ireland, having been bailed out by European neighbours, must run spending decisions past the International Monetary Fund, reviving painful memories of subservience under British rule. And that is not the only jarring echo of the past. "The Irish scourge of emigration is back with us again," said Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, in a guest speech to the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association last month.

In a country with a long history of enforced emigration, retaining teaching graduates is not merely an educational or economic imperative - it is also crucial to Ireland's sense of independence.


- 15 per cent reduction in teachers' income, including pay decreases and a pension levy

- 14 per cent pay cut for newly qualified teachers - on top of the original 10 per cent cut - from September, reducing starting salaries from EUR33,041 (about pound;29,000) to EUR27,814 (pound;24,500)

- NQTs to start on the first point, rather than the third, of an incremental scale

- Average reduction in pension payments of 4 per cent for those retiring before February 2012, or 7 per cent for everyone else

- Reduction of 1,200 teaching posts in 2011-12, including 700 in primaries

- Block on promotions

- All teachers made to work an extra hour a week of non-class contact teaching time.


Kate Relihan is a learning support teacher at Castaheany Educate Together National School in Ongar, Dublin, one of the fastest-growing suburban areas in western Europe. The school, equivalent to a Scottish primary, has 85 per cent of pupils from immigrant families; literacy and numeracy levels are low and it is classed as being of medium disadvantage.

"My own circumstances are mirrored by thousands of other young teachers," she said. "I've been teaching 10 years and have seen my yearly salary fall by EUR8,000 (about pound;7,000) since the first pay cuts a few years ago.

"With negative equity and mortgage repayments, childcare for two kids, rising interest rates, a personal loan of EUR25,000 (about pound;22,000) and no private health insurance, that means teachers and middle-income earners like myself are now the new working poor, with no disposable income and practically living hand-to-mouth each month."

The school has lost two English-as-an-additional-language (EAL) teachers to cuts, and another two such posts are likely to go in September. Children in need of EAL tuition only get two or - on appeal - three years' tuition, despite it taking five to seven years to acquire a language, Miss Relihan said. At best, they may get only 30 minutes of in-class support each day.

Of even greater concern is what Miss Relihan calls "a most brutal cut": from September, children with special educational needs (SEN), such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, will receive no extra tuition time or resources other than what has been allocated previously.

"No matter what the learning needs of your school, the special-needs children and the mainstream children that begin their education in September will all be at a historic disadvantage, as their full educational needs won't be met," she said.

The upshot for Castaheany school is the loss of an SEN assistant. Miss Relihan fears everybody will suffer: "The parents cannot understand why their child's needs aren't being addressed; the teacher faces demoralisation; other pupils also suffer due to behavioural issues; and the dynamic of the classroom is unavoidably damaged."

Meanwhile, the position of "resource teacher for Travellers" is being axed throughout Ireland. Castaheany School, like many in the country, has a number of Traveller pupils.

"This again means no extra tuition for children who really struggle with low levels of literacy and numeracy, and who for the most part do not continue into second-level education," Miss Relihan said. "These teachers are very important in ensuring that traveller children continue to secondary school."


Latvia: wages slashed by a fifth. Greece: more than 1,000 schools to close. Poland: mass privatisation threatened.

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 well from his role as president of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE).

"Across much of Europe, 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.

ETUCE, which has around 135 member organisations with 12.8 million members in 45 countries, intervened after a decision by the Greek government to cut around 3,000 teaching posts, taken without consultation. The plan entails merging 1,523 primary schools into 672, and 420 secondary schools into 205.

Two years ago Latvian teachers suffered an across-the-board 20 per cent pay cut at the stroke of a pen. Portugal is cutting pay and the hours of pupil instruction, and increasing student-teacher ratios in vocational education.

"It is interesting to note the similarities among the different governments' tactics," Mr Smith told his Czech audience, identifying a common modus operandi of cutting spending on public services to repair finances.

"Fundamentally, that means reducing the total bill for teachers' salaries; in essence, it means paying less to the teachers they employ or, as an alternative, employing fewer teachers by making them work longer and harder - for example, with bigger class sizes."

There are "deeply worrying" trends, such as interference in national pay- bargaining systems and pressures to reduce the role of the state and place more services in the hands of the private sector.

Governments, predicted Mr Smith, will try to shift the blame for poor results away from under-investment in education and on to poor-quality teachers.

"Our main challenge is to get governments to recognise that a time of economic crisis is a time to invest in education, and not to cut," Mr Smith said.

But the gloom is not uniform: "In many of the Nordic countries - with the notable exception of Iceland - the recession and the financial crisis seem scarcely to have been noticed."

Original headline: It's not a case of what school to go to, but what country

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