New Contract for Teachers

A NEW CONTRACT
FOR TEACHERS

Edward Walsh

The McCarthy report comes in two volumes.  Volume 1 provides the broad brush strokes,
Volume 2 the details as to how €5.3bn of flab can be cut from the Irish public
sector in a full year.

The McCarthy team found good reason to scrutinise the €6bn
annual expenditure of the Irish school system. It discovered surprising work
practices and a plethora of special payments made to teachers that are unique
to Ireland.
As a result annual savings amounting to a substantial €425 million were
identified. Teacher unions reacted predictably and trotted out their standard
sanctimonious mantra of commitment to the defence of vulnerable children.

 

What the McCarthy report reveals makes such proclamations
ring hollow. Remuneration of Irish teachers has increased at such a rate it is
now amongst the highest in the world and, as a result, almost all of the €6
billion school budget finds its way into the teachers’ bank accounts; leaving only
€1/2 a billion to run the schools.

 

McCarty has wielding the knife skilfully, avoiding much
damage to the educational core.

 

While venturing onwards from McCarthy’s Volume 1 to the
detail of Volume 2 may appear daunting the exercise is both reassuring and startling.  Reassuring to find that one can save nearly
half a billion a year from the school budget without significantly disrupting
the core, and startling to discover the kind of working conditions and special
payments Irish teachers have won for themselves when compared to their counterparts
elsewhere. Credit, if that is the word, can be given to the teacher unions who
relentlessly, time after time, have outmanoeuvred the Department in eroding the
school year, while at the same time increasing teacher remuneration. Threatening
to disrupt the Leaving Cert has been the heavy gun hidden, never too far, from
the negotiating table.

 

As a result the pay of Irish teachers is amongst the highest
in the world (Irish teachers are paid 35% more than their UK counterparts).
Payments totalling €300m each year are paid in addition to basic salary for
supervision and substitution. Irish secondary teacher unions have been most
successful not only in boosting earnings but in locking in a teaching years of only
735 hours; 40 percent less than the OECD average of 1,214.

 

Teachers can take up to 30 days uncertified sick leave from
an already short school year of 183 days in the case of primary and 167 days in
the case of secondary.  This year over
€180m will be paid to their colleagues to cover the cost of those teachers who
are absent on sick leave or for other reasons. The school year is further
eroded by in-service teacher training which teacher unions insist must be
undertaken during class hours: last year there were 3,300 instances of full
school closure for staff training during term. A primary teacher who attends a
training course during the summer break can claim 3 days annual leave during
term-time for taking a 5 day course. The tax payer funds the course which
generally concludes each day at 14h00 with lunch. Ireland differs from most other
countries in permitting teachers absent themselves from school during the
working day to undertake other activities when not scheduled to teach.

 

In addition to the high basic salary, and extra payments for
supervision and substitution, 52 percent of all teachers receive what are
termed ‘management’ allowances’ at a further cost of €236m a year.

 

The McCarthy report provides interesting facts that permit
one to calculate the actual student-teacher ratio. For example there are 31,134
teachers who teach 500,000 pupils at primary level. Dividing one by the other
gives a pupil teacher ratio of 16:1.
Where then the 24:1 ratio that perplexes union leaders?  For good reason one must deduct the 1,100
non-teaching principals who carry a heavy burden indeed. This pushes up the
ratio towards 17:1.  However there are a
further 9,400 teachers who support the work in the classroom through their role
in areas such as special needs, resource, disadvantage and language support: if
you choose to eliminate these from the calculation you get the higher ratio of
24:1.

 

The revelations in the McCarthy report are not a great
surprise to me. I had reason, for seven years, while chairing the National
Council for Curriculum and Assessment, to sit for what appeared to be endless
hours observing the skilful tactics of the teacher union representatives as
they intercepted those initiatives to reform the curriculum that might prove potentially
disruptive to the life-style of their members. That experience left me with the
sad realisation that Ireland
has more a teacher-centred than a student-centred educational system; when the
chips are down what’s best for teacher rather than the pupil rules.  When I hear the bluster of teacher union
leaders declaring how committed they are to the protection of vulnerable
students I know where their priorities really lie.

 

Despite my disappointing experiences with teacher union
leadership I have had great pleasure encountering many superb teachers totally committed
to the interests of their students.  However the Irish educational system as it has
evolved tends to reward, not achievement and excellence, but seniority.  We have a school system where teachers are
seldom assessed, excellence goes unrewarded, mediocrity is tolerated, and the
indolent find sanctuary.

 

It is time to change this. The current economic crisis
provides the opportunity to face down the teacher unions and put a new contract
in place:  a contract that will continue
to remunerate teachers well for work during an extended school year, that encourages
and rewards excellence, that embraces all the duties normal to the professional
in most other countries: supervision, substitution, school planning, parent-teacher
meetings, in-service training, examinations, administration and management
duties as defined by school management; a contract bench-marked against good
international practice, in countries such as  Finland, Canada or Japan, where schools
achieve the highest standards.

 

McCarthy has justified the reduction of staff number by
3,400 at primary and 1,240 at second level. This concentrates the mind and
should provide the backdrop against which a new teacher contract is defined.

 

The old teacher union negotiating tactic of threatening to
close the schools, or delay the Leaving Cert, may have lost its potency.  Indeed were a prolonged strike to close the
schools for a year it would postpone the arrival of some 20,000 graduates seeking
jobs or welfare payments, while saving the exchequer some €3.5 billion in
unpaid teacher salaries.

 

The recent provocative decision of secondary teachers’ union
to ban parent-teacher meetings outside regular school hours has stimulated an
angry reaction from hard-pressed parents and further reduces public regard for
the teaching profession.  The McCarthy
report reveals the wasteful restrictive practices in the Irish school system
and leaves the teacher unions with few places to hide. The tables have been
turned: the Minister now has the cards. It is time to act and with minimal
consultation draw up a new contract, bases on international best practice. This
would help restore confidence in the Irish teaching profession and give scope
to the thousands of committed teachers who wish to do a good job and help Ireland compete
with the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 September 2009

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