The importance of education is undeniable, but teachers’ cutback protests won’t garner them much support, writes Aidan Kirrane.
The teachers’ unions recently assembled for a number of conferences to discuss the cutbacks that are proposed as part of the government’s assault on the recession. Batt O’Keeffe probably didn’t get many Facebook friend requests after his appearance at the conferences but one can’t help but feel that his placement in the bold corner by the teachers of Ireland was unjust and unfair.
The main talking points of the conferences were the introduction of a levy on teachers’ pensions and the various measures the Government plans to take steps to curb spending in the educational sphere from next September. Teachers vehemently opposed cutbacks in spending on the education system such as a reduction in the number of facilities available for special needs students. The possibility of thousands of teachers facing unemployment in the coming months was also a cause for concern.
Teachers voted in favour of industrial action at the conferences in the hope of reversing the Government’s decisions with regard to spending. This will most likely include a one day strike to protest against the introduction of the pension levy. The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) also wants its members to refrain from holding parent-teacher meetings and covering for absent colleagues as well as stopping inspectors from visiting schools.
Such industrial action may be counter-productive however as it could easily alienate groups who teachers would rely on for support. Parents on, or close to, the ever increasing list of unemployed would more than likely be unimpressed by teachers agitating for better conditions when they enjoy long holidays and a steady wage. The inability to meet with teachers and inspect schools would also be detrimental to the system.
Many members of teachers unions will recall the strikes at the start of the millennium and the negative public reaction to interference with exams and won’t want a similar situation to arise. The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) must be commended for assuring that any industrial action taken won’t interfere with the fundamental operation of the system.
“No matter how well an economy is doing education will always cry for more funding”
While it is understandable that teachers want to ensure that their pupils receive the best education possible the fact remains that the effects of the current economic climate must be shared equally throughout the country. The educational sphere has received much of the little public expenditure being dolled out at the moment and should be grateful for this in such a trying time for the country’s finances.
No matter how well an economy is doing education will always cry for more funding. While schools may be asking for things more basic than the information technology wanted in the heyday of the boom years the proposed cutbacks are simply the inevitable effect of the downturn in the economy.
The education system, like all areas in the country, was bound to experience the effects of the recession sooner or later. Criticism of Batt O’Keeffe amounts to shooting the messenger as he is only doing what is asked of him in the wake of the death of the Celtic Tiger.
While some have described the proposed measures as threatening to destroy the education system the effect will not be to devastate the system but to render it less efficient than it could be if funding was available.
New and revised editions of books are often only churned out by publishing companies to make money and an update of the textbooks used is often unnecessary. Students can still learn from old books and in schools in need of a lick of paint and will still be able to obtain a high standard of education.
While the cutback in the areas of special needs is substantially more problematic it is hard to find a solution with so little spare change in the public piggy bank at the moment.
The education system while not without its flaws is far from the “Murder machine” Padraig Pearse attacked at the start of the last century. The current cutbacks were to be expected and it is unlikely that industrial action will cause the Department of Education to change course. Teachers will have to accept that they too will have to grin and bear the consequences of the financial crisis along with those employed outside of the schools system.
The English economist and journalist Walter Bagehot said that “The most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done whether you like it or not.” The teachers’ unions could well learn a lesson from Mr Bagehot to help in passing the tests being set by the financial crisis.