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Dublin: 16 °C Thursday 30 October, 2014

Column: ‘Over the past five years, I’ve seen the heart being torn from our schools’

Cuts to teachers’ salaries and increased taxation have left some of my colleagues just making ends meet, writes Carmel Hume.

I’VE BEEN A public servant for 25 years. My mother was a public servant, my husband is a public servant, all three of us are teachers and proud of what we’ve achieved for our pupils and our schools.

At the beginning of my career, teachers’ salaries and conditions were poor, as reflected in the paucity of my mother’s pension at retirement in 1999. I worked for seven years on low pay before I got a permanent contract in 1994. During this time I and others of my generation became active trade unionists, determined to push for improvements, something I have kept up to this day.

Improvements were made

I credit my union the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) with huge improvements in the lives of teachers and their pupils. The INTO campaigned for and negotiated these improvements with successive governments. The introduction of a promotion system based on meritocracy in 1997 was a tremendous gain for many dedicated teachers, who wished to contribute to the middle-management system in schools. During the so-called ‘Celtic tiger’ years, when countless citizens looked down upon humble public servants, the INTO convinced successive governments to deliver resources for a Revised Primary curriculum, for a more inclusive multi-cultural school system, for pupils with  special educational needs and for school infrastructure – buildings, technology, equipment. All of these transformed the Irish primary education system.

Between 1997 and 2007 the trade union movement also ensured that public servants and private sector workers benefitted from some of the growth in the Irish economy. In 2004, independent adjudicators recommended that the salaries of public servants, which were benchmarked against the work practices and conditions of similar grades in the private sector, be increased by 12 per cent on average, in return for extra productivity and reforms. That productivity and those reforms have been delivered at pace in primary schools ever since. While teachers worked harder than ever, primary teaching suddenly became a rewarding career not just a worthwhile vocation.

Salary cuts

In the last five years as a principal teacher, much to my dismay, I’ve witnessed the heart being torn from our schools. Cuts to teachers’ salaries and increased taxation have left some of my colleagues just making ends meet.

Since the beginning of the economic collapse in 2008, the gains made in the previous decade have been whittled away by two short-sighted coalition governments. The benefits of benchmarking and more are long gone but the productivity remains. My salary has been cut by 15 per cent with a further 6 per cent cut now proposed in Croke Park II  for me and for most teachers of my age. Newly qualified teachers struggle to find regular work, while their salaries have been cut by another quarter. They’re expected to pay more, work longer and get less in their pensions. Many are choosing to emigrate.

Support teachers for pupils with special educational needs, children of the travelling community and ‘new Irish’ pupils have been withdrawn, school funding and maintenance grants have been slashed, incentives for teacher professional development have been abolished and the promotional system has been removed.

Out of touch with reality

The Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn spoke at our conference and talked down to teachers about school patronage, enrolment policies, bullying, school self-evaluation and learning outcomes. His lecturing presentation showed clearly he is totally out of touch with the reality of life today in Ireland’s under-funded schools and overcrowded primary classrooms.

I lost any faith I ever had in Irish politics many years ago after successive programmes for government promised the earth but were reneged on as soon as they were written. For the last twenty years improvements to the education system and to teachers’ conditions had to be dragged forcibly from successive governments.  The current government obviously has no other intention but to ensure that the richest people in Irish society continue to increase their wealth, while low and middle income workers and their families shoulder full responsibility for rescuing Ireland from its economic woes. Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore have refused to accept that a fair, progressive taxation system together with investment in education, are key to economic recovery.

Croke Park II

This brings me to Croke Park II. In the present political context, I believe that the proposals are the best that could be achieved through negotiation. The proposed agreement is a defence mechanism against a government with a huge right wing majority. If ratified, every primary teacher will suffer pay cuts. But at least the cuts are proportionate, with the ‘squeezed middle’ – those with huge mortgage and childcare costs – losing less income. The vast majority of teachers will continue to receive increments during the next three years.

Further damage will be inflicted on the educational system through the cuts to substitution for approved teacher absences – on average every class will be without ateacher for one school day per a year as a direct result of these cuts.

But the unions (and I credit Sheila Nunan of the INTO in particular) succeeded in ensuring that the scandal of different tiers of salary and conditions in schools will be addressed from next September. She championed the core trade union principle of equal pay for equal work in the negotiations. Young talented graduates who joined us last September were placed on an insultingly low pay-scale by the government. They now stand to gain on average €4,000 per year throughout their careers if Croke Park II is ratified.

Injustice

The injustice hasn’t been totally reversed but good first steps have been made. It’s this one major gain in Croke Park 2 that shows yet again that a strong teachers’ union is worth its weight in gold.

Despite my anger that public servants have been exclusively targeted for more pay cuts, I am confident that during my last decade in teaching, 2017-2027, the INTO will recoup losses I’ve sustained. And I hope that public servants unite to ensure that this Fine Gael/Labour government’s legacy of broken promises and scapegoating of its own workforce be consigned, as soon as possible, to the scrapheap of failed Irish political entities.

Carmel Hume is a principal teacher in a Dublin primary school and a member of the INTO’s Principals and Deputy Principals Committee.

Read: Ruairí Quinn: School enrolment to be ‘more structured, fair and transparent’>

Read: Teachers’ union votes to reject further talks on Croke Park 2>

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