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The Education Minister at yesterday's ASTI conference in Wexford. Paula Malone Carty

Norma Foley in the firing line: Teachers question why they earn less after teaching abroad

It was an issue that drove much discussion at the ASTI’s opening day of its annual congress in Wexford.

RICHARD COSGRAVE WAS “sickened to his stomach” when he opened his first pay cheque upon his return to Ireland, after four years spent teaching in the United Arab Emirates.

The chemistry teacher who was working in his native Dungarvan, Co Waterford discovered that his time abroad was not recognised by the Department of Education here.

“I graduated in 2012 and tried to get a job here in Ireland and could not, so I took a job in a private school in UAE and gave four years there,” he said.

Speaking to The Journal at the ASTI annual conference, he recounted taking the “first opportunity” he could to come home and returned to Dungarvan to take up a role at St Augustine’s College.

Cosgrave had met his wife, a Canadian and fellow teacher, while in UAE and returned to Ireland with her to raise a family.

However, after receiving his first pay cheque back in the Irish system, Cosgrave found that he was down approximately €5,000 per year on what he had thought he was due to earn.

IMG_7538 Chemistry teacher Richard Cosgrave

“I really was shocked. My wife who taught in the same school as me was able to qualify [for the additional payment in recognition of her years of teaching] despite training originally in the Canadian system, but the key difference was she was a primary school teacher and I was a secondary school teacher.

“The thing is, I know other teachers who are still in UAE who want to come home but are afraid of what they’ll miss out on if they don’t qualify for the incremental credit.”

The incremental credit payment is given to teachers in recognition of their ‘relevant’ years of teaching service. 

The annual conference of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland in Wexford heard that Cosgrave was just one of many teachers whose time spent teaching abroad has seen them lose out on thousands of euro, because the Department of Education does not recognise overseas teaching in various different settings.

A 500-strong gathering of teachers and ASTI union delegates in Clayton Whites Hotel heard from different speakers that current situation is “discouraging” teachers from coming home as they may not earn as much as they would have expected to, despite having “broadened their horizons” by teaching abroad in non-EU countries such as in the Middle East and Australia.

The incremental credit payment also impacts pay for teachers who had worked in private schools in different parts of Europe and elsewhere, the conference heard.

In Cosgrave’s case, he found he could not appeal the decision to the Teacher Conciliation Council, which he had expected would handle issues like this. The group comprises representatives of teachers, school management, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and the Department of Education.

The issue is particularly significant given the current shortage of teachers: according to figures from the INTO, there were more than 2,000 long-term vacancies in teaching at the start of this academic year. Meanwhile, it estimates that more than 4,800 Irish teachers are working abroad.

Education Minister Norma Foley has warned against making it “overly attractive” for teachers to work abroad – but signalled on Tuesday morning that she was happy for the issue to be “looked at” through the Teacher Conciliation Council.

Wexford conference

The ASTI overwhelmingly voted on Tuesday to demand that “all years of teaching service abroad in recognised second-level schools” shall be included in the calculation of incremental credit for salaries.

It was slammed by one speaker as an “appalling” example of “inequality rearing its ugly head” in the profession.

IMG_7478 Union delegates in Wexford today.

Michael McGrath, also from Cosgrave’s Dungarvan branch of the union, recounted to the hall of the “incredible difference” facing one teacher who had spent ten years teaching in Australia.

He found the teacher was down €17,000 a year compared to where they would have been if they had stayed in Ireland.

“But what’s happening now is that some of them financially cannot afford to live in Ireland. They’re going abroad again. That’s the madness of it,” McGrath added.

‘Overly attractive’ remarks draw ire

Education Minister Norma Foley’s comments earlier yesterday morning on RTÉ Radio One, where she outlined that she doesn’t want to make it “overly attractive” to Irish teachers to work abroad, drew ire from ASTI members.

“There’s a fine line we walk here in terms of the push and pull factors,” Foley had said.

“I’m conscious that from a primary school perspective, teachers who are working in non-EU countries, their services are recognised.

“Equally so, we have to be cognizant of making it overly attractive, for those going abroad and ensuring that there is a fairness to the 75,000 who are actually currently working here at home as well,” Foley added.

Cosgrave pointed to these comments when speaking to The Journal, saying that he could not “grasp the logic” of the minister and department’s reluctance to recognise overseas service when primary teachers’ experiences are recognised.

Pat Knightly, who has been working for 30 years at St Augustine’s in Dungarvan as a special needs teacher, said there was “no resentment” among the profession against teachers working abroad.

“There are 75,000 teachers in Ireland and I really think the only teacher who isn’t in favour of recognising teaching abroad is the minister herself,” Knightly told The Journal.

“But we as teachers have to pick up the slack from not being able to get other qualified teachers to take classes.”

One of the biggest applauses of the first day of the ASTI conference went to Mark Walsh, a teacher from the union’s Dublin North East branch, who asked what made locations such as Dubai “overly attractive” in the first place.

“The reason is because between 2010 and 2022 there was a systematic destruction of teachers’ pay and conditions. The chickens have come to roost. The minster is reaping what she – or the previous government – sowed,” Walsh told the room.

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