Wages, support for refugees and exam reform are top issues at teachers’ union conferences

Education Minister Norma Foley heads to teachers’ conferences this week, facing demands that Irish schools receive proper support to deal with the aftermath of war in Europe – and the battle lines emerging at home on Leaving Cert reform.

around 4,000 Ukrainian pupils are already enrolled in schools. The Ministry of Education is preparing for a surge of new registrations after the Easter holidays, and again in September, as the number of refugees increases.

In terms of capacity, he estimates that there are around 25,000 places available in primary schools and 15,000 to 18,000 in post-primary schools.

The department and schools have moved quickly to welcome Ukrainian children, but teachers’ unions are keen to ensure that resources, such as additional teachers and English and psychological supports, will be on the scale required to match the expected influx.

It is the first time since 2019 that teachers’ union ‘live’ conferences have taken place, also making it the first time that Ms Foley has addressed delegates in person as a minister.

The pandemic has forced the 2020 and 2021 conferences to move online, but as these annual gatherings and the education system return to normal, the legacy of Covid lives on.

The enrollment of thousands of Ukrainian children in schools poses new funding challenges, but the three teachers’ unions are also concerned that the additional support provided to deal with the Covid crisis will continue.

A motion at the Irish National Teachers Organization (INTO) congress, which opens today, calls for a series of measures introduced or reinforced during Covid to be maintained.

He notes that the pandemic has exposed “insufficient resources and support for primary schools” and “the inability of the current funding model to meet the most basic needs of schools”.

Before the pandemic, it was estimated that parents paid around 46 million euros a year to run primary schools, with the average state subsidy for school running costs being 46,000 euros a year, against bills annual average of 91,000 euros.

Many more public funds have been injected into schools because of Covid, such as providing one day a week coverage for head teachers, setting up an extensive network of teacher panels substitutes and enhanced grants in areas such as cleaning, equipment, computers and odd jobs.

INTO is now seeking to ensure the establishment of a permanent funding system that reflects the real needs of schools.

At the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) conferences, Ms Foley faces condemnation of her plan for teachers to assess their own pupils for 40pc marks in the Leaving Cert, under its recently announced graduate reform package.

While both unions welcome other key elements of the package, they are fundamentally opposed to teachers testing their own students for a state certificate.

A motion to be debated by ASTI delegates calling for a refusal to engage in discussions of changes – which has the potential to delay or even stall reforms – gives a hint of union sentiment.

Salary is always the dominant issue at conferences and this year will be no exception. Two-tier pay scales, which saw post-2010 entrants on lower salaries due to cuts introduced after the banking crash, dogged conferences for a decade.

Pay inequality has been tackled significantly, although unions will continue to tackle outstanding issues, and the focus this week will be on demands for a general increase to address the skyrocketing cost of life.

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