The education community – along with the whole country – is waiting for the formation of a Government and the appointment of a Minister for Education and Skills. The much leaked report on Funding for Third Level sits on the minister’s desk waiting for a decision.
Legislation which fell when the Dáil was dissolved also sits on the desk waiting to see if the new minister will choose to revive it or drop it in the shredder. This includes the creation of Technological Universities which was within days of being enacted, and the regulation of admissions to schools where there are far more applicants than places – which was never going to get past the Fianna Gael parliamentary party.
While the politicians fiddled, the Teacher Easter Conferences saw the unions making the usual threatening noises, although without a Minister to abuse the whole edifice seemed to lack a certain authenticity. The key issue around which all the unions coalesced was the different pay scales for teachers, depending on when they were recruited.
Back in 2009, when the Government sat down with the unions to negotiate the cutbacks which were going to have to be made, the unions did what unions always do – they protected their existing members. But they sold those who had yet to enter the profession down the river by agreeing to much reduced terms and conditions of employment for them.
It was inevitable as night follows day that once a cohort of young members built up in all three teacher unions, they would lobby to have this huge inequity reversed. So it was not surprising that there was a coordinated campaign among both primary and post-primary teachers to bring this issue to the top of the agenda at the Easter Conferences.
We now have a situation where teacher unions have voted to ballot their members on industrial action, up to and including strikes, in order to reverse a policy which these unions signed up to when it was proposed by government in 2009. Time will tell if older teachers will strike to secure a redistribution of the total pay pie to ensure equity of salary scales among all teachers.
Behind all the rhetoric is the harsh reality that there is a pent-up anger among all workers in the public services over the cuts they have experienced in the past seven years. With the headline rate of economic growth reaching seven per cent, there is now a mad scramble amongst them to grab as big a piece of the available ‘fiscal space’ as they can before others gobble it up. Sadly, much of the economic growth is generated by transfer pricing within multinational corporations, which creates a highly distorted perception of the additional monies available to roll back the cutbacks in public service salaries.
Unfortunately, once a rush starts it can develop into a stampede where all rational argument goes out the window and it’s every man for himself. If that happens in the education space in the autumn, we could be in for a very turbulent time indeed.
Apart from the issue of pay, the fact that we in Ireland have one of the fastest growing youth populations in Europe, if not the world, means that the education budget is under huge pressure just to provide school buildings and third level places for those who have to be educated.
These problems are growing in size every week that goes by without the steady hand of a Minister who is part of a secure Government. Hopefully, over the next few weeks Ireland will secure the service of such a Government and a new Minister for Education & Skills will begin to devise a strategy to address the wide and complex problems that are building up in the office in-tray.