Labour & FG. Supporting Inequality

A lot of us remember the gloomy days near the end of the previous government.  Brian Cowen was in power, and was denying anything was wrong – even though every economic commentator was warning of a crash.  The optimists, God Bless ’em, were talking about a soft landing.

Around this time I became politically active for the first time in my life.  I joined FG, I canvassed for my local guy, went to the meetings and did my part.

My part included believing that FG would be good for people across the country.  They had a plan for free health-care, for better services, to turn the economy around.

It all ended as so many love affairs do.  With Disillusionment on one side, and confusion (What did I do wrong?) on the other.  I left Fine Gael in 2013.

As we face the final week of the latest General Election Campaign, I’ve decided that I cannot give a #1 to Fine Gael or Labour.

And why?  Well, I see inequality has greatly increased during the tenure of this government.  And, rather than put that in vague terms, lets look at how far this inequity has spread.  You see, despite the claims that the recession is over, Austerity still rules in Education.

In Education the cuts of the past 5 years have been brutal.  But these cuts have not hit everyone equally.


School budgets have been repeatedly cut

But if you go to a school in a middle-class area, then the school can ask for “voluntary contributions” that will go a long way towards making up the shortfall.  In a poorer area schools don’t have this option, or at least the amount that they could legitimately ask for is far less.  So, a school in a disadvantaged area will be hampered in what it can offer its students.

Students with Special Educational Needs.

These students are hit in two ways.  The most obvious is that the number of Special Needs Assistants was cut.  The criterion were tightened up.  Think about this.  These students are already disadvantaged, and this particular cut could only affect those who were already at a disadvantage.

The other way in which these students were affected is in the area of class sizes.  Prior to 2007 secondary schools operated with maximum class sizes of, usually, 24.  Very often this maximum is exceeded, with class sizes of 27, 28.  At primary level it’s worse, with class sizes of over 30 being relatively common.  Again, those at an educational disadvantage are hit hardest by this.  Think of trying to give individual attention to a child with dyslexia when you have 27 other students to keep engaged.  Certainly they may have ‘access’ to an SNA, but the reality is that the same SNA may be working with a number of students across different class groups.

Access to Educational Supports

How do you know if someone has dyslexia?  Their teacher may suspect it, based on a student’s written work.  But a teacher’s word is not enough to get access to an SNA.  No, for that you need a report from an Educational Psychologist.  The National Educational Psychological Service provides these assessments.  And this assessment goes to the DES to get access to an SNA approved. But guess what?  NEPS have had their resources cut as well.  So a given school will be allocated a certain number of assessments each year – and students with needs may have to wait longer – and fall behind further – because of a lack of funding.

Being Ireland there’s always a back-door.  If you can afford it you could get your child a private assessment , then that assessment will work for the DES.  Those who are better off are less affected by the cuts.

Student Supports

One of the bluntest instruments used by the current government was getting rid of Guidance Counsellors.  Another was the removal of posts of responsibility.  These posts provided teachers with the option of taking on extra responsibilities in a school, and getting paid for them.  Year Heads, Programme Coordinators, Special Duties.  They are all being cut, and other teachers have to pick up the slack, or the buck is passed onto school managers who are already being overloaded.  But, if you are in a school that can afford it, the Trustees will find some extra money to provide the needed supports for students.

This is nothing against these trustees. They are doing the right thing by their students.  It’s just that schools in poorer areas often don’t have these resources.

I could go on.  And on.  The point is that even though the same cuts have been applied across the country, the cuts have had a greater affect on the poorer among us.  Simply because they don’t have the safety blanket of spare money.

Suffice to say I’ve been disillusioned.

I look at the parties vying for my vote, and I find it easy to dismiss lots of them.

From what I can see only one party is actually talking properly about reversing some of the damage done to the public service.  That party is the Social Democrats.  I’ll be voting #1 for them.

As for #2, I’m open to suggestions!


Standing up to the Pesky Unions

Well done to our Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan.

She has had the guts to face down the Secondary School Teachers Unions and is pushing ahead with the pet project of her predecessor Ruairi Quinn.  (Junior Cert Reform, with teacher assessment)

So, she has faced down our strikes, and is holding fast. So she has courage – well done, Minister, take a bow.  Her stand is all the more impressive as she is adamant that all this for the good of the students.

Let’s ignore for a moment the implicit bit that suggests that teachers are not interested in students.

Instead let’s celebrate that we have a minister who is willing to stand up to vested interests.  A minister who is willing to risk popularity in order to do the right thing for students.


Minister, I look forward to the day when you will do the following to support our students:

Reduce class sizes.  This is an incredibly simple measure, but one that has a huge impact on the dynamics of any classroom.  I wrote before about how my daughter was for a time in a class of 34.  This is a ridiculous situation and one that should never be allowed to happen.  This does have the downside of costing money, but the minister has assured us that the evaluation farce was not about money, so maybe there’s room for maneuver. Call me cynical, but I won’t hold my breath.

Restore Guidance Counsellors.  This is another incredibly simple measure, and again has a huge impact on students.  Our guidance counsellors do incredible work with students.  Apart from the obvious help in subject and college choice, guidance counsellors sit with students in times of crisis.  Again, this one would happen to cost money, but I’m sure that the minister will stand up for what’s right, yes?  Actually no.

Restore School Budgets.  Again, a simple thing to do.  Schools get a budget to operate, and this budget is based on the number of students enrolled.  For the past few years this budget has been cut, with a further 1% cut due in September.  Another simple thing to reverse.  But again this isn’t about the money, is it?

Restore resources for Students with Special Educational Needs.  Another simple thing. Really, isn’t this not only simple but ethical?  Are those with special needs already at enough of a disadvantage in educational terms?

Have an effective budget for book rental schemes, and IT in the classroom.  OK.  This is more complicated, and requires some real thinking and procedures to go into place.  Some real work required here.  But it is so necessary.  Books are incredibly expensive, and each new school year brings stress to many families trying to dig out extra money for books and uniforms.

As regards IT – there is no cohesive policy, and what you get from school to school can vary radically.  So our students do not have a level playing field when we talk about ICT in the classroom, and technology in education generally.

So, so much is just about money, and we have a minister who is willing to stand up to others.  So surely she’ll stand up for these principles?

Surely, now that the Minister has shown her mettle in standing up to the unions she will show equal courage standing up to the bean counters?  She will stand up to those who have a view that education can be budgeted down to the minimum possible, and then blame the teachers for failing?

But let’s be honest – the minister is showing little enough care for the reality of life for so many students from disadvantaged areas.  It is about the money, and there’s no point in pretending anything different.  The Minister is failing us, is failing our students – and trying to shift the blame.



A face for radio

January 22nd was an interesting day for those of us striking outside my school.  We got a heads up on the 21st that there would be a journo from the Irish Examiner (Niall Murray) there, as well as Paschal Sheehy along with an RTE camera.

I arrived in school about 11 AM to find the Journalist there already along with an examiner photographer and the RTE cameraman.  All very exciting, and a little bit nerve wracking.

The whole process is actually very interesting.  Niall Murray went around to all the staff who were happy to talk to him, and did his interview thing, using shorthand.   Really, I have never seen anyone using shorthand for real.  A little bit of witchcraft right there.

Along with Niall Murray was Denis Minihane, the Examiner photographer for the day.  He took hundreds of photographs.

And lets not forget RTE.  Their camera man took around about 45 minutes of footage, including one interview with yours truly.

So.  What did all this lead?

Niall Murray distilled his 8 or 9 interviews down to this article.  Quite a skill to take thousands of words and summarise the main ideas you’re after.

Denis Minihane’s photographs?  One of them ended up in this article.  That strikes me as a hard way to earn a living.  He also gave a few of us a chance to give a little speech on video, and some of that is in the first article linked.

And RTE?  Paschal Sheehy impressed us with his ability to interview in two languages.  The Irish language interviews were aired on TG4 and Nuacht.  But as for the English language interviews?  Not on the RTE news.  There was a 5 second clip of us picketing the school gate, but no interview.  That was saved for the Radio news.  So there you have it.  Even RTE thinks I have a face for radio.

Striking Again?

I reckon Minister Jan O’Sullivan is beginning to think that us teachers are an ungrateful lot.  She’s in the job less than a year, and we’re heading towards our second strike.  Why?

Well that’s the core question.  Why should we go on strike again?  Why not just accept what the minister referred to yesterday as her ‘fair and reasonable compromise’?

Let’s take the question a step further.  Why go on strike when so many schools already had a day off yesterday?  At least that’s what this tweet suggests:


So there you have it.  The strike is about having a day off.


There is one core principle at stake in this strike.  That of assessment.  In Ireland the final assessment of a student’s grade is absolutely impartial.  It is a core value of our system.  And our government wants to squander this in a money saving exercise.  (more on that later)

Our state examination system is one of the few things in this country that we can truly say is impartial.  Money can’t buy grades or favours in the system.  When an examiner starts reading scripts, the only identification he or she will get is the exam centre number, and the candidate number.  Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Wealth, Sexuality or even Behaviour are not factors when it comes to having your exam corrected.

The same could not be said of a teacher correcting his or her own students’ work.  All of us teachers are human.  Any of us can end up liking one student over another for the simplest or stupidest of reasons.  And this could affect that student’s grade.

Let’s talk about the money.

At our first strike I was asked if this was about pay.  Would teachers accept the change if more pay was offered?  It was a fair question, and I probably didn’t give the best answer at the time.  But I’ve had time to think about it.

The strike isn’t about pay – but resources are part of the picture.

Schools, have suffered a brutal regime of cutbacks in the past six years, and our most recent budget had even more cutbacks in store.

  1. Remove Guidance Counsellors from secondary schools
  2. Increase the pupil/teacher ratio
  3. Cut capitation grants to schools
  4. Again, cut capitation grants to schools (and again for next year)
  5. Reduce supports for students with Special Educational Needs

Supports for students are constantly being cut.  Resources are being cut.  Student welfare is being cut.  And in the middle of all this the minister is trying to sell us a flawed product.  And she is trying to sell us something when our resources are being decimated.

The new Junior Cycle Programme is flawed.

One of the sad things about this situation is that the unions and the National Council for Curricular Awards (NCCA) had agreed a new Junior Cert in 2011.  All this trouble could have been avoided.

However, even if the Minister accepts our principle that teachers should not correct their own students’ work, and proceeds ahead with a productive vision of a new Junior Cycle, then she would then need to provide the proper resources to implement it.

The Junior Cert is flawed.  It does need to be revised, rebuilt.  But it needs to be done properly.  The current programme is not the way forward.

And that is why we teachers will again go on strike next week.

Next week I will stand proudly with my colleagues and we will make our opposition to the minister’s plans known.


More articles on the New Junior Cert:

The New Junior Cert

I don’t want to go on strike.  I need to go on strike.

Now you see it…

The Narrow Focus of Assessment

Education and Equality

6 Reasons why we’re going on strike


I don’t want to go on strike. I need to go on strike.

Some of our students are very clued in.  On Friday one of my leaving certs approached me with his phone and gave me the news of the upcoming strike.  Good for him.  He’s interested in what’s going on in the world.

And yet he represents one of the many students who I will walk out on, come December 2nd.  He’s a great guy, his classmates are great, and I’m sure this is replicated across the country, and yet here we are.  We, the members of the two secondary school unions have voted for strike.  Here’s the joint statement from the unions.

So.  Why are we going on strike?

There is one core issue.  Assessment.

You see, up until now the Junior Cert has been assessed externally.  This is important because it means that little Johnny from Mayfield is on the same playing field as Alistair from D4.  It’s an incredible logistic feat, but when a student sits a state exam, their paper goes to a different part of the country, and the examiner knows nothing – nothing about that student.  This is a vital part of the integrity of the system.

In his time as Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn wanted to do away with this and replace the Junior Cert with the JCSA and have it assessed in-house.  This was a sea change and, if accepted, open to abuse.  A JCSA certificate from my community school would not carry the same prestige as one from an up-market fee-paying school.

Our new Minister, Jan O’Sullivan has tried to reach a compromise in this.  She has offered 40% internal assessment, with an oversight element.  This is still not good enough.  For a number of reasons:

  1. We have still broken from the principle of external assessment for the exams.  This would still mean teachers marking their own students work.  Who is to say that this isn’t open to abuse or manipulation?  What pressures will be brought to bear on some teachers to bring up the marks of their students?
  2. The syllabus is due to change.  And where are the resources to implement a new syllabus?  Syllabus change and development is necessary.  I think that all teachers accept that we need a revision of the Junior Cert.  In fact, we had agreed to this in 2011, and had a plan in place.  But any change of this magnitude needs proper resources.  Teachers need training, updating in their skills.
  3. Building a project for assessment.  Have you ever tried to get 25 students to complete a project?  It can be… interesting.  There is a balance to be struck between driving the students and spoon-feeding them all the answers.
  4. Time.  When is the marking of this 40% due to happen?  A teacher with 33 class periods in a week is already struggling with time pressures.   If that teacher has students sitting the state exam, then he/she ends up having to correct the work for the state in an unpaid manner.
  5. Where is the educational merit of the decision?  Why does the minister not want to move on the 40% number?  Money.  The less work that is corrected by the State Examinations Commission (SEC), the better.  It saves money.  In it’s original form, the JCSA appeared to be a precursor to phasing out the SEC.

Look at some of what’s been done (in the name of educational reform)

  1. Remove Guidance Counsellors from secondary schools
  2. Increase the pupil/teacher ratio
  3. Cut capitation grants to schools
  4. Again, cut capitation grants to schools (and again for next year)
  5. Reduce supports for students with Special Educational Needs

I’m being a bit long-winded, so back the core issue.  Why are we going on strike?  Because teachers should not assess their own students for a state exam.  Add to that, (speaking for myself) I don’t trust the motivations behind these measures.

So. It’s time to act.  It’s time to let the Minister and her government know that enough is enough.  Education has been attacked long enough.  I don’t want to go on strike, but I need to.

Education and Equality

We have an ideal that all students who enter our schools will be treated equally, that they will be treated fairly, and that they will be offered equal opportunities.

This is a myth.  Not true. Good PR.

You see, we live in an incredibly unequal society, and this inequality is reflected in our schools.  And this is a fact that our Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, seems to ignore.

So, just how does inequality show up in schools?

Well, all schools receive a running cost from the government depending on the number of students enrolled.  And yes, this does sound fair, but the costs of schools are such that the running costs will often exceed the money received from the government.  After all, taking the team to a match requires a bus, visiting the Young Scientist Exhibition or going on a field trip for geography requires money.  Some schools have more, some have less.  And this means the education experience of students can and will vary depending on the finance available.

You see, I don’t really believe the minister understands just what a disadvantage it can be to be from a disadvantaged area.  I mean how could he?  He hasn’t had to face a pay-cheque of less than €80,000 in years.  He went to a nice school (The Bish), and recently got to visit it with one of his advisers (coincidentally also a past pupil of the same school).

The thing is, if you attend a school where most of the parents have a decent wage, then the school looks for a top-up fee to support school activities.  These activities could include school tours, proper IT for classrooms (whether tablets, computers or whatever).

If your school is in a disadvantaged area, then things don’t look so good.   Being in a disadvantaged area you can expect to see higher rates of unemployment, lack of engagement with education, and social exclusion.  In short, schools could not in fairness ask for top up fees from these parents.  Any development is dependent on grants (which are getting scarcer).

The picture looks a bit like this:



Just because schools receive a similar grant does not mean that the students will benefit from equal opportunities.  The playing field is not equal, a student who starts from a position of disadvantage will need extra help.

Our education system is in a lot of trouble at the moment.  Teachers are under pressure; we have a new Junior Cycle programme that is being rammed in despite the concern and opposition of thousands of teachers; school funding is being cut.

And yet, we claim we believe that education provides opportunities for students; that education is valuable; that education is more than just about measuring students. There’s a disconnect there and I hope that someday we get an education minister who actually believes in education and trusts teachers as professionals.

Our students deserve it.

The Start of a Campaign

On Tuesday 11th March teachers are being asked to spend their lunchtime at the gate of the school and protest against the introduction of the JCSA as it is presented.

In the immediate aftermath of the protest being announced there was a lot of differing commentary on some of the teachers’ Facebook Pages.  This division is reflected in some of the twitter feeds of the past week.  The initial reaction then is very mixed, and this can be very damaging to any campaign to oppose the JCSA. But such a campaign is necessary unless we are willing to accept a flawed programme.

So. What are the downsides of the protest?

  • Well, many people think that the teachers at the gate will be a laughing stock for their students
  • It is felt by many teachers that such a protest does not do anything to dissuade the minister, that the protest will lack any real punch
  • There is the real fear that if the protest is not well enough supported, then it may be seen by the minister as a lack of resolve by teachers

And what do we stand to gain?

  • People will see that teachers are willing to act in such a way that does not harm students’ educational attainment
  • A good turnout will send a clear signal to the minister that teachers are willing to stand their ground in order to oppose the current JCSA
  • This may in turn persuade the minister to engage properly with the unions and accept the criticisms and the concerns of professional teachers

First Steps

I’ve written before, listing concerns that teachers have about the JCSA, and I’ve also written how I see the current plan as the result of a solo run by the minister.  The TUI & ASTI have issued a joint document outlining the unions’ concerns.

Minister Quinn seems hell-bent on introducing the JCSA as it stands, and, so far, seems to be unwilling to listen to any concerns put forward by either the ASTI or the TUI.  I doubt that a 30 or 40 minute protest at school gates will do anything to change his attitude in this.

And that brings me neatly to the ballot which is being put to teachers shortly.  We will be asked to give the unions power to undertake industrial action and oppose the implementation of the JCSA.  We will be asked to approve a campaign of non-cooperation.

I will turn out on Tuesday to support the protest, but only because I see the protest as the first step in a broader campaign to raise awareness about teachers’ concerns.  In fact not just the concerns of teachers – parents of children who will be affected by these changes will have plenty to be worried about.

However, for any of this to work, both unions need to be able to send a clear message to the minister.  I believe he will ignore anything else.

I believe that we teachers need to stand together next Tuesday and raise public awareness about the new Junior Cert.  Beyond that we need to vote ‘Yes’ in the ballot for non-cooperation.  Most people recognise that the Junior Cert needs reform.  However, the JCSA is not what is needed.  There are too many concerns for it to go ahead as it is.  Lets work together to get our concerns addressed and give students a programme that will work and deliver for them.

By the way, the ASTI Nuacht outlining the protest and the ballot can be found here.

Consultations & Negotiations

You’d kinda have to have a bit of pity on our Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn.  He feels that the teachers of this  country don’t want to talk to him.  He thinks that we won’t actively engage with him.  He says he wants to talk with us.  He has further asked that teachers won’t go on a lunchtime protest in March as he doesn’t want to hurt students.  (That’s a bit rich coming from the man who took guidance counsellors out of schools)

The teachers aren’t willing to engage?


I don’t think that I can quite agree with that point of view, Minister.  You see, you may have forgotten that we have a body in this country called the NCCA.  The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment oversees the development of curriculum from early childhood up to senior cycle.  Now.  Up until the minister did a solo run in October 2012 the NCCA had been working in conjunction with the unions and other stakeholders to revise the Junior Cert.

In November 2011 the proposals for a new Junior Cert were released.  The ASTI & the TUI released the news of the proposals, and were generally positive.  (In the ASTI pdf, look at p.16 & p.17)

So, for a while, all was rosy in the garden.  We had proposals for a new Junior Cert, agreed with the Unions, the NCCA and all under the stewardship of  our current minister.

And then, for some unknown reason, he changed his mind in 2012 and ditched the proposals.  He is according to the Irish Examiner,  unrepentant.  In fact, he looks down on teachers so much that he finds it necessary to spell out ‘negotiation’.  Basically, he doesn’t want to back down on a pet project and is upset by the fact that teachers don’t agree with a number of the tenets of his project.  He wants a consultation around implementation, not a negotiation about what’s appropriate.

The minister claims that he’s happy with “the professional advice” he has received.  From whom, may I ask?  Not the NCCA who were working with the unions.  Is he referring to his advisors? . And, if so, why should their advice rank higher than an organisation such as the NCCA which has been in existence for 30 years? Maybe it’s the fact that if he gets away with it, he can reduce the costs of the State Examinations Commission by removing them from any role of examining the JCSA.

I have serious questions about the professional advice that he took on in 2012, that is at odds with an agreed programme from 2011.  A good comparison between the two can be found here.  But a quick summary of teachers’ objections are: The new programme isn’t externally moderated, there is still a subject overload, who designs & accredits short courses?  Another issue is this; what’s to prevent a JCSA award from a posh Dublin school carrying more weight than a JCSA award from a school in a disadvantaged area?  The minister’s plan will re-enforce disadvantage in education.

And by the way, the advisors?   Well, go to The, for a full name list.

New Junior Cert

(For anyone outside Ireland, a little information about what the Junior Cert is is at the bottom of the page.)

One of the important things to know about the Junior and Leaving cert is that the exams are totally impartial.  The papers are set and corrected by the State Examinations Commission.  I have corrected papers in the Junior cert (JC), and never had any indication about the the origin of the papers I corrected.  I never know the gender, background or address of any student.  I could not bring any prejudice or favouritism to the grades that I would award.  And that, I believe, is as it should be.

This brings us to the new Junior Cert.  Our minister for Education has decreed that the JC will pretty much end in 2016.  At that point the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will have no more role in correcting those papers.  The new programme is called the Junior Cycle Student Award.  It is based around 24 statements of learning.  The awards are granted by local schools, and the courses are assessed by the teachers within those schools.  This leads me to a few problems.


As I said earlier, one of the great advantages of the current JC is that the examiner never knows the student.  Whatever mark a student  receives is based purely on the students work and ability.

Under the new system teachers will be responsible for continual assessment, and grading their own students.  That’s it, the end of impartiality; welcome favouritism, or vendettas.

Or maybe what might happen is that I could design my own course, and give my students great marks, because I’m just that good.  Or what happens if my whole school tries this.  Suddenly, going by our results, it’s an absolutely outstanding school, ticking all the right boxes.  But what about the school just up the road?  Don’t they have the same success stories? What about the school that doesn’t worry about ticking the boxes, and instead focuses on student welfare, and achieving basic numeracy and literacy in an area of disadvantage?

It seems to me that by taking an impartial agency (the SEC) out of the process, the whole system becomes more open to abuse and manipulation.


A Junior Cert (or a Leaving Certificate) awarded to any student, anywhere in the state, carries the same level of validity.

The new Junior Cycle Student Award is fundamentally different.  Schools will follow a set of Core Subjects that are set nationally, but mix into this short courses and Priority Learning Units (PLUs).  (PLUs are designed to be used with students who may have learning difficulties)


At the moment teachers are busy people.  A teacher on full hours will teach 33 classes per week.  Under current agreements, the same teacher will be expected to supervise 45 minutes of break-time, and cover one class for other colleagues each week.

Lets look at those 33 classes.  In that the teacher will have a number of students who are preparing for state exams.  The teacher will be preparing for each class, and they will assign homework, class tests, and then correct all of the above.  The school day is busy enough to ensure all this won’t happen in a 9 to 4 day.  So, most teachers take work home with them.

Now.  What happens under the new regime?  Teachers will still have the existing workload but in addition will also have to administer continual assessment, and volumes of paperwork.  Because, to paraphrase, education must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.  Many teachers are worried about just how much extra workload will be loaded.


Casualisation of the Profession

Under our current system teachers are contracted yearly to teach a certain number of hours (not everyone has full teaching hours).  Under the new programme it is possible that teachers could be contracted for just the duration of a short course.

When this is tied to recent developments you get a clear picture that life is not very rosy for Newly Qualified Teachers.  Wages have been cut, and it is virtually impossible to get a full-time job.  (I have a number of friends who have been years teaching and are still not full-time)

The New programme may be the way to go, for example, students will undertake a maximum of 10 subjects, a cut from current practice.  However, I do think a lot of negotiation needs to happen in order for it to happen properly.


A little note on the Junior Cert & Leaving Cert

Secondary school students in Ireland face two state exams.  One at age 15, called the Junior cert, and one at about age 18, called the leaving cert.  These exams are huge markers for students.  The grades achieved in the Leaving Cert are a huge factor in access to further education for students.

The Junior Cert is a student’s first experience of state exams.  But it is more than just a marker.  Performance in the Junior cert can indicate to a student what level he/she should take on as they advance to senior school.