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.

Dear Joan, or Alex

On July 4th the Labour Party will begin counting votes on who will get to be the new leader of the party. This will hopefully be a fairly straightforward and quick poll, and we will know who will lead the party from its worst electoral defeat.

Add to the new leadership in Labour is the likelihood that there will be a cabinet reshuffle during the Summer.  This, I once hoped would be a cause for joy, but I’m beginning to get a bit cynical now.

You see, Joan (or Alex), people who had previously believed that Labour would stand up for them are sadly disillusioned.  Cutbacks and austerity in health, education and social welfare are being touted as achievements.  Surely they are the exact opposite?  Labour ministers have led the charge to cut back in their own departments in the name of keeping the Troika happy, in the cause of shoring up the gambling debts of Ireland’s elite from the Tiger Era.  Is not keeping rich investors happy the very antithesis of what Labour stood for?

And here’s the thing.  The Troika recently called for the government to keep on track with a further 2 Billion Euro in cutbacks this year.  They announced this in the middle of your leadership campaign.  This, to me, is a clear signal as to who really calls the shots.

To take a note from Minister Quinn’s playbook, it seems that the Troika think Labour’s job is to consult on the cutbacks, not to negotiate them.  So I wonder how much will actually change.

From a teacher’s point of view, I used to hope that a cabinet re-shuffle would rid education of Ruairi Quinn, and that we would have a minister who would listen to teachers, rather than his own fabled advisers. I hoped that we could get a minister who would listen to concerns around Special Needs Provision, around concerns with the JCSA, around concerns with Pupil Teacher ratios; around management of schools, around the proper resourcing of education.  Now I doubt that much would actually change.  Yes, we may get a minster who talks a better talk, but I’m beginning to think that nothing will actually change.

You see, Joan, or Alex.  I think you have forgotten the marginalised in this country.  I think that you have forgotten about just how much hardship has been endured by normal people.

I really hope that I’m wrong.  I really hope that you heard the very clear message given by the Irish Electorate in May.  I really hope that you will finally realise that Austerity has run its course.  Ireland should not be just about balancing the books.  Ireland should also be about the quality of life of all its citizens.  More so for the most vulnerable among us.

Or, to quote Gandhi: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

In very many cases recently Joan or Alex, we have failed this test of greatness.  What are you going to do about it?