Education is the bedrock of our well being as a society, as an economy and as a people. It has often been stated that our greatest resource is our people. We have nurtured that resource and enriched its potential by the professionalism, dedication and generosity of generations of teachers in all levels of our educational system. It is that resource, our people, who have secured for Ireland its place and standing in the world, in business, in media, in arts and entertainment, in politics, in global development and in peace keeping. In the past the teacher was a respected pillar of the community, and status was one way of acknowledging and honoring the profession.
Teachers are the lifeblood of Education. Today when we need them the most, we treasure them less than ever. Is it any wonder that schools struggle to recruit? Is it any wonder that teachers seek employment abroad? Will anyone be surprised if Minister Mc Hugh’s flying visit to bring back teachers from the Middle East yields no results?
Government and the Teaching Unions need to address radically the issues which are threatening the very heart of our Education system. Change in thinking, and change that anticipates the future, is urgently required from the two entrenched interest groups within Education, the Department and the Unions. It is about pay and conditions, but it is not just about pay and conditions. It is also about rethinking and reimaging the role of the teacher, especially subject matter teachers at secondary level. It is also about rethinking radically the form and intent of what is called the curriculum. But pay and conditions do matter, so before we reform the entire system, what can be done now to stabilize the current hemorrhage.
Firstly Government must, with taxpayers support, address the current issues undermining teacher recruitment and retention. Obtaining a teaching qualification is now more expensive and takes longer than ever before. The new teacher is starting on a pay scale that is still different from established colleagues and is modest in comparison to industry averages, given the time and cost invested in Higher Education by the newly qualified teacher. Equal pay for equal work should happen now, but is of itself not enough.
Applicants for courses to qualify them as teachers should be given the option of having their course fees covered in full, and an allowance paid when they are on teaching practice. If this option is taken there should be conditions. Firstly when they qualify they must teach in the State for a minimum of five years by way of “payback”. Secondly if they fail to qualify they should repay at least a significant percentage of the fees provided. Consider the supports given to the Gardai through training, and who can say that our educators are less worthy of support than our law enforcers. So after addressing one aspect of pay equality, and the costs of becoming a teacher, one might think we have addressed teacher supply. But we haven’t unless we go further. The current prohibitive cost of housing, most obviously in Dublin, is a major disincentive in the recruitment of teachers especially to urban schools.
A major programme of Public Housing construction, based on a cost rental approach, is needed to tackle the housing needs of professionals in the public and private sector. Until Public Housing Rental competes with Private Sector Rental, we will not address supply at affordable rental costs which relate to income. Government needs to commence housing provision that would allow new teachers to rent at rates that lie within their income. In the meantime they need to consider a temporary Dublin Allowance that augments teachers’ pay levels in Dublin to allow for housing and transport costs.
New differentials in pay need to be introduced but not just for housing in Dublin. Having argued earlier for pay equity there is also a case to be made for pay differentials. Firstly many excellent teachers are being “lost” to management roles in schools, teachers who might continue in the classroom, but for the catch 22 that the only way to get a salary rise is to gain a promotion. While effective school management is essential, we should be encouraging teachers to consider staying in the classroom by a teacher pay differential based on the number of years class contact. Furthermore teachers in areas of significant social disadvantage should see a pay bonus in their paycheck to reward them in handling challenging environments.
Teachers are the lifeblood of Education, and Education is the bedrock of our well being. If we can’t explore new ways of addressing the issues that undermine teaching as an attractive profession, we run the risk of harming our most precious resource; the talents, imagination and abilities of future generations. Taxpayer s money needs to be invested in strengthening the teaching profession. Wise investment of this nature is both a social and economic imperative.