Our education system, especially since the advent of free second level education, has served Ireland well. For historical reasons, probably going back to the era of the hedge schools, the teaching profession has been held in high regard in Irish society. As a consequence, we have benefited from a continuous stream of highly qualified and well motivated graduates making themselves available as teachers. As a result, our economy has prospered and many of the multinationals that locate their industries here cite the quality of the Irish education system and the graduates it produces as one of the main reasons for choosing to locate here far ahead of any of the tax or other incentives the country offers. However, we would do well to remember that this scenario cannot be taken for granted. Our successful economy is competing aggressively for graduates, offering larger salaries and less responsibility, but education and schools throughout the country are feeling the pinch. Secondary schools are witnessing unprecedented difficulties recruiting teachers. In certain subject areas, the alternative career options now available in the private sector mean that people are voting with their feet and subject choices have been withdrawn.
There is increasing evidence each year of people leaving the profession to pursue alternative careers and the Department's career break scheme is attracting increasing numbers. Allied to this startling problem, a large swathe of secondary teachers are progressing too slowly along an incremental salary scale that is too long and there are not adequate prospects of promotion or recognition for those teachers. This is rapidly leading to a demoralised and poorly motivated profession. With the middle ranks stymied and the rejuvenation process for the profession faltering, we have the ingredients of a looming crisis in our schools in the medium to long term. It has manifested itself in some schools with restrictions on subject choices, not because graduates are scarce but because the alternative employment options are attractive.
Unless remedial action is taken, it will not be long before the end product of our education system, the well rounded and well educated student, is in short supply and the knock-on benefits of the quality students and graduates we have had over the years, and the contingent benefits that has brought to our economy, will evaporate. This is what has been happening the teaching profession during the Minister's watch. It is not, contrary to popular opinion, all about the short working week and the long holidays. It is largely about job satisfaction. For many teachers this is becoming increasingly more difficult to find under the terms and conditions of their current employment. Potential teachers are simply walking away to take up more attractive alternatives.
When contemplating how to resolve this dispute we would do well to remember what has happened to education in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America where, increasingly, a quality education can only be had at a considerable financial cost. The UK is obliged to import teachers from South Africa and elsewhere all over the globe, while some schools cannot provide adequate teaching cover for the full five day week. This is the whirlwind which we may yet reap unless we take urgent steps to make the career more attractive again.
Another reason for this crisis in the classroom is the changed school environment over recent years and the feeling that teachers are isolated and on their own when dealing with the many social problems which now manifest themselves in the classroom. These problems – drug abuse, disciplinary difficulties, family breakdown and the increasing involvement of students in the workplace – are all serving to undermine the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom and the Department of Education and Science has singularly failed to provide the necessary supports to both schools and individual teachers to cope with these additional pressures and demands for which their training has left them ill-equipped.
This is the background against which the current dispute with the ASTI should be reviewed. Of course nobody is suggesting that the Government can give two fingers to congress, unilaterally breach the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness and snub the other two teacher trades unions, but the manner in which the Government has reacted to the democratic decision of ASTI members regarding its participation in Congress and regarding the PPF has progressed from initial apparent indifference to the consequences to incompetence and ineptitude as the consequences became more apparent.
The failure to recognise 15 months ago the significance of the ASTI decision has led us to where we are now. In all this time, no realistic attempt was made to face up to the issue in a meaningful manner. When the ASTI strike began to impact, the Government's decision to deduct pay for days when teachers, although available to teach, refused to supervise and boards of management, on good advice, closed schools for insurance related reasons was the real turning point in this dispute. From that day onwards previously moderate members of the trades union became hard liners and a difficult dispute became immeasurably more difficult to resolve as a result. If the pay deduction was a turning point, the intemperate and confrontational tone of the Minister, his predecessor who lectured us from the United States and the Taoiseach since the recent Labour Court ruling, has only served to stiffen the resolve of striking teachers not to be humiliated and ground into submission.
This dispute is now in classic stalemate. An irresistible force meets an immovable object. As a result on a daily basis unacceptable pressure is mounting on examination students and long-term damage is being inflicted on the fabric of the education system. With both sides still resolutely in justification mode, the consequences, both immediate and long-term, are too catastrophic to contemplate.
Fine Gael cannot accept the Government line that nothing can now be done to resolve this dispute short of an ASTI climb down. The stakes are too high and the consequences too enormous for this. Fine Gael now believes that the Government should convene a emergency meeting of the social partners to discuss the present crisis.
Given the fact that the Labour Court has implicitly recognised that the ASTI has a sustainable case, consideration must be given to devising an alternative formula to benchmarking, the remit of which would be ring-fenced to ASTI members only and the operation of which would not compromise or undermine the claims being pursued by the INTO and the TUI in this fashion. Indeed, it is ironic that both the INTO and the TUI are processing higher pay claims than the ASTI, albeit in a different fashion, over a longer timeframe and through a PPF approved mechanism.
Benchmarking has become the conflict zone in this dispute. The term to ASTI members, for one reason or another, is associated with Margaret Thatcher and the UK, with league tables and performance related pay. For others it is the equivalent of approaching an ATM. The reality is that no attempt was made by the Minister for Education and Science to sell the concept to those who opted out of the PPF until it was too late. Indeed, the rushed attempts late last year to bring forward payment dates and to fast track the establishment of the process served only to con firm doubts of its whimsical nature up to that point. The meeting with social partners should also reconsider the issue of an up-front payment in the context of teachers' duties, supervision and substitution. We further believe that the Government should proceed as soon as possible, and by agreement, with the establishment of an education commission to consider all the non-pay elements in education which need radical review.
The approach I have outlined offers a genesis of a solution. It recognises the difficulties of the parameters of the PPF while identifying scope in lateral movement within that context for a solution to emerge. The Government should convene this meeting of social partners as soon as possible and immediately thereafter meet with the ASTI. On this basis, the ASTI should lift its threat to the leaving certificate examinations, drop any threat of industrial action pending the outcome of these negotiations and commit itself to a full ballot of its members on any outcome from these negotiations.
The Government's amendment to the motion will only further entrench both sides to this dispute. It refers to achievements under PPF and tax cuts, but it does not face up to the fact that the ASTI, by a democratic decision of its members, has removed itself from that and is seeking some mechanism to facilitate a resolution to its dispute. I cannot see how a resolution will emerge in the absence of dialogue. A resolution will not fall from the ceiling. Therefore it is incumbent on the Minister and on the Taoiseach to intervene directly at this stage.
Although I have not consulted directly with the social partners, I believe that they would be amenable to finding a solution to this dispute. These, after all, are stakeholders in society. The education system is the cornerstone on which the successful economy of recent years is founded. It is in the best interests of the social partners that nothing is done to undermine the continued capacity of the education system to attract highly motivated graduates into the teaching profession and subsequently to supply the conveyor belt of high quality graduates which emerge from the third level institutions to fill the posts available in the economy.
The only line in the Government's amendment from which one might take some comfort is the one which calls on the ASTI to work with the Government. How else can the ASTI work with the Government other than through dialogue with the Government? Nobody is suggesting that there is a preconceived outcome to these talks. Everybody must go into them with an open mind. The Government must, in the context of PPF, consult with the social partners, but there must be a willingness on both sides. Having consulted extensively with ASTI members, parents and pupils, I believe there is a willingness to compromise and settle. On that basis, the other side to this motion is quite implicit in so far as it places an equal obligation on the ASTI to respond to any goodwill gesture by the Government.
As I said in my speech on a number of occasions, the consequences of digging in and of continuing to justify the position which has us in deadlock are too enormous to accept. Sooner or later somebody must facilitate dialogue. If it happens sooner rather than later, then the damage will be miminised and this year's leaving certificate and other certificate examinations can proceed but if the deadlock is long-term, the integrity of the examination system and the livelihoods of pupils sitting their leaving certificate will be undermined and that is too high a price to pay not to mention the long-term damage being inflicted on the education system as a result of this dispute.
Will the Minister outline in detail his contingency plans? On previous occasions on Question Time, the Minister refused to roll out details on the basis that we were awaiting a Labour Court recommendation. It is becoming apparent that there is a cloud of serious magnitude hanging over the capacity of the Department to organise the examinations in the absence of—