Last Saturday, as I attended to my constituency advice centres, I was confronted at every turn by parents who were concerned about the current industrial action by ASTI members. A truism rang through what they said, which was that the dispute would not be resolved by megaphone diplomacy or stand-offs, but by dialogue. The question is, however, how long will it be before one side blinks and negotiations commence? The withdrawal of pay is an inflammatory action by the Minister and has not contributed to resolving the dispute or to facilitating dialogue. The losers in this industrial action, apart from the teachers themselves, are the students, and in particular those in exam classes. The Bill is welcome and puts in place the kind of structural changes and professional bodies to deal with teaching, which are long overdue. I urge the Minister, however, to grasp the nettle and intervene to resolve the teachers' strike. I accept that there are difficulties, particularly in the context of the partnership programme, such as negotiating with a group that is outside the partnership. That effectively invites all others to conduct nego tiations outside the programme. At the end of the day, however, a mechanism will be found so that dialogue can resolve the dispute.
The message of the parents I spoke to on Saturday was simple but true – that dialogue should commence now, before positions harden, rather than later. The Minister's action in withdrawing pay when teachers are available was unwise, although the joint managerial body has advised schools to close for insurance purposes. The Minister's action will undermine the voluntary element whereby, year after year, teachers have looked after sports teams, the school drama club and school bands.
Last Friday evening I was fortunate to be invited to Coachford College in my constituency to present annual awards. I was bowled over by the unity of purpose within the school among parents, teachers and students, and by what had been achieved in a very user friendly school environment. This holistic approach to education was reflected in the range of academic success stories in practical studies, the arts and sporting endeavours.
We can learn many lessons from what is occurring in the nursing profession. By and large, the teaching compliment in Coachford College is young, but the danger is that we will fail to attract highly motivated young people into the teaching profession. One concession that could be considered by the Department of Education and Science is the establishment of a commission on teaching, similar to the one that paved the way for resolving many problems in the nursing profession. We are now recruiting nurses from various parts of the world to work here. The same indications are there in the teaching profession; we are not getting the same type of people to pursue teaching as we did in the past. For example, this year in UCC there is only one student pursuing the higher diploma in education who has a science degree. Within a number of years this will have a knock-on effect in the recruitment of teachers in certain subject areas, which will prove difficult and manifest itself in the careers students will, ultimately, be able to pursue because of subject choice.
We would do well, therefore, to recognise the structural deficiencies, which are primarily salary related. The concession of a commission on teaching may be a useful starting point and might tempt the ASTI off the perch on which it has, unwisely, become impaled. While there would be difficulties for the partnership programme in negotiating directly with it, it is necessary to make a concession. At the end of the day, the issue will be resolved through dialogue, not megaphone diplomacy or by shouting at one another.
The Bill, which is welcome, has teeth. For example, one of the objects of the Teaching Council will be to encourage the ongoing education and training of teachers throughout their careers. It also deals with the nitty-gritty such as fitness to teach and professional misconduct. In such instances it provides for certain actions such as removal or suspension from the teachers' register, all of which are necessary. In bygone days when the economy did not roar as loudly, the permanent pensionable job in the Civil Service, teaching and nursing was much sought after; as a career, it is not as attractive today. There was also a view that no matter what one did one could remain as a teacher despite one's unfitness to teach. These are provisions which parents generally will welcome.
It is welcome that the Bill, by and large, has the imprimatur of the teaching organisations. We would do well, however, to reflect on the fact that the ASTI has not been known as the most militant of trade unions. If one includes the TUI and the INTO, the majority of teachers are against the partnership programme. We would be foolish to ignore this and would do so at our peril. While the education of the current generation is not at stake, although those in examination classes find themselves in a very difficult situation, given that young people are not joining the teaching profession in the same numbers as in the past, we may well reap the rewards in three, four or five years time.
Reading, writing and arithmetic – the three Rs – have long been held to be the basis of our education system. Any person deficient in these skills is seriously disadvantaged. A recent report which highlighted the fact that a large number of people leave school without being able to read or write has placed the focus on literacy, a matter in which the Minister of State is particularly interested, with particular reference to adult education. This should be one of the most fundamental objectives of the education system. It has also helped to focus attention on why the State invests in education in the first instance.
Historically, education was the preserve of an elite groups which, as a consequence, was the source of all knowledge. An 18th century peasant farmer did not have to know how to read and write in order to survive. His life was dominated by trying to put a roof over the heads of his family and provide them with food and clothing. He did not have to know how to read a set of instructions in order to use a spade or milk a cow. Education was a luxury he could not afford.
With the onset of the industrial revolution men suddenly had to know how to read instructions to operate new machines coming with the steam engine. People had to be taught how to read and Governments began to invest in primary education, not out of any altruistic interest, but purely out of self-interest. They were doing so out of economic necessity. The economy needed workers who could read.
We are now going through a technological revolution which, at a phenomenal speed, is changing not only the way we work, but the places in which we work and way in which we lead our lives. Literacy can no longer be defined in terms of reading, writing and arithmetic. To these must be added computer literacy. Wherever we turn, computers are part of our lives. Yet, we have been snail-like in putting in place policies which recognise this fact. There is as yet no comprehensive programme which outlines what first and second level students should learn about information technology and which tests their computer literacy.
Six hundred points in the leaving certificate is often regarded as the pinnacle of achievement for a second level student. It is a significant achievement. Yet, there is no guarantee that this 600 point student is in any way computer literate. He or she may not even know how to turn on a computer because the leaving certificate, with the exception of the leaving certificate applied, does not demand competency in the use or understanding of computers.
Because the three Rs are seen as essential we have wisely decided that mathematics and English are compulsory subjects for all students who sit the leaving certificate. Yet, we do not demand any level of computer competency. The main benchmark of competency is a privately operated certificate, the ECDL, the European computer driving licence, but even this depends on the enthusiasm of a school's computer teachers and the vagaries of the school timetable. We must tackle this problem immediately and ensure that at leaving and junior certificate level the competency of every student in the use of computers is assessed. It is not sufficient to provide computers for schools; we have to make space in the curriculum for a national programme which will ensure computer literacy for all students. Points could be awarded at leaving certificate level on the same basis as points are currently awarded in the leaving certificate vocational programme modules.
It is possible for a student to leave school with little or no knowledge of computers or computer applications. It is also possible for a teacher to qualify with the minimum knowledge of computers. In the context of teacher registration provided for in the Bill, surely the time has to come to make a certain level of computer competency a mandatory requirement for all new teachers who wish to register.
Many teachers at primary and second level have undertaken various kinds of computer courses to upskill themselves in new technologies. The type and quality of the courses, however, varies considerably. It is critical for the future of the economy that not only should all teachers have a high degree of competence in computer applications, they should also feel comfortable and motivated in the computer environment. Accordingly, a special diploma in computer applications for teachers should be introduced. All teachers who acquire this diploma should be given an allowance for this qualification. This should be looked at in the context of section 6 which provides for the encouragement of the ongoing education and training of teachers throughout their careers.
The addition of computers to the curriculum raises another problem, that is, overcrowding of the curriculum. For example, at second level most students take a minimum of seven academic subjects to leaving certificate. These are the subjects for which CAO points are awarded. School subjects and activities for which points are not awarded in the leaving certificate tend to lose out in the final two years leading to examination.
Students in the 16 to 18 year age bracket are increasingly becoming unfit and often reluctant to take part in physical education classes. Highly motivated students, academically, will often see PE as an unnecessary burden which will not help them towards their chosen third level course. Accordingly, if we believe that physical education and fitness are important objectives for the education system, we must ensure that not only are they allocated time on the weekly curriculum, but that they also receive recognition in whatever certification a student receives on completion of his or her schooling. It must also receive recognition in the allocation of places in third level institutions.
One of the great strengths of the education system is that it is widely focused. The fact that all students take English, Irish and mathematics with at least four other subjects from a wide range means that most of those who complete their second level education have developed a much wider range of skills and competencies than, say, their counterparts in England where, at this early stage of their educational lives, all students will have narrowed their options to three subjects. If we want to widen our educational objectives, we should keep this wide range of subjects, but reduce their content.
I am not as familiar with the curriculum as those who have taught in recent years. I remember my leaving certificate Irish. The scourge of our lives wasBullaí Mháirtin, Toraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne and book after book of Irish poetry. I accept that, if you want to encompass a wide range of curriculum objectives, such as PE and computer literacy, it is not possible to maintain content level of many subjects. The curriculum board should look at this aspect.
I tabled a number of questions to the Minister and I was surprised at the reply I received on computer literacy and curriculum content. We have handed this over and are not getting a sufficient response in a rapidly changing environment. We should reduce the content in certain subjects and broaden the scope of computer literacy which is as important in today's school environment as is reading, writing and arithmetic. PE is also important because there are increasing signs that we are following the American example of lack of exercise and obesity. The education system and curriculum content has a role to play in that area. Reduced subject content would provide space in the weekly timetable for students to take part in those activities that help their personal, social and physical development.
One of the functions outlined for the new Teaching Council is to promote teaching as a profession. Clearly, this function will be critical for the new council as the recent overwhelming vote for industrial action by the ASTI would indicate a very demoralised profession. At second level, the difficulty of getting a full-time job, low salary levels on entry, the length of time it takes to reach the maximum point on the salary scale and poor mobility, means fewer people are inclined to take up the profession in the first instance. This will reach a critical stage in the near future. Mathematics and science graduates are few and far between in higher diploma classes while the cost of housing, particularly in the greater Dublin region, is leading to a rapidly diminishing supply of teachers in this area. Many of these factors also affect primary level where qualified cover for teachers absent through illness or otherwise is almost a thing of the past. We will have a crisis in teacher supply if the Minister does not have as a priority the promotion of teaching as a profession.
I was interested to see a provision in the miscellaneous section of the Bill that makes it an offence, punishable by a fine not exceeding £1,500 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both, for a person falsely to represent that he or she is a registered teacher. There are people standing before classes every morning whom the students are under the impression are qualified teachers but because qualified cover cannot be found the choice is between leaving classes unattended or having them attended by unqualified teachers. The powers that be know they are not qualified. This goes back to the structural problems in the profession which the council will identify and take remedial action on to ensure we do not reap the same reward as we did in the case of the nursing profession.
This need is accentuated by the fact that, just as society is becoming more complex, so is the classroom in which teachers operate. Family breakdown, the prevalence of drugs, particularly alcohol in younger and younger age groups, and the easy availability of unsuitable material on video and the Internet means the role of the teacher must change. Many teachers I know would argue that they are often as much counsellors and social workers as they are teachers. One teacher asked me recently how he could teach maths on a Monday morning to students who have been working for 20 hours over the weekend in part-time jobs to fund what is effectively an adult social life, which had also been fitted into the same weekend.
There is a positive side to schooling. Schools are generally much happier and safer places than they were in the past when tales of horrific beatings were commonplace. While we will often hear of young people who do not like going to school, we do not hear of many who are afraid to go to school. Schools teach a much wider curriculum and the methodologies used are more in common with students' levels of ability. Programmes such as leaving certificate applied, transition year and leaving certificate vocational programmes are a welcome addition. However, if we do not take a long and serious look at what is happening we may find that, in the not too distant future, the castle we thought we had built on a secure foundation will have collapsed. That would be regrettable.
The Joint Managerial Body made a pre-budget submission to the Department that highlights a long running grievance in this sector. The Minister should take this on board. The Department has commissioned its own study but has not published its report on funding for the voluntary education sector. These schools are discriminated against. Vocational education committees, community colleges and comprehensive schools that are funded directly through the Department get funding for caretakers, insurance and secretarial services yet theper capita grant that the voluntary schools receive must cover all that expense. That is blatantly unfair and means that parents and schools must engage in fund-raising to buy furniture or computers, make up the shortfall to pay the secretary or caretaker and so on. That is not acceptable. If there is a report on this issue the Minister should publish it so that we can have a meaningful debate. I am sure it would confirm what has been conveyed to me by teachers and principals in my constituency who are not in the VEC system or funded directly by the Department but who depend on their per capita allocation. This matter should be resolved.
Perhaps the Minister, in his reply, will refer to rapidly growing suburbs and the provision of new schools. The system of enrolment the previous September being the sole basis for determining how many teachers a school may take on the next year is archaic. Some other mechanism should be put in place that would anticipate, taking into account local development plans and local authority planning permissions, a surge in demand for primary or secondary school places and circumvent the necessity for prefabricated classrooms and a continuous stream of representations made by Members regarding school extensions at primary and second level. In an ideal world a decentralised system to local governance bodies for education would usefully serve that purpose.