Dáil debates

Tuesday, 30 March 2004

Priority Questions.

Teacher Union Conferences.

3:00 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Question 119: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if he will provide an update on his talks with the three teacher unions (details supplied) regarding his attendance at their Easter conferences. [9887/04]

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Question 121: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the reason he has declined invitations from the ASTI, INTO and TUI to address their annual teachers conferences in April 2004 unless they agree to his demand to change the format of the conferences; if he accepts that this is a major departure from the traditions established by his predecessors; if he has made alternative plans to address these unions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9890/04]

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 119 and 121 together.

I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight on the question of my attendance at the forthcoming teacher union conferences. The teacher unions are important bodies in Irish education and it is highly desirable that they should have a significant role in the debate on the major issues facing our education system. It is equally desirable that there be clear and transparent communication between the Minister of the day and the unions.

The traditional format of the Minister's attendance at teacher conferences does not lend itself to either dialogue or communication. It is more about heat than light and a changed format is long overdue. I wrote to the three teacher unions in February outlining my views and suggesting a revised format. Both the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, indicated that they were not disposed to a change of format. The Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, was constructive in its response and, following discussions with my officials, revisions to the traditional format were agreed with that union. Subsequently my officials met representatives of the TUI and ASTI. As of now, there is no agreement in place with these unions which would enable me to attend their conferences.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Does the Minister accept that the INTO, TUI and ASTI have made and continue to make a major contribution to education and society? Does he agree that teachers are at the front line in the delivery of quality services to pupils, especially children with disabilities or those in disadvantaged areas?

Does the Minister accept that the teachers unions should decide the structure of their conferences without interference from the Minister or politicians? Does he agree that the integrity and independence of trade unions, in this case the teacher unions, should always be respected and defended? Does he accept that, in general, unions seem to be under threat in the current political and economic climate? Does he accept that the protection of the independence and integrity of unions leads to a more healthy and democratic society?

Does the Minister accept that teacher bashing does not contribute to Irish education? For example, many link the decline in Scottish rugby and football to the loss of goodwill in the Scottish education service because of the serious industrial dispute some time ago. What will the Minister do to create goodwill among the three teacher unions?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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On at least 30 occasions in the past 12 months, I stated publicly that our education system owes a huge debt of gratitude to all teacher, past and present, for the education system. That is not publicised that often, but I have the records and can stand over it. I have nothing but the height of regard for teachers. I accept that the vast majority of teachers do a good job. Like politicians, they are not all perfect and the sooner we face that reality the better.

I have no desire to decide on the structure of the teacher union conferences. Traditionally and probably for as long as the unions are in existence, the Minister for Education and Science has had a slot to address the conferences. I merely requested that the slot be used in a different way and that, instead of the President or the General Secretary of the union making a speech which may or may not have referred to the points raised by the Minister in his preceding speech, there would be dialogue and greater engagement and communication. In my first letter, I suggested that a "yes" style format would be the way to do that, but two of the unions rejected that out of hand. Perhaps they adopted Deputy Finian McGrath's approach to this, that nobody would tell them anything. I reiterate that I made a request and I did not tell anybody to do something.

One union believed it was important that the Minister should be present and that it should discuss how it might accommodate a change. It had no difficulty with it and we have agreed that change. The two other unions were approached subsequently and some discussion took place with one union on the format agreed with the other union. The executive of the other union will meet on Thursday, so the position is not finally decided.

The independence of trade unions is not under threat from me. As the Deputy stated, we live in a democratic society and, as an elected represented of the people, I have a democratic right to ask the unions to do things in a different way to have greater engagement and a more productive session. I want to attend the teacher union conferences to state my views and listen to their views. There seems to be some difficulty in moving away from the traditional format that generates more heat than light. My door is still open. I have asked both unions if they would indicate whether they intend to engage as unions in the "yes" process. I have indicated to both that I would like to know that before we finalise discussions, but that is not a precondition and the unions can say no if they wish.

If anybody can point out a specific instance where I engaged in teacher bashing, I would be delighted to see it. I have never said anything derogatory about teaching or the teaching profession. I dedicated the EU Presidency to it. I will launch a book dedicated to learning and teaching in this country, which is a mark of my esteem for teachers. As I must take a stand on union matters, there has been a tendency to paint that as teacher bashing.

I was not aware of the Scottish example to which the Deputy referred, but I am aware that, at one of the "yes" meetings, someone spoke of the decline in Welsh rugby and I had it checked out. A Welshman I met on Saturday confirmed that the decline in Welsh rugby over time could be traced to a lack of——

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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How much time is left in this slot?

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Three and a half minutes.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I object to the fact that I get only three minutes when I am supposed to share the time.

Why did the Minister not discuss this privately with the unions? Why did he deliberately court public confrontation with the unions on the issue of attending the teacher conferences? Would it have been in the spirit of partnership if he had tried to engage with the unions on this issue and perhaps come to an agreement with which both parties would have been happy before this became a public matter?

In light of Deputy Finian McGrath's question and the extent to which teachers give voluntarily of their time above and beyond the call of duty, does the Minister fear his ongoing confrontation with them will cause the sorts of problems experienced with Welsh teachers to which he has just referred? The Minister did not want to make benchmarking payments to teachers who were not in school for a few days before Christmas despite that school management made the decisions involved rather than individuals.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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While I have never sought confrontation with the unions, I will not back off on a benchmarking agreement which was freely entered into. That is what they did. While I have a duty and a responsibility to teachers, I also have a duty to pupils and parents. I cannot become a spokesman for teachers or any other education interest group except in particular circumstances. I want the effective, efficient education system which produces well-rounded young people that I hope teachers want also.

I do not deliberately court controversy. I wrote a letter privately to the unions on 17 February and it remained with them for some time. While it was being dealt with quietly behind the scenes, my Department's press office received a phone call from a media outlet which stated one union had been in contact about a letter. The union had informed the media outlet that there was no way it would accede to the Minister's request to change union procedures.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Which union?

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I will not say in the House. My press office was provided with many quotes as part of an attempt to stir things up. The other two unions went about their business calmly. While the matter came into the public arena, it was not through me.

I wanted to make the benchmarking payment to teachers as quickly as possible, but I could not until the agreements with the unions were finalised formally. From my experience of travelling around the country, I am aware that teachers individually complied with the benchmarking agreement. It should also be noted that 25% of second level schools and 20% of primary schools had not complied with the standardisation of the school year by the closing date at Christmas. I owe it to the 75% of compliant secondary schools and the 80% of compliant primary schools to ensure that those who have not complied are taken to task. Benchmarking was payable on the basis of a signed agreement. While many teachers complied with the agreement's terms, I could not make payments prior to the final agreement of the unions. If I did, I would have been in trouble with the unions for operating outside the terms of Sustaining Progress. I am not looking for confrontation, but I will not back down if I feel I have to defend a particular interest in the education system.