Next week, just days before the general election, secondary school teachers across the country will go on strike to protest against continued pay inequality for their profession. In Ireland in 2020, we still have the objectively absurd situation where two people, teaching the same subject, in the same school, for the same number of hours, are on completely different pay scales because one of them started the job a year or two before the other. If this kind of pay discrimination was on any other basis – imagine, for example, it was men paid more than women – there would be national outrage. And yet in this general election, Education has been the dog that has not barked.

Gript spoke to several second level teachers over the weekend to get a sense of how things are “on the ground” in education. All the teachers spoke to us on the basis of anonymity to enable them to speak freely.

Pay inequality is not the only issue that is upsetting teachers, parents, and pupils. Worse, by far, is the continuing, and botched, introduction of a new junior cert curriculum that is, objectively, dumbing down education for our young people via the introduction of a so-called “common level”.

What’s a common level? When you were doing your junior cert, you might remember that you had the option of studying at ordinary, higher, or foundation level. The idea of having three different levels of a subject was based on the relatively obvious fact that children and young people have different skills and aptitudes, and differing levels of academic ability. Where one young person might be able to master only the very basics of a subject, others with higher ability would be able to study it at a more advanced level. This also had the advantage of placing children into classes in that subject where everybody was at roughly the same level of ability, making teaching easier for teachers, who had to worry less about leaving a student behind.

Common level, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. Every student, regardless of ability, is expected to be proficient at the same level of a subject. Teachers are already reporting issues with this approach, as articulated by a secondary school teacher based in Wexford to Gript over the weekend:

“The stuff we’re being asked to teach everybody just doesn’t suit a lot of students. For weaker students, it’s too hard. For better students, it’s too easy. You have a situation where you have kids walking out of exams after an hour either because they’ve given up, or because they’ve finished the paper and the top marks are in the bag.

This is causing real problems in the classroom because you have students who are either frustrated or bored. As a teacher, you’re always moving at the pace of the slowest student in the classroom, or you leave them behind, which nobody wants to do. Then you’ve got kids with higher ability who are sitting there thinking this is a waste of time, I could do this in my sleep. So they start messing or talking, and you can’t really blame them”.

Another teacher, this time Dublin based, said that maintaining discipline in classrooms was harder than ever:

“It’s not well known, but a teacher these days has basically no options to deal with a disruptive student. You can’t put somebody out of your classroom, because insurance won’t cover you if something happens to them while they’re in a corridor. You can try giving detention, but if they don’t turn up, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t even suspend a child, in extreme situations, these days, because it’s up to the parents whether to accept the suspension or not, and to pick a day to keep the child at home. In our school, one suspended child kept coming to school for weeks, and then convinced his parents to keep him at home on the day of an exam. He was bragging about it to the other kids for weeks”.

A long serving teacher in Monaghan, who is approaching retirement, said to Gript:

“I can’t wait to get out of it, to be honest. We’re completely failing a whole generation of young people. The whole emphasis these days is on telling them how great they are, positively reinforcing this, and that. What we end up doing is positively reinforcing failure, over and over again. Parents, as well, particularly younger parents, just don’t want to hear anything other than that their child is great. If their child isn’t learning, they blame the teacher. They never seem to ask themselves if the fact that their child is a little shit who refuses to try anything that’s “too hard” {sic} might be their fault. As a teacher, you’re just thinking “what’s the point?”.

“There’s a sense”, said the last teacher we spoke to, who is based in Leitrim, “that schools are just state funded babysitters”. “I read things on Gript about parents being outraged about sex education, and maybe they’re right to be, but those parents are in a minority. The truth is that most parents are just happier for us to do that rather than have an awkward conversation with their own children. They even say it to you at parent-teacher meetings – “rather you than me”, one parent said”.

“The mad thing about it all is – there’s no prospect of any of this changing. It’s as if the parties have decided that education is less important than keeping parents and kids happy. Whether we’re actually teaching them anything useful isn’t something they bother themselves about. If you look at what they’re proposing on education – there’s nothing on discipline, there’s nothing on standards, there’s nothing on attracting teachers into the profession and supporting them. It’s all parent focused, to get the votes”.

Uniformly, teachers complained about the Croke Park reforms, which were introduced to increase productivity in the aftermath of the recession.

“Nobody’s going to listen to a teacher complaining about more work, I get that” one teacher said, “but it’s not the more work that’s the problem. It’s that it’s such utterly pointless work. It doesn’t help one single student. I’ll give you an example – every two weeks, every teacher is held back for two hours or more after school for a compulsory staff meeting, under the terms of Croke Park. What happens at those meetings? I can’t speak for every school but in our school, it’s a complete waste of time. A biology teacher doesn’t benefit from a two hour talk about an update from the English department. It just makes everyone else sitting there hate their job. The whole point of Croke Park is to fiddle the figures – we’re spending the same amount of money but getting more productivity out of the teachers. On paper it looks great. But sitting in a room and listening to bullshit for two hours isn’t productivity. They’d have been better extending the school day for another hour. We’d actually work more, and teach more – but that wouldn’t go over well with the parents. It’s a load of bullshit”.

The election takes place on February 8th.