Secondary school teachers have pledged to resist any initiative that could lead to the creation of British-style university schools.
At its annual convention on Thursday, members of the Secondary Teachers’ Association, Ireland (ASTI) heard claims that the Department of Education’s policy focused on the ‘ideological autonomy’ of schools, which has had negative consequences in other countries.
Academic schools, or free schools, in the UK are publicly funded and have more freedom over their finances, curriculum and teachers’ pay and conditions.
Susie Hall, a teacher in the North East Dublin branch, asked why Irish policymakers have to “slavishly” follow bad policy choices made in the UK.
One of the greatest strengths of the Irish system was the fact that children in all parts of the state were entitled to the same level of education by qualified teachers, she said.
“Free schools in Britain can employ people who are not teachers at all. I hope this does not extend to health services, otherwise we are all lost, ”she said.
Séamus Keane, a Fingal-based teacher, said there was overwhelming evidence to show this type of approach was failing and was part of a larger program to divest the department of responsibility for schools.
Another teacher, Catherine Shevlin of the Stillorgan branch, said academies have the power to set wages outside of collective agreements and can drive down rates of pay. Many, she said, are investing in building “wow” facilities to attract students.
Other members said measures to give schools more autonomy were part of a larger program to introduce standardized tests and rankings at school, as happened in the UK .
However, Joe Moran, a member of the Tipperary branch, said the idea that Irish politics always followed that of the UK was not true.
He said the union had successfully helped prevent school rankings and that there was no sign of demand for academic schools to open, except for a private school due to open in the south of Dublin for children of multinational executives.
Mr Moran added that there was merit in standardized tests to help identify children with learning difficulties.
A motion calling on the union to oppose any policy measures introduced in accordance with a departmental research paper on advancing school autonomy was passed with an overwhelming majority of members.
The conference also highlighted that secondary schools are in dire need of laboratory assistants in order to provide “first class” science education to students.
This contrasts with the North, where school funding models allow schools to employ lab assistants from their school budgets, they told delegates.
John Conneely, a Clare-based teacher, said science teachers at his school spend “countless hours” preparing practical assignments that could be better used for teaching students.
While the Department of Education was keen to prioritize so-called Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), not providing lab assistants was a “huge gap” in the system.
Delegates said there were potential dangers to students from improper storage or management of chemicals, while one said “even schools in Africa” had access to laboratory assistants.
The conference overwhelmingly supported a motion that every school should have at least one lab assistant, while schools with more than 300 students should have other lab assistants employed.