Saturday, January 21, 2012

Supply in short supply

Teaching is one of those jobs where, "just be yourself", has to be about the worst possible advice you could give someone. As anyone with any experience will tell you, teaching is a performance. It's only right and proper that it should be so. If you went around saying what you really thought, the average school switchboard would be jammed with phone calls from justifiably indignant parents.

But the role-playing can become a little wearisome at times so those rare moments when you get to say what you think is true to someone who matters are a liberating experience. One such moment for me was when I was selected along with a few other colleagues to give our thoughts to Professor McCrone (pbuh) and his team who were doing a little fact-finding before making their recommendations on teachers' pay and conditions. We were all there to represent staff in different stages and positions - with myself as someone new to the school, having recently gained a contract after being on the supply circuit.

We were asked other than money, what did we think would improve our working arrangements. It was at that point I got to suggest that something might be done about the dismal experience of teachers on temporary short time supply. Often you get treated like shit, frankly. I actually used that form of words. Dunno how Prof McCrone felt about it but for me it was an uplifting moment.

Because I can tell you from experience that temporary supply teachers have a hard shift. It's an insecure job in which often sporadic work oscillates between enormous stress and pulverizing tedium. You might find yourself taking classes not necessarily in your own subject, frequently with no or insufficient work for them to do. And it's not unusual to find that you're dealing with this in an environment where some staff are a wee bit less helpful than they could be, to say no more than that.

Still, at least you get paid the same as everyone else. Or at least you did, until recently. The shabby deal agreed to by the EiS means that some supply teachers have taken a 47% nominal cut in their wages. I haven't worked it out in any detail but this plus the wages freeze must mean a drop in real disposable income of something approaching 60%. I can't believe some people are still prepared to justify this. The rationale was that staff in this position don't have the burden of marking and preparation. True but this has to be the sole advantage of a job that has rather more disadvantages. And in any event, I don't think marking and preparation constitutes 47% of the job. It certainly isn't supposed to.

In any event, it's an academic discussion because the market has now delivered its verdict: temporary teachers simply aren't willing to sell their labour at this price and now there's a staffing crisis. That this should be so during the worst economic recession since the interwar period should be enough to demonstrate to Mike Russell that 'monitoring the situation' isn't going to be good enough. As for Labour and the EiS, my erstwhile colleague Hugh Reilly nails their recent hypocrisy on this issue with some panache here. This was a tawdry deal where the interests of the most vulnerable of our profession were sold out. Everyone involved in the negotiations should be ashamed of themselves but on a more practical level they should be conceding that it isn't the first time that an unjust policy turns out to be economically-inefficient too.

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