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Teachers want to teach, not check boxes. AI could be the key to achieving this goal

With hundreds of Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) representatives meeting in Killarney this week for the union’s annual conference, it is no great surprise that the teacher recruitment and retention crisis remains a serious problem.

The latest survey by the TUI Headteachers and Deputy Headteachers Association last October found that more than three quarters of schools had advertised vacancies in the previous six months for which no teacher had applied, while two thirds of schools had vacancies. This crisis is painfully real and the continued lack of political will to adequately address it is unimaginable.

It is clear what measures need to be taken. We will continue to advocate vigorously for full-hour contracts on initial hire, a restoration of responsible positions to promote teacher retention, and halving the length of the Professional Master of Education (PME) to ensure the profession remains affordable for those who want it would like to pursue it further.

Furthermore, if we are to persuade teachers from countries such as Dubai and Australia to return to Ireland, they must receive full recognition of incremental credits for their service abroad.

In September, we welcomed Education Minister Norma Foley’s decision to put on hold plans for teachers to assess their own students for state certification purposes. We have made it clear at all times and in all forums that, with a view to rehabilitating the senior cycle, external assessment for state certification is key to the integrity of the process and must be maintained. This remains our strong position.

Minister Foley said concerns about artificial intelligence (AI) guided her decision, which we believe was made carefully. Public trust in the Leaving Certificate cannot be jeopardized.

However, it is also very clear that AI is here to stay. Standing still or trying to ignore it is not an option; We must capture the potential benefits while ensuring that risks are adequately mitigated and monitored. With this in mind, we recently organized a conference on what AI could mean for the education system.

It is now crucial that government authorities increase collaboration with all stakeholders to ensure that the education system is not “overtaken”. This rapidly evolving area requires strong departmental policies and regulatory safeguards to be formalized and then regularly assessed and updated.

In terms of possibilities, the potential of AI to reduce the ever-growing administrative burden on educators should be fully exploited. In a number of surveys, our members have consistently described bureaucratic overload as an ever-increasing and demoralizing distraction from teaching and learning, in many cases leading to teachers and lecturers leaving the profession.

Teachers detest the trend toward “performativity.” They want to teach, not check boxes or attend meetings that don’t benefit them or their students. In this context, they are rightly deeply concerned about the use and value of the so-called Croke Park Hours in schools.

At the third level, following the advertising of some senior positions at Munster Technological University (MTU) with a lower salary than comparable positions in Dublin, TUI members issued an overwhelming mandate for industrial action over management’s failure to comply with a milestone collective agreement on the establishment of the technical university sector .

Following nationwide protests and industrial action by TUI, the Department of Further and Higher Education agreed to suspend the recruitment process.

However, we have made it clear that there must be equal appreciation across the Technical University (TU) sector – we will not accept a situation in which individual TUs can operate freely without regard to or recourse to national negotiations.

At third tier universities in Ireland, the student to staff ratio has now deteriorated to 23:1, well above the OECD average of 17:1

In adult education, however, the delay in providing adequate employment conditions for adult education teachers is an insult to the vital work they do.

Of course and inevitably crucial to many of these various issues is funding. We as a nation are starting from an embarrassingly low base.

The latest OECD indicators show that of the countries for which figures are available, none spends a lower share of national wealth (GDP) on education than Ireland. This is even more pronounced at the second level, where investment, at 1 percent, is only half the OECD average.

At third tier universities in Ireland, the student to staff ratio has now deteriorated to 23:1, a figure well above the OECD average of 17:1, a legacy of the ongoing failure to address the sector’s resource crisis.

At all levels of education, it is students who lose out due to inadequate educational budgets, resulting in larger class sizes, inadequate or absent support for those who need it most, and facilities that are not suitable for modern, experiential teaching and learning.

Our policymakers must finally match the commitment of our students and teachers by investing in our public education system at a level that ensures everyone can thrive.

David Waters is President of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland

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