'Enormous pressure on schools': Safe return to classrooms a priority for ASTI president

'Enormous pressure on schools': Safe return to classrooms a priority for ASTI president

Newly appointed ASTI President, Ann Piggott, talks to Mary Corcoran about the challenges that lie ahead for teachers and students.

THE newly appointed President of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) Ann Piggott has taken up her post at what is undeniably an extremely important and challenging time for the education sector.

A long-serving member of the Cork South Branch of the union, Ms Piggott was nominated to the position at the ASTI’s annual convention earlier this month.

Ms Piggott, who works as a teacher of maths and English at Kenmare Community School, originally joined the ASTI in 1988 and has held a number of key roles within the organisation since then.

“I live in Cork and work in Kerry and was originally a member of the Kerry branch.

“I wanted to join a local branch and I attended my first Cork South Branch meeting in 2006.

“At the second meeting I attended, I became branch secretary. I have also been vice-chairperson, equality officer and treasurer of this branch.

“I have represented the members of the Cork South and the Carbery branches for many years on ASTI’s Standing Committee,” she said.

Ann Piggott, president of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, says students and teachers need to know that their health and safety is a priority.
Ann Piggott, president of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, says students and teachers need to know that their health and safety is a priority.

Ms Piggott has also served as President of the Cork Council of Trade Unions and served as ASTI Vice President from 2019 to August 2020.

The Cork-based President says she likes the “righteousness” which unions represent.

“I wanted to have a voice in exposing and opposing wrongdoing and I wanted to have a say in union issues,” Ms Piggott said.

The new appointment is one which the ASTI President says she is honoured to receive.

“It is such a privilege to be President of the ASTI. Our union has almost 18,000 members and while this will be a demanding role, particularly in the current circumstances, I am most humbly honoured to be elected to this position. I am looking forward to the challenges of the year ahead,” Ms Piggott said.

The new landscape created by the Covid-19 outbreak will undoubtedly impact Ms Piggott’s role in the year ahead, and this is particularly pertinent as preparations continue for the reopening of schools in the weeks ahead.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is placing enormous pressure on schools. Overcrowding, lack of physical space, underfunding in education, pay inequality and increased workloads have led us to a point where school managements will have difficulty reconfiguring classrooms and recruiting additional staff,” Ms Piggott said.

The ASTI President said the single most important issue to address as plans progress to reopen schools is the health and safety of the school community.

As preparations to reopen schools continue, it is key to ensure there is a safe return to education.
As preparations to reopen schools continue, it is key to ensure there is a safe return to education.

“Students and their teachers need to know that their health and safety is a priority as we navigate our way through the 2020/21 school year,” she said.

Ms Piggott said that as preparations to reopen schools continue, it is key to ensure there is a safe return to education.

“If we go into schools and if things aren’t done properly, chances are that schools won’t remain open for too long. We want to make sure that schools remain open and that people are educated for as long as is humanly possible,” she said.

Ms Piggott highlighted how the plan for reopening schools was modelled on interim health advice issued in June, but said there had been a number of considerable changes in the country since then.

“The public health guidelines that are issued for schools shouldn’t be overly different to the health guidelines issued for the rest of society,” she said, adding that “so much has happened” since the guidance was issued earlier this summer.

The Union has now written to Minister for Education Norma Foley to request that she seek a general review of the guidance with a particular focus on masks and visors.

“We can accept anything in line with public health advice, but public health advice may now be different,” Ms Piggott added.

When schools do re-open, it is likely that they will do so in new ways, and Ms Piggott says some changes can be expected.

Some schools may use school libraries and gyms as classrooms, others may no longer provide canteen facilities, and storage cabinets and lockers may be removed from classrooms and storage for books and equipment will be sparse, she said.

The ASTI President said that remote learning may also be necessary again if the virus spreads.

However, amidst all the negatives, Ms Piggott said the outbreak may also bring about some positives including smaller class sizes with less students in some classrooms which will mean more time for each individual student and better discipline.

There will also be more hours for teachers who are only employed for a few hours each week, more teachers, 120 counselling posts will be restored and there will be extra funding available for education and investment in schools.

While the Covid-19 pandemic may be one of the most pressing challenges which Ms Piggott faces, she said that as she embarks on the role “amid a pandemic and a looming recession”, another key concern is pay parity.

The President has stated that the Government must commit to equal pay for post-2010 entrants to teaching if it is serious about recruiting and retaining 1,080 additional second-level teachers as outlined in the Response Plan for Safe Reopening of Schools.

“Ireland has experienced a serious shortage of second-level teachers in recent years.

“The main reasons for this are the high levels of precarious teaching contracts and pay inequality for those who began their careers after 2010.

“A significant number of teachers have been subjected to pay discrimination for up to a decade.

“More than ever, students need their teachers. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of students’ interaction with their teachers.

“We require adequate numbers of teachers in schools to allow for social distancing in line with medical advice and to ensure teacher absences are covered.

“ Only in this way can students be assured of equal access to a safe and quality education,” she said.

Ms Piggott said there should be no imposition of extra work practices as enforced during the previous recession.

Calculated grades must not be a feature of future exams and alternative contingency plans for 2021 state exams must be arranged, she added.

With less than three weeks until schools are expected to welcome students back, Ms Piggott said she does expect schools to reopen in September.

“The Government want to reopen schools and parents want their children back in the classrooms.

“Teachers want to be at school and students need to return to schools which provide sanctuary and care as well as education and social skills.

“Teachers much prefer the interaction and real-life communication rather than remote learning and have been concerned about their students’ welfare,” she said.

“The ASTI continues to emphasise the need to ensure the reopening of schools is implemented in a sustainable manner.

“Reducing the risk of transmission within schools must be prioritised. The health and safety of teachers, their students, their relatives and school staff is a key concern,” she concluded.

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