The history of English Language Teaching (ELT) in Ireland can be traced back to one of its most famous teachers- James Joyce. Despite the fact that Joyce never taught in Ireland, it says much about our relationship with our adopted tongue that an Irishman changed the face of the English language in the 20th century. This love of the English language means Ireland has long been seen as a desirable location to learn English as a foreign language. It is home to a number of language schools providing private education for foreign language students from around the world. These schools were generally family run, small to medium sized businesses, with long serving teachers on decent terms and conditions. In recent years, there have been enormous changes in what has become a multi-million euro industry.
The ELT sector began expanding in Ireland during the infamous Celtic Tiger era. It was during that time that there was a shift away from smaller schools, to larger, college operations that continue to dominate the sector today. The regulatory body, ACELS, oversaw the process by which schools could gain access to the lucrative non-EU visa student market. At the time it was well-known within the sector that a school could expect inspection or examination of their business only every two years. During that time, there were many unscrupulous school owners who took advantage of this regulation-light regime.
It is important to note that at no point then or now were teacher’s rights as workers part of the regulatory process. Employee contracts were often only given to sign when an inspection by ACELS was imminent. Sick pay, holiday pay and guaranteed hours were never part of our conditions of work. This effectively means most teachers have been excluded from accessing the housing market.
After the crash of 2009, despite a decrease in the number of European students to Ireland, visa students continued to choose Ireland to learn English and work, on the work and study visa programme. Despite the European market fall off, or indeed perhaps because of it, light touch regulation and a hands off approach continued unabated throughout the crisis. It was also during this period that conditions for teachers began worsening, with no contracts, insecurity of tenure, casual and zero hours increasingly common. What were branded as ‘visa factories’ for many teachers became the reality of their working lives.
Conditions in these schools were often cramped, furniture and materials were not fit for purpose and there was no sense of organisation or discipline from management. Classes were oversubscribed, many students struggled to find work and accommodation, and there was little regard for their well-being or educational development. In some cases wages were regularly paid late or hours went unpaid and had to be queried, tax wasn’t collected properly, and the management style was intimidation and threats. It was during this time that wages were stagnant for teachers but schools were full and school owners were making huge profits. However, teachers had no outlet to complain, and when they did attempt to raise issues, those involved were unwilling or unable to resolve their issues.
2014 began with the closure of two schools, but by the end of the year, 17 schools had closed. In some cases, teachers and academic managers were left owed more than 3 months wages. Many received a cursory text informing them of the closure. It was clear that a lack of oversight played a part in this crisis. Students in these schools were assisted through ICOS, MEI and ACELS. Teachers were not assisted, reimbursed or supported. There was no regulatory framework to assist them.
Since that time, a new pattern has emerged. The government, forced to act, has introduced newer, more academic style regulations. The workload of teachers and academic staff has increased, and the pressure they are under to administer these regulations has intensified. The Department of Education has drafted legislation to replace the current regulatory regime with an International Education Mark. Minister Bruton’s department has produced a plan to grow the industry to €2billion annually by 2020. Schools and colleges are merging and being taken over by larger, multinational concerns. The outlook is positive for the sector.
Yet teachers are still being forced into bogus self-employment. Low pay, no contracts, lack of sick and holiday pay, no maternity or paternity leave, management inflexibility, lack of career opportunities and active discrimination against non-native speaking English teachers (who are growing in numbers in Ireland) are still rife. In 2014, ELT Advocacy was formed with the expressed intention of improving the working conditions and professional lives of English language teachers in Ireland through organisation and communication. One year ago, we held the first meeting of the Unite the Union ELT branch. In this short time the union have succeeded in helping to stamp out bogus self-employment in our sector, we have met with and briefed Oireachtas members of the Education Committee, we have made our voices heard across the country and we are creating a more positive identity for English Language Teachers.
The Unite the Union ELT branch are calling on the Dail Education Committee to add the Unite the Union 10 Point Charter for English Language Teachers to the current QQI legislation. The message from teachers is clear: we demand a more professional, fairer workplace. This is our profession, this is education and we need regulation.
Keith Murdiff is an English Language teacher and activist, a member of ELT Advocacy and the Chair of the Unite the Union ELT branch. He has been an English Language teacher for 15 years and is an action researcher who has researched online learning and social media at the ELT Ireland annual conference. He is a teacher at IBAT College Dublin, and Everest Language School.