A new voice: IMPACT’s education conference sets out its vision

Monday 15th April 2013

The inaugural conference of IMPACT’s new education division took place in Kilkenny at the beginning of this month. The conference, which took place over three days, saw a packed programme of conference motions, debate and panel discussions.

For many delegates this was their first time at conference and Gina O’Brien, divisional chair, extended a warm welcome. Gina acknowledged the distance that delegates had travelled to attend conference, and also noted the “long organisational distance to make this conference, and this division, a reality. All of our efforts, in this room and beyond, have ensured that IMPACT’s education division is here – and that we’re here to stay.”

Gina said that the aims of the division included redoubled efforts to grow in numbers and density, and to give first-class representation to the union’s members in education. She added, “We will fight for a high quality education system based on the principles of equity, access and excellence, and develop a strong, respected, influential – and long-overdue – voice for all staff in the education sector.”

Gina acknowledged the diversity of membership in the education division, describing it as “a unique educational assembly.” The division includes special needs assistants, school secretaries and caretakers, clerical and administrative staff, managers, educational welfare and schools completion staff. Gina described these various roles as “sometimes unseen, often ignored.”

“We ensure the provision of education at primary, secondary and third level – in schools, colleges and communities. The creation of this IMPACT division is a declaration of our determination to be part of the process of shaping the future of education in Ireland – navigating the changes and meeting the challenges,” she said.

Gina added: “Our education system has earned an international reputation for quality and excellence. We’re proud to play a vital role in delivering the highest standards of quality, and we are determined to work and campaign to ensure that every child, teenager and adult in this State has a right to quality education and training, regardless of their income, wealth, ability or disability. We want to contribute. We expect to be consulted and listened to. We demand representation on relevant bodies and steering groups at local and national level.”

A new voice

IMPACT deputy general secretary Kevin Callinan acknowledged that the division was a new voice in education. “A new voice needs to be heard, to be listened to, in order to give it substance. So we need to define what we stand for. We need to define how we can make a difference – for our members and the people they serve – and how we can make it all happen. The education workers represented here have been isolated, in various degrees, for too long. Every grade represented here has been, in its own way, defined as an adjunct of teaching rather than a vital role in its own right. Our challenge is to bring cohesion and unity to our education membership,” he said.

Kevin emphasised the importance of unity that had been brought to IMPACT members working in education. “As the proverb says ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’, there is no strength without unity. To build that strength, to create that unity, we need to be guided by sound principles. Those principles are what we were building together this week, and they will inform our progress.”

He acknowledged the role of new organisers in the division who, he said, brought “tangible skill and passion to the task at hand”, and that the division is supported by a great team. “That support is underpinned by the conviction that we need to equip members to take the greatest control possible over their own affairs. We employed organisers because we know that we must recruit, we must organise, and we must train. It is impossible just to service members in dispersed education settings with relatively small groups of workers. Organising means we increase our capacity to represent. That is true now of our work in schools but it will be true also as we seek to expand our membership in other areas such as early childhood education or private schools and colleges.”

Panel discussions

The conference also hosted three lively panel discussions, covering issues of education policy as well as bullying and suicide prevention. Guest speakers and panelists included Newstalk journalist Margaret E Ward; Dr Paul Downes, director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre; Tom Healy, director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI); Ian Power of SpunOut; journalist Sara Burke and Robert Carley of Suicide or Survive.

The panel discussions inspired plenty of delegate contributions to the debate, and each discussion was very well received. In his closing speech, Kevin said that the division’s executive committee (DEC) had wanted to use the opportunity of conference to supplement the usual business of motions and debates, and focus on areas that don’t receive as much attention. This, he said, was “part of a process to help delegates in the formulation of progressive policies and effective strategies.”

IMPACT’s Education Division annual report is available HERE