Norma in Paris as teaching career break bombshell leaves Opposition flabbergasted

Department attempts to clear up confusion as to whether the Minister for Education plans to abolish herself

Gary Gannon was in no mood to be impressed by the Government. It was the last thing on his mind.

But, goddamit, had he been wearing a hat he would have whipped it off and twirled it in the direction of Norma Foley’s empty pew.

The Social Democrat TD for Dublin Central was listed to close Wednesday’s debate on his party’s motion calling for urgent action to reverse the growing shortage of teachers in primary and secondary schools. They also suggested a range of solutions to help alleviate the situation.

Gary, and all the other Opposition speakers, called it a crisis.


Ministers of State Josepha Madigan and Niall Collins talked about “challenges”.

Foley, the Minister for Education, was unable to attend as she was at a conference in Paris. How lovely.

Norma in Paris.

In the olden days, Audrey Hepburn would have played her in the inevitable movie about a feisty ingénue minister on a career break in The City of Light. Cinema insiders are tipping a meticulously fringed Jessie Buckley to take on the title role.

Before she departed, Norma left behind a trail of distraction for the benefit of her junior colleagues who would have to deal with the discussion on dwindling teachers.

It would not be enough for them to say ‘You want urgent action? Try dealing with that shower in Marlborough Street first and then come back to us’ or ‘It’s not our fault. Talk to Darragh O’Brien, he’s in charge of housing’. Although that more or less sums up the position.

When the Soc Dems motion popped up, the Government appeared to suffer a moment of panic. It’s bad enough having to constantly firefight on the rent and housing front without getting walloped on top of it with an undoubted crisis in education. It may be the same in health, but at least where that’s concerned they can blame everything on Stephen Donnelly, which might be unfair but it’s convenient.

And so on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, on the eve of the debate, the Government gently leaked. Out of the blue, there was talk of an “incorporeal” Cabinet meeting in the offing with ministers to be briefed over the phone on matters relating to a Dáil Private Members’ motion.

Incorporeals used to be exciting, when issues such as the country going down the tubes needed to be addressed immediately and a top civil servant telephoned drowsy ministers to inform them of what watershed decisions the Taoiseach and select others had made on their behalf.

Now, it seems they are called to rubber stamp a means of sidestepping embarrassing situations.

In the nick of time, Norma was able to advise Cabinet colleagues on a range of new actions planned or under serious consideration to bring the staffing problem under control. These initiatives are provisionally in the pipeline in a definitely, maybe, kind of way.

Top of these half-baked bright ideas was the wheeze that career breaks may possibly be suspended or restricted, forcing teachers to remain in the workforce. Norma’s leaked notion was relayed to the education correspondents and read online by incandescent Opposition TDs and teachers’ unions representatives who began explaining why this might not be the smartest of moves.

They shot the suggestion down in a volley of soundbites and statements that grabbed the headlines and near-smothered the Soc Dems Dáil set-piece on the unfolding crisis.

And the best thing of all – you couldn’t make this up – the best thing of all is that Norma herself is currently on a career break from her teaching position in Killarney.

Later in the chamber, when the permanently astonished and appalled Mary Lou McDonald declared herself “gobsmacked” at this news, it wasn’t difficult to believe she really meant it this time.

Was Norma proposing to abolish herself, we wondered?

But back to Gary and all his good work on his party’s proposals aimed at easing the shortage, only to be bounced by a hop ball from Kerry.

After a lively debate, he stood to make his closing remarks.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about Norma’s wheeze.

“Well, I have to be honest,” he boggled, totally bowled over. “It was ... It was some stroke, wasn’t it? It was almost a stroke of monumental proportions!”

He explained how his party’s motion was put together after much consultation with schools and parents around the country, leading to around 11 suggestions on how the teacher supply problem could be eased to some degree.

“And then late last night, at an incorporeal meeting that wasn’t on the agenda” and with the Minister for Education unable to answer questions the next day because she is abroad on business “we hear the solution that’s come forth from the Government”.

Gary could scarcely believe it.

“It’s going to be career breaks.”

Career breaks?

“That wasn’t even designed to be a solution. It was designed to evade and it was designed to dilute the narrative and to put the spotlight back on to teachers, as if somehow they are being duplicitous for having the audacity to take a career break to look after their families ... or, heaven forbid, maybe have to go off so they can afford the rent that they can’t afford in this city and around Ireland.”

Gary shook his head. “I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised but even I was shocked, as, indeed, were the schools who have contacted all of us over the last 12 hours.”

Rather than talking about salaries or conditions, the Government comes up with career breaks. “Monumental,” he marvelled again. “Incredible.”

How many teachers “will this measure that has captured attention” bring back into the system in the next few months?

“Not one. Not one. It does nothing to address the shortages of staff in our schools.”

He implored Niall Collins, “who I appreciate is here by himself”, to do something rather than the usual Coalition thing of “sitting here and diluting the waters, doing what we always do, and saying that it’s not the Government’s fault and it’s those pesky teachers taking career breaks.”

Niall let the diluted waters wash over him.

“Ludicrous,” fulminated Gary. “It’s shameful and it’s a sad reflection of this Government. No accountability, no solutions, scrambling for ideas at the last minute and offering nothing but blame. It’s scandalous.”Anyway, just to clear up any confusion over Norma’s situation and whether she intends to abolish herself for the sake of the children, the Department of Education finally dropped a statement on Wednesday afternoon.

“Minister Foley is on a career break and is cognisant that career breaks are used for a variety of valid reasons such as family care or to avail of other professional opportunities. It is important to note that there are no proposals on the table to eliminate career breaks but rather to evaluate current non-statutory leave, and to consider whether temporary and modest amendments to these leave schemes could support teacher supply. No decision has been made or will be made without consultation with the partners in education.”

A diversionary heap of incorporeal nothingness, by the sounds of it.

Worked a treat.