Students may give up religious instruction in order to gain an advantage in the points race if a controversial Department of Education policy is implemented, according to the Teachers' Union of Ireland.

In February, the Department issued a circular saying that where students exercised their constitutional right not to attend religious instruction, the school would have to provide teaching in an alternative subject from September.

However, at its conference in Wexford, the union today passed a motion saying members will not comply with the department policy to facilitate the withdrawal of students from religious instruction sessions until such time as the resources, which the TUI considered, are provided.

TUI General Secretary John MacGabhann described the policy, which had arrived "out of the blue yonder" without any consultation as extraordinary, ham-fisted, poorly thought out, badly worded, premature and lacking in resources.

He criticised the fact that it would only apply to around 350 ETB schools and community colleges, but not to other educational establishment.

He said there was a suspicion that the Department was opportunistically attempting to throw the burden of providing an environment free of religious instruction on one sector while avoiding a row or confrontation with voluntary or denominational schools.

He said the circular imposed an additional requirement beyond what was constitutionally required, but only in terms of a certain set of schools, and without additional resources - which was like asking schools to shovel sand with a fork.

He said it was also unclear whether the directive related to just religious instruction/faith formation, or whether it also encompassed the exam subject of Religious Education.

He noted that some schools had to deliver around two hours a week of religious instruction - but warned some students could end up opting out in order to enjoy additional instruction in other subjects in order to boost their prospects in the points race.

Mr MacGabhann said the issue was now a matter of urgency as management bodies and timetablers would be facing into this within weeks. 

He acknowledged that Minister for Education Richard Bruton has agreed to meet the union about this matter - but said it was not even clear who would attend those talks. 

TUI hears student threatened to 'kick baby out of' pregnant teacher

A student threatened a pregnant teacher that he would "kick the baby out of her" but was not suspended until three weeks later, TUI delegates heard today.

Teachers have claimed that failure by management to address indiscipline by students was leading to illness among some members due to work-related stress, according to Chair of the Dublin City Branch Audrey Cepada.

Speaking during a debate on health and safety at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland conference in Wexford, Ms Cepada cited a litany of student bad behaviour both verbal and physical.

In one particular incident, a student threatened a pregnant TUI member with "kicking the baby out of her".

Ms Cepada said that while the teacher was concerned about leaving the student in the classroom with other pupils, she felt she had no option but to leave the room.

When the student followed her, she locked herself into a room and phoned for help.

However, the student was not suspended for a further three weeks, which Ms Cepada said would send a message to others witnessing such incidents that there were no immediate consequences for bad behaviour.

She accused management of failing to enforce codes of behaviour and in some instances blaming the teacher, leaving them afraid to admit their illness was due to work-related stress.

Her branch, which represents more than 800 Dublin-based teachers, was planning an anonymous survey to establish the true extent of work-related stress.

The conference passed a motion to investigate the extent of work-related stress due to indiscipline, and how school management deals with it.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Ms Cepeda said an increasing number of teachers are being subjected to aggression, violence, intimidation and bullying.

She added that there is a failure to protect teachers and that teachers do not believe their cases are being dealt with adequately.

TUI General Secretary John MacGabhann stressed that violence in schools was the exception rather than the norm.

However, he noted there were some schools where there was a recurring theme of failure by management to apply procedures and policies that they had set down for themselves.

He said there had been some egregious attacks, some of which would be viewed as requiring legal action.

He said that where schools were not providing a safe environment for teachers, it could clearly be assumed that they were not providing a safe environment for students.

He also said that some inappropriate student behaviour was often sexualised, and shot through with unacceptable misogyny - and was possibly more likely to be targeted at women.

Concern that reformed Junior Cycle are lowering educational standards

Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland members have expressed serious concerns that a new reformed Junior Cycle programme introduced four years ago is lowering educational standards in schools, increasing pressure on students, and failing to engage the very students it aims to help.

A teacher who works in a DEIS or disadvantaged school told the union’s annual conference this morning that while the reforms were touted as geared in particular towards engaging working class boys, that "had not happened". 

Sean O’Neill said teachers were being expected now to educate students for the big corporations, not to educate "the whole person". 

Another teacher spoke of how during training for the new Junior Cycle programme they were told that if a student didn’t "meet expectations" under the programme, then the teacher should change the expectations.

This speaker said this meant "goodbye to national standards". 

Teachers said pupils in DEIS schools especially could not cope with the level of continuous assessment that the new programme entailed.

They said one assessment project every two to three weeks was "too much pressure". Mark Walshe said the literature around the new programme said that "teachers have been freed up, and students have been liberated".

"Do a bit of self-assessment and see if that’s true," he told delegates to laughter in the hall.

Teachers said their concerns centred on improving standards and protecting students.

Separately, the ASTI is to lodge a claim for a 20% pay rise for teachers contracted by the State Examinations Commission to correct papers, examine and assist in other ways in the operation of State exams.

In recent years, the SEC has had increasing difficulty recruiting teachers to correct papers. The rates paid were cut a number of years ago and have not been restored.

Kay Bunce from Kerry told the conference it was high time the SEC started to respect the work of examiners and pay properly for work that she said was "extremely exacting".

She said she was questioning whether she would continue as an SEC examiner.

Delegate Eveline Holderick said she was paid €5.86 for each Junior Cert paper she corrected.

At a rate of three papers per hour, she said she was not even making the minimum wage.

Additional Reporting Emma O Kelly