O’Sullivan says teachers ‘need to be realistic’ in pay claim

‘We make no apology for looking for our money back’ - INTO general secretary

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan says teachers “need to be realistic” about the Government’s capacity to restore the pay losses of the austerity era. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan says teachers “need to be realistic” about the Government’s capacity to restore the pay losses of the austerity era. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan says teachers “need to be realistic” about the Government’s capacity to restore the pay losses of the austerity era.

In an address to the INTO primary teachers’ conference in Ennis, the Minister said the pay talks later this year “will focus in the first place on the gradual unwinding of the emergency measures implemented under the FEMPI Acts.

“I have no doubt that the next agreement will see gains for your members. But we will need to be realistic about how much can be delivered immediately.

“In just one year, we can never hope to deliver improvements to all of the areas in education, including public pay, that need additional investment.”

She highlighted other budgetary pressures, including the impact of growing student populations at primary and post-primary levels.

Acknowledging a problem with overcrowding in many schools, she said “reducing class sizes will be a personal and political priority for me during 2015”.

While the Minister’s reference to “realistic” expectations drew groans from the audience, her speech was warmly received overall and was led to ovation that lasted close to one minute – a stark contrast to the reception afforded to her predecessor Ruairí Quinn.

Asked by reporters later whether she believed the full restoration of pay was unrealistic, she replied: “I’m not really flagging anything in detail at this point because the negotiations haven’t started yet.”

Despite her appeals, a motion from the INTO seeking the full payment of salary increases agreed under the Towards 2016 social partnership agreement was passed.

So too was a motion calling for the payment of benchmarking increases and the immediate reinstatement of qualification allowances.

The INTO also agreed to begin discussions with other public service unions “in order to devise a united campaign of action in pursuit of pay restoration and an end to the pension levy”.

INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan said teachers were entitled to pay restorations after donning “the green jersey” through eight years of austerity.

In her address to congress, she called for the payment of a benchmarking award to primary principals and deputy principals which had never materialised, “despite a similar award being paid to higher civil servants and others”.

She also warned that starting salaries were slipping behind private sector norms, claiming that primary teachers earned 80 per cent of similarly qualified graduates.

“It’s time to restore pay levels so that primary teachers are paid their worth” and to avoid “an attrition to other graduate professions”.

“We make no apology for looking for our money back”, she added to loud applause. “And if the price of standing up for all of these is being attacked by right wing neo-liberal, well-heeled, conservative, commentariat then so be it.”

Ms Nunan then drew a standing ovation when she condemned a newspaper columnist who had “the cheek to say we do not have the right to restoration”.

She confirmed afterwards she was referring to an article by Cliff Taylor in The Irish Times.

INTO president Sean McMahon also referred to the “unpaid debt to principals and deputy principals” under the benchmarking scheme, and also criticised the “recent assault” on public servants earning over €65,000.

The Minister acknowledged teacher salaries were “the biggest issue” for unions this year, and they were “worthy of greater funding”, she said. But so too were capitation grants, middle management posts, book rental schemes, and investment in technology.

After several years of cuts, she pointed out that there was a €110 million increase in the education budget this year compared to 2014. Spending on special needs education has also risen from €800 million in 2008 to €1.3 billion in 2015.

Addressing policy priorities, the Minister announced details of the long-awaited Admission to Schools Bill, while also committing the Government to bringing forward legislation to abolish Section 37.1 of the Employment Equality Act “over the next couple of months”.

The section allows religious patrons to discriminate in employment practices where it believes it is necessary to safeguard the ethos of their institutions.

Ms O’Sullivan said, “I am disappointed and frustrated that we have not yet enacted an amendment to this legislation. In the Programme for Government, we made a clear commitment to the removal of such discrimination.

“This legislation is being advanced by my colleague, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and I know that drafting is progressing in conjunction with the Attorney General. I know this is a major issue for your members, and it is a major issue for me too.”

As to how far the legislation would go, the Minister told reporters “my understanding it will be amending rather than appealing” Section 37.1 but this would be enough to eliminate any discrimination.

She noted that the INTO LGBT teachers group was invited to Áras an Uachtaráin last year, in recognition of their work over the past decade.

“To our collective shame, on a day that should have been such a proud one for all involved, some of your members still felt unable to be filmed for television or to have their photo taken with the President on this happy occasion.”