Teacher unions have a “justifiable demand” for pay equality and the Government is keen to make progress on the issue, Minister for Education Richard Bruton said on Tuesday.
During his address to the second day of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) conference, Mr Bruton faced a packed conference hall of teachers wearing yellow T-shirts demanding “equal pay for equal work” and holding placards urging him to end a system that sees teachers appointed after 2011 placed on a different pay scale than their colleagues.
The protests against the Minister were largely silent and respectful but were occasionally interrupted by a small number of hecklers.
Mr Bruton said the Government would address the issue of pay across all sectors of the public service.
However, speaking after his address, Mr Bruton clarified that this demand must be balanced against other needs in the education system.
“There is €200m of taxpayers’ money to be considered, so negotiations must take place,” he said.
“Starting salaries have been increased, and the pay gap has closed by 75 per cent, so there is goodwill on the side of the Government, but I also have to ensure that this request for equal pay is balanced against the need to make up for a lost decade in education and that the money is managed fairly because resources for children with special needs and increased provision of guidance is important too.”
Responding to the Minister, INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan said insufficient progress had been made in the pay talks - which was why all three teacher unions had rejected the last set of pay proposals.
“The agreement didn’t end pay inequality, show how it would be ended or say when it would be ended. It was a wasted opportunity to draw a line under the pay discrimination that is sapping morale, eroding goodwill and is a major cause of the current teacher shortage in our schools,” Ms Nunan said, adding pay equalisation was the main priority of the union.
Ms Nunan criticised the recent Oireachtas report on pay equality, stating although it addresses an overall costing for moving newer entrants up the pay scale, it does not deal with the “additional, unfair and disproportionate layers of pay cuts imposed on new teachers by a previous minister for finance”.
The three teaching unions - including the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland - are set to debate a joint motion that threatens strike action unless a two-tier pay structure, which affects around 24,000 teachers, is abolished, while negotiations are expected to begin toward the end of April.
During his speech, Mr Bruton also said he was keen for schools to encourage innovation in education and, to this end, was planning to build a number of clusters to help schools work together, including connecting up to 100 schools in creative clusters and helping disadvantaged schools to work together.
Responding to concerns about the crisis in finding substitution teachers, the Minister said he will establish a working group to address the issue and to look at ways of “ensuring teachers are present in the class as much as possible”.
“Part of the reason for the problem is because we have created 5,000 permanent teachers, which is the highest level of recruiting in the history of the State,” he said.
Mr Bruton also spoke about reforming how relationship and sexuality education (RSE) is delivered in schools, promising the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment will review “all aspects” of the programme.
However, he would not indicate a time frame for how long the review would take. “The challenges facing young people have changed significantly since the curriculum was introduced 20 years. Society has moved on too; new laws frame consent, and the marriage referendum was passed.”
At present, schools are free to deliver the RSE curriculum according to their ethos or “characteristic spirit”, meaning they can frame RSE in a strictly Catholic ethos, but Mr Bruton clarified this will also be considered as part of the overall review.