Schools ‘dipping into’ allocation for secretaries to pay rising bills

Most school secretaries are still paid out of grants that school boards can use at their discretion

As delegates at Forsa’s biennial conference in Killarney discussed the closely-related issues of pay and inflation on Thursday, representatives of the country’s roughly 4,000 school secretaries suggested people in the sector are being hit not once but twice by the cost of living crisis.

Delegates to the event led by branch chairperson Luisa Carty said that apart from having their already low pay eroded by the sudden spike in the price of just about everything, they are also having to cope with the consequences of schools needing to meet higher bills for energy and other supplies.

With most school secretaries still paid out of grants to the schools that boards of management can use at their discretion, some are said to have been making ends meet by cutting hours for administrators to free up some funds.

“A grant which is supposed to pay for school secretary and caretaker, that’s totally what’s dipped into it,” says Ms Carty who works at a school in Galway.

This latest squeeze comes just a matter of months after the workers and their union won a very significant victory in what had been a long running campaign for better pay and conditions.

In March, Forsa announced that a deal had been struck to transfer the payment of all remaining school secretaries to the Department of Education, something that that will involve many of them receiving holiday pay and other benefits for the first time.

Up until now it has been common in the sector for the workers, almost all women, to have to sign on outside of school terms. Even under the terms of the new, improved deal, however, a school secretary with up to 10 years of service will earn just €13 an hour.

Ms Carty says that on a recent tour of schools around the country, they found colleagues working for as little as €9 per hour and women who worked small numbers of hours in as many as four different schools each week, receiving four different rates of pay.

Rena McGrath points out that she and fellow delegate Orla Greaney work side by side at the same Gort community school but enjoy very different terms.

“I’m department appointed and the department pays the school to pay me. She [Orla] does the exact [same] duties but but she is granted-funded so they give a grant to the school and it is at the discretion of the board of management what they choose to do with that grant.”

Access to pension

Ms McGrath says their school is one of the better ones as each of its school secretaries get the same rate of pay “but Orla should be on the same terms as me. But she doesn’t have access to sick leave, she doesn’t have access to a pension, she doesn’t have access to any of the conditions that I have to and neither do many other school secretaries.”

The case of Noreen O’Callaghan was highlighted during the campaign for an improvement to the sector’s terms and conditions by the National Principals’ Forum which tweeted a picture of the school secretary with all of the rest of the staff while highlighting the important difference between her and the rest.

“There are 40 staff at the school and I’m the longest member of staff there now and I’m the only person with no pension, no sick pay and I have to sign on every summer. The principal retired and got his lump sum and I worked with him for 22 of those years but get nothing.”

All give credit to the union for the campaign it fought on their behalf and the successful conclusion it achieved but they are still awaiting the implementation of the deal agreed in late March. There is some scepticism as to whether all the changes will be complete at the start of the new school year. In the meantime, it seems, many are destined for a final summer on the dole, just as inflation bites.

And though the new terms will be welcomed, they say local factors can make a big difference. One of the group, Anita O’Reilly, had the good fortune not so long back that her school was transferred to an Education and Training Board.

The change of control took six years to complete but ultimately meant an automatic change to her grade and, in turn, a very substantial pay rise along with public service status.

It is just another anomaly of a rather irregular system, she says, but one of the more welcome ones.