Wednesday 13 December 2017

200,000 students left in dark about when they can go back to school

Disappointed: Richard Bruton Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Disappointed: Richard Bruton Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Katherine Donnelly and Cormac McQuinn

Education chaos continues today as about 500 second-level schools are forced to shut because of a one-day strike by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI).

About 400 of those schools face the prospect of indefinite closure because of a withdrawal from supervision and substitution duties by ASTI members.

About 250,000 students are locked out of school because of today's action, and 200,000 of those have no idea when they will return to the classroom.

It is causing major headaches for working parents, who have to make alternative arrangements for their children's care.

Some schools opened yesterday for selected classes, such as third and sixth years, and with no sign of a breakthrough, more are considering their options about opening on a partial basis.

However, school management bodies are concerned that if the dispute is protracted and parents become more frustrated, it would be difficult to restrict entry to particular pupils, which would immediately raise issues about health and safety.

ASTI members turned up at schools yesterday to report for duties other than supervision and substitution, but most found themselves locked out because the schools were shut on health and safety grounds.

Most schools have not had enough time to recruit external supervisors to replace ASTI members in this work, while the union also refused to allow ASTI principals to help make such arrangements.

ASTI teachers in schools that close because of withdrawal from supervision and substitution are off the payroll, but if the school manages to remain open, ASTI members will get paid.

An Education Department spokesperson said the issue of pay deductions for ASTI member in schools that opened on a partial basis "will be considered having regard to the circumstances of each case".

Contacts are continuing between senior Education Department officials and ASTI leaders, but both sides are holding firm to their position.

While today's one-day strike - the second on a series of seven before Christmas - is about seeking restoration of pay equality for new teachers, the indefinite withdrawal from supervision and substitution is linked to the ASTI's refusal to continue to work the 33 Croke Park productivity hours - one hour a week.

The ASTI has rejected the Lansdowne Road Agreement (LRA) and claims the onus to work the 33 hours ended with its predecessor, the Haddington Road Agreement. Because they are refusing to work the hours, the benefits of the LRA are not being applied to ASTI members, which triggered their decision to withdraw from supervision and substitution.

Education Minister Richard Bruton said it was "bitterly disappointing that this dispute, which is about working one hour a week in the 33 weeks that teachers are working, has led to the closures".

Read More: 'It's become a lock-out,' say teachers

Responding to accusations that he was responsible for "locking out" teachers, he said the opening of schools was a matter for school authorities.

"The reason most of them are in an impossible position and cannot open the schools is because the ASTI decided that they will not allow the principal cooperate with the deployment of other staff to do supervision and substitution," he said.

ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie said Mr Bruton had raised a "red herring" and said the Croke Park hours issue was an "entirely separate issue from supervision and substitution".

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny took a swipe at the ASTI industrial action by saying it "doesn't help" as the country tried to respond to Brexit.

Mr Kenny also warned against a "loosening of the purse strings" amid growing industrial strife.

Irish Independent

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