'Give us a pledge to restore teacher pay equality'
If school chaos is to be avoided, ASTI president says the union and the Department of Education must show that they can trust each other, writes Katherine Donnelly
A government promise to restore pay equality for new teachers would go a long way to sorting out the row threatening schools chaos from this week, according to secondary teachers' leader, Ed Byrne.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, the 57-year-old geography and business studies teacher also spoke of the need for the sides to trade "trust building measures" in order to smooth the path for peace.
He asked if, for instance, the union was prepared to suspend its threatened withdrawal from supervision and substitution for a period of time, would the Department temporarily lift the sanction that is preventing his young members from getting long-term contracts.
The first in a series of one-day strikes by the Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) members will close more than two in three second-level schools - about 500 in all - on Thursday.
Most second-level schools also face the prospect of indefinite closure after mid-term, as ASTI members withdraw from supervision and substitution work, in the second leg of their pay campaign.
ASTI leaders are meeting Department of Education officials today, but, Mr Byrne has expressed little optimism that Thursday's stoppage could be averted.
"We are a long way apart on the new entrants' pay," Mr Byrne, who teaches at Coláiste Choilm, Swords, Co Dublin, told the Irish Independent.
On that issue of new entrant salaries, Mr Byrne said what the ASTI needed was a commitment to, and a timeline for pay equalisation, in other words, all teachers to be back on the same scale.
"We haven't heard a statement from the Government or the Department of Education that suggests this is something they are seeking to do," he said.
But, if they had such a commitment, "we would be able to go in and say to people, 'it is proving impossible to get all this back straight away, however, we do have a timeline and we do have a statement from Government that is something they see merit in and intend doing', that might be something that would be worthwhile."
The ASTI president said they "fully understood that full restoration was going to take time, and, while we would like it as quickly as possible it wasn't the imperative.
"We have never said we are going to strike for immediate restoration of pay.
"We did say we wanted pay equalisation."
Mr Byrne said a commitment on pay equalisation "would probably create the ground from which everything else could grow.
The ASTI president separates the losses experienced by new entrants from the general 10pc cut suffered by public servants, including teachers, which, he said could be dealt by a different mechanism.
A recent deal with the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) represented a breakthrough with the restoration of the qualifications allowance, worth €135,000 to individual teachers over a lifetime.
Mr Byrne acknowledges that, in that deal, "the Department of Education has come some way along the road but it wasn't in the Lansdowne Road Agreement (LRA) and it was one of the reasons ASTI members voted against."
The LRA started the process of pay restoration in the public service.
In any event, the ASTI president said it left a pay shortfall of €111,000 over the lifetime of a new teacher, when compared with more senior colleagues, mainly arising from the axing of a HDip allowance.
"You can't be a little bit equal, that is the problem; pay equality is what we are looking for," he said.
Last week, the TUI submitted a claim for restoration of the HDip allowance using normal industrial relations machinery - the Teachers' Conciliation Council.
Schools, and many parents and pupils, are now braced for Thursday's stoppage, but what is causing even more concern is the threat that more than 500 schools will not re-open after the mid-term break on Monday November 7.
That is the day ASTI members are threatening to withdraw from supervision and substitution as part of their wider pay dispute.
While the issue of pay for new entrants is a particular focus, the ASTI and the Government are also involved in a "tit for tat" campaign arising from the union's rejection of the LRA.
The ASTI insists that the reversal of certain austerity-era measures should not have been contingent on accepting the LRA, but the Department of Education takes a different view.
It has led to the situation where the Department is excluding ASTI members from the benefits of the LRA, including not paying €796 this year for supervision and substitution work, and reducing the amount of time new teachers would have to wait for a contract of indefinite duration (CID), as recommended in the Ward Report.
That, in turn, has triggered the threatened withdrawal from supervision and substitution.
Mr Byrne said the Government was using emergency legislation to punish teachers. Leaving that legislation in place meant it was not a level playing field in industrial relations, he said.
With two weeks to go to November 7, can Mr Byrne hold out any hope of a resolution?
He is keen not to second-guess his executive, but suggests that if each side made a gesture it could create the right conditions.
"If we were to decide on some temporary arrangement, if we were to throw in supervision and substitution for a short time, would the Department be willing to throw in Ward Report.
"That would be something that can show we can work together and trust each other."