TEACHERS are battling to keep the right to claim back holidays if they overlap with a period of maternity leave.
The Government faces a landmark High Court challenge to the controversial changes to maternity leave at schools, which have been branded "an attack on female teachers".
Teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) can currently claim up to 30 days in lieu if their maternity leave overlaps with school holidays.
But as of May 1, Labour Day, new rules come into force which remove that right and this has sparked anger among teachers.
But Education Minister Ruairi Quinn told them they could not expect to enjoy exceptional rights that workers in other sectors could not avail of.
"This arrangement, which is not available to other public servants or private sector workers, is to be ended," he said.
The Labour TD also insisted that the measure was vital to achieve cost-savings and maintain existing teacher numbers.
Mr Quinn said the cost to the department of covering such maternity and sick-leave absences in 2011-12 was over €20m.
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) is urging female members to support a High Court test case to challenge the new regulations.
INTO official Mary Magner revealed that the union had already received senior counsel advice that the changes may be in breach of both the Maternity Rights Act (2000) and the Employment Equality Act (2011).
Helena Teehan, a teacher from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, said the changes represented a huge backward step for Ireland, adding: "This change was clearly made without the needs of mothers and babies in mind."
Limerick teacher and mother-of-four Tracie Tobin said the changes would have enormous implications for women working in the classroom.
"This is a direct attack on female teachers. We, as a country, are going backwards and not forwards," she said.
Blanchardstown teacher Alma Brady, who is expecting a child in July, said the changes were "blatantly anti-woman and anti-family."
Ireland's provision of 26 weeks' paid maternity leave ranks as one of the lowest within the EU.
By contrast, the UK provides 52 weeks with declining pay rates, Sweden provides 16 months, Estonia provides 18 months and both Norway and Finland allow 56 weeks.
The Government said the maternity leave changes would save €11m this year and €20m in 2014.
INTO central executive committee member Margaret Bernard said that the union would vigorously fight the changes.
The INTO unanimously voted to oppose the changes and will now support a series of test cases taken by members whose maternity entitlements are impacted after May 1.