Saturday 23 February 2019

Maeve Hurrell: 'You can't put somebody at front-of-house for 28 years, then tell them they didn't make the grade'

Maeve Hurrell (65) has worked for 28 years as a secretary at North Dublin National School Project (NDNSP). She lives in Blanchardstown with her husband, Terry, and they have two sons - Eoin (33) and Cormac (31)

Maeve Hurrell. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Maeve Hurrell. Photo: Steve Humphreys

I get up at 6.40am. I feed the dog, and then I'll pack my lunch. I get dressed, have a cup of coffee, and then I'll leave for work at 7.15am.

I live in Blanchardstown with my husband, Terry, and our son, Cormac. Our older son, Eoin, lives with his lovely girlfriend, Lisa. Cormac is 31, and he has an intellectual disability, and he is autistic. He loves people, and he is very good at lots of things, but he is at home all day because he has nothing to do. We need a five-day service, a reason for him to get out of bed in the morning. We got the dog especially for Cormac, and he has been great for him.

I often think that if Terry and I had an accident tomorrow, the dog would be taken care of; there is a system for taking your dog into care, but there isn't a system for taking your child into care. Terry is at home with Cormac all day. At least I get to go out to work.

I arrive in the school at the same time as Anita, a special needs assistant (SNA). I open up and switch on everything, and then we go for a quick walk in the park. We chat about our families and anything that is going on. It's a good routine. It means you are wound down before you start work. Then I have my breakfast.

I'm the secretary in a primary school called North Dublin National School Project (NDNSP). It was the first multi-denominational school on the north side of Dublin. It opened in 1984. I read an article about it and I liked the sound of it. I wanted my boys to be educated with girls, because that was not the norm back then. I used to drive in from Swords to the school in Glasnevin.

In 1992, when Eoin was in senior infants, there was a vacancy for a school secretary, so I applied and I got the job. I'd never been a secretary before. I'd worked in the public libraries, I'd done some psychiatric nursing, and I worked on the telephone exchange. But I always dealt with people. NDNSP is a very special place.

People think that a secretary sits at a desk, but school secretaries are different. Most days, I don't sit down. A child might have fallen on the way into school, so you deal with that. For the most part, parents are in a hurry because they have to go to do their day's work. Then a teacher might want something photocopied. The day can start off very hectic. Then things tend to settle down.

You might have planned to go through the school's bank account, but then a child who is sick has to come down to the office. I love kids. Sometimes children are in a room with 30 other people and they don't want to be there for a few minutes. So the office is a refuge for them.

I do a lot of paperwork, but my job is also about looking after people's needs. I wipe wounds, I take temperatures. If I see a child coming with an ailment, the first thing I say is: 'Don't worry. I know exactly what to do in this situation'. That's all a child needs to know. I always think, 'If this was my child, what would I do?'

I remember a girl outside a class absolutely heartbroken because she had swallowed her tooth. She was worried that the tooth fairy wouldn't come. I said, 'Come in here and I'll write a letter to the tooth fairy. I know him well'.

I have half of my break with the teachers and half of my break with the SNAs. Teachers are with small people all day, so it's nice to have adult company.

The most awful thing is to tell somebody that you don't have a place for their child. I hate doing it, because I know what it's like. I really feel for the parents.

The principal, Ruth, is wonderful, and she has brought lots of new changes to the school. My work is different now, more computerised. I wasn't savvy with computers, but she trusted me to do it. At my age, I've acquired new skills. Who knew that you could send a text to 400 people at the same time? The staff are great, and we all look out for each other.

I really enjoy my job, but I'm very sad that I will end my working life on the dole. I am due to retire after 28 years here. I will receive my wages on June 30, and then, on July 1, I have to sign on the dole for five weeks until I reach the age of 66. Then I will get the old-age pension, but no lump sum and no pension for my work. It's like I didn't work. Yet I'm the longest-serving staff member.

School secretaries are either employed by the Department of Education or by the board of management. I belong to the latter group; we are employed by the board and paid out of a grant. When I started, the board picked a [pay] scale for me, and I'm forever grateful to them for that. The school has always been very good to me within the parameters that they can be good to me. But it's not like the scale that a Department of Education secretary would get after 28 years.

It's very upsetting for me. It's not about the money, but the injustice of it. You can't put somebody at front-of-house for 28 years and then tell them that they didn't make the grade.

After work, I come home and have coffee with Terry. Then I make the dinner, and walk the dog. Some days, Cormac will come for the walk, too.

I have fantastic neighbours and friends. I'm in a book club, too. I'm like my father, a doer, and I'm very blessed that I'm that way. If I see a problem, I try to fix it. I'm lucky that at my age, I'm still developing in work. It's a lovely pace, and when I have to leave, I'm going to miss it dreadfully.

When I go to bed, I sleep well. I have three books on the go, and I love listening to books on Audible. It takes me back to the days when we just had the radio. I come from a time when we didn't even have a phone. Life has changed an awful lot, and I'm lucky to have embraced it.

forsa.ie/support-our-secretaries-campaign

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

SOS - Support Our Secretaries. To sign the petition to demand fair conditions for all school secretaries, see website below

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