Teacher Strikes: A Plea for Fairness!

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 9 February 2023
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Teacher Strikes; Collective and Trade Union Issues

Teachers in Northern Ireland are to hold a half-day strike on Tuesday 21st of February. This will be the first strike in over five years. The largest teaching unions, NAS/UWT, UTU and INTO will strike from midnight until midday which will mean many schools will be closed for the morning. The NEU are currently balloting members. This follows the collapse of negotiations which have been going on for over a year between the unions and the employing authorities, The Department of Education and the Education Authority.

The BBC also reports that the NAHT, who represent many school leaders, has written to the employing bodies, the Northern Ireland Secretary and the leaders of the five main political parties urging for negotiations to resolve the pay dispute by the end of the month.

"We have implored you to find a settlement to resolve this dispute," the NAHT letter said.

"Time is running out ahead of planned strike action, and the responsibility and power to solve this rests with you”.

 A majority of members of the NAHT backed strike action in a ballot but the union has said that while it stood "firmly and resolutely behind the strike action being taken by our sister unions," it has decided not to call upon members to strike at this time.  But they too are considering strike action. This type of action across the profession is unprecedented in schools and should serve as an alarm call.

In July 2019 BBC NI Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith reported on the findings of The NI Affairs Committee looking at school funding in the then absence of the Executive. They found that individual school budgets had deteriorated., while the numbers of pupils had risen by 2.5% since 2011 and spending per head on them had decreased. They pointed to the fragmented nature of Northern Ireland's education systems leading to duplication and poor use of resources. They recommended fewer, better resourced schools. The committee also raised concerns about how the EA procures goods and services for schools, saying there is scope for "substantial savings".

In the context of the current strikes now, the committee said then; “that teachers in Northern Ireland have seen their pay "stagnate" compared to their counterparts in the rest of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland and that this was deeply unfair to Northern Ireland's teachers and must be corrected,"

Northern Ireland school funding shortage having 'devastating impact' - BBC News

So, from the employer’s perspective, these budget constraints over successive years have meant that former Education Minister, Michele McIlveen, was struggling to find money to both sustain existing services in schools and fund pay increases for teachers. BBC NI Education Correspondent, Robbie Meredith, again reported in January 2022 that DE Finance Director, Gary Fair, said that teachers' pay settlements - which were currently being negotiated - were at risk.

"As a department we couldn't commit to something like that and I don't think The Minister would be prepared to commit to something like that without a guarantee of funding into future years," he said.

The Association of School and College Leaders Northern Ireland have added their view about the forthcoming action and the current budget situation in education. They stress the fact that the recent decisions by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland  with the financial settlement for 2022/23 represented “a significant real terms cut, and left schools in an impossible position”. ASCL therefore makes the point that any pay award must be fully funded, “as schools simply cannot be left to find money for salaries from already overstretched budgets.”

ASCL NI President, Victor Coert, Principal of Kilkeel High School, also argues that continuing to pay teachers inadequately sends a message to our young people that the work they do is not valued and disincentivises graduates from entering the profession.He made clear that ASCL fully respects the other unions’ legitimate right to take industrial action, aware that teachers would much rather be in the classroom. There is unanimity therefore in the teaching profession of the need to both protect the future of the profession and safeguard the appropriate funding for our public services.

ASCL - ASCL NI calls for fair and fully funded pay award to end industrial dispute

In common with other public service and public utility workers in these difficult times, teachers therefore find themselves faced with the agonising decision of whether to exercise their right to take industrial action to keep pace with changing economic conditions or to accept diminished living standards and perhaps more importantly a new status quo where their role and status and that of schools in which they work are judged to be of lower value to society.

The recent pandemic and cost of living crisis have brought into sharp focus both how much we depend on our public services like health and education, but also how the spending power of our incomes is dependent of the strength of the economy. It is not a new debate about whether we as a society should be taxed more heavily and fund public services better, or go for a low tax, entrepreneurial economy. The fairness and efficiency of our tax system is also worth discussing, given recent news reports of irregularities at high levels of government and the loopholes in some earner’s finances leading to PAYE tax payers ending up shouldering the greater share of the tax burden.

The central point here is that as a society we are not facing up to the new realities, that we need to pay more for the services that we all need to provide both for appropriate living standards in old age and quality care and opportunities for our young people. We also need to take the blame ourselves for electing public representatives who fear losing votes for taking these difficult decisions for us.

We should see these strikes therefore as a plea for fairness in our economy and a call for a more caring society.

This article is correct at 09/02/2023

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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