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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 10 Apr 1986

Vol. 365 No. 3

Adjournment Debate. - Teachers' Pay Dispute.

Deputies O'Rourke and De Rossa have been given permission to raise on the Adjournment the matter of the teachers' strike and I presume they have agreed to divide the 20 minutes between them.

Proinsias de Rossa

I should like to thank the Minister for coming here this evening in response to our request for an Adjournment debate. Clearly this dispute between the Government, as the employer, and the teachers' unions will have to be settled at some stage by negotiation. The dispute has clearly reached an impasse and some initiative is required if the pupils, teachers, parents and the Department are not to suffer the continued inconvenience of the dispute and perhaps a further escalation of it. The one gesture which could break the log jam is the appointment of a mediator. The teachers have accepted the need for that kind of approach. Parents have supported the call and the school managers have agreed to it. The Roman Catholic Hierarchy have suggested it and various Government back benchers have acknowledged that it is the best chance of getting the dispute resolved. It is clear that the only people who have refused to consider it are the Government, the other party to the dispute. Why is that the case? Surely it must be possible to get the parties concerned around the table. The Government must be aware by now that a large number of individuals, State bodies and institutions are ready and willing to fulfil the role of mediator.

It has to be said that the intervention on Monday night by the former Minister for Education, Deputy Hussey, was, to say the least, destructive. It is unfortunate that she should have intervened in the way she did. Experience in the past and reaction to what she had to say on Monday indicates that she only serves to exacerbate the situation. It is in no way helpful. It strengthens the impression I have heard expressed that in some way she has a right of veto over some settlement in the dispute. It would be unfortunate if that were the case and I would ask the Minister to clarify the position.

We are nearing the point of no return in this dispute. Despite the impression given by the media, the teachers' unions have not decided to boycott the summer examinations. They have decided to ballot their members on the possibility of carrying out such a boycott and these ballots will be held at the end of this month. A serious effort must be made to end the dispute now before the ballots are taken and the die is cast. The Minister's decision to advertise for supervisors and examiners was pre-emptive and unfortunate. As I understand it, the teachers applied in the normal way last January to carry out this work and as far as I know there have been no withdrawals of applications. It is unfortunate that the advertisements were placed at this point before a decision was made in relation to the examinations.

It has to be stressed time and again that teachers are responsible and reasonable people. They are still considered to be the pillars of our society. We entrust them with the care and education of our children. They have always carried out that task responsibly. They have made it clear that they do not take industrial action lightly, as history will show. They are not interested in any sort of triumphalism or political victory over this Government. It is not a political battle; it is an industrial dispute between the Government as employer and the teachers. The teachers clearly feel there is a principle involved in honouring the arbitrator's award and I believe they have a strong case in that regard. They have been extremely flexible in their approach and in outlining what they are prepared to accept in relation to the implementation of that award. They have adopted a generous stance and the Government should respond generously by agreeing at this point to the appointment of a mediator from among any of the large number of agencies which exist to serve that function, or some private individual who may be willing to make himself or herself available in that role. I would stress again that the purpose is to get negotiations going and to avoid a situation where teachers at the end of the month will be balloting as a result of a refusal to mediate. That can only be disastrous for the teachers, pupils, parents and the education system itself.

The teachers have a unique responsibility. By and large we have placed on their shoulders a very heavy load of work. We have not always provided them with the tools to do that work. The working conditions of many teachers are very poor. We have the highest pupil-teacher ratio in Europe. One in every four primary schools has prefabricated classrooms. One in every ten such schools does not have any drinking water and three in every four do not have a telephone. Clearly the working conditions in many schools are not great. The resources to keep schools going are not adequate, certainly in my constituency. Teachers, often out of their own pocket, provide funds to buy equipment for schools in certain areas. There is no question about the dedication of these people to their pupils. It is extremely unfortunate that the Government have taken this hard line on this issue. It is clear from the teachers' conferences and from various statements made before and since that they are more than willing to sit down with the Government to discuss ways in which this retrospection can be paid and phased in. It is extraordinary that the Government have not yet taken up that offer and I appeal to the Minister to do so. The only way out seems to be the appointment of a mediator and the Government should actively seek that solution.

I thank the Chair and Deputy De Rossa for the equitable way we have shared the time available. I also thank the Minister for coming to listen to our case. When the debate on this issue took place in this House on 4 February I warned that if the matter was not resolved there would be educational chaos in the months ahead. It gave me no joy to do so but I felt it my duty to say that the pointers relating to the issue that lay ahead on that day were not auspicious. This situation has now occurred because of the intransigence mostly on one side of this debate. Over the past weeks the teachers have indicated that they are available and willing to talk, with or without a mediator. The teachers wish for meaningful talks with the Government parties. I have attended teachers conferences over the last months and have talked at length with many teachers, parents, parents groups and friends who are deeply interested in the State examinations this summer. There is deep apprehension among students and parents about the examinations. This is not helped by the dogged attitude which the Government are taking on this issue.

During the last term at school a student should have a period of calm to study and prepare for the examinations. Students need time to collect themselves and revise their work under the firm guidance of teachers as they are embarking on the culmination of the post primary, second level years at school. It is extremely disturbing for them that the Government are insisting on a war of attrition by steadfastly refusing to meet the teachers or their representatives to break through this impasse. As a former teacher I am extremely worried about the validity of the examinations, not in the supervision of them but in the correction and validation of those examinations were the papers not to be corrected by practising teachers, particularly at leaving certificate level.

By not agreeing to talk the Government have failed in their duty to the electorate. A point which has been steadfastly ignored is that the teachers have agreed to hold a ballot at the end of April as to whether or not they will carry out examination duties. Because everybody seems to accept that the teachers have already agreed to boycott it should be made clear that the matter has yet to be resolved. Because of the short time available before the ballot it is incumbent on every public representative and on everybody interested in education to make every effort to solve this problem. People are very anxious about the future of education. The short term implications for education are damaging but they are nothing to the long term damage that will be done to education if this constant warfare continues. Those interested in education should be considering matters such as the curriculum and examinations board, the transition year, the cross over between training and education, the Green Paper on Education and its translation into a White Paper and then into legislation and so on instead of being caught up in this horrendous impasse. I appeal to the Minister and the Government to reflect and consider what brinkmanship brings to education: it brings nothing. It is a barren non-productive tenet ill-suited to education. Brinkmanship is a game constantly associated with politics but it should not be brought into the sensitive important issue of education as it affects many young people. The young people do not want to know about brinkmanship; they want to know if they will be sitting their examinations in the summer. Students are seriously worried about the outcome of the State examinations. They are uncertain, confused and filled with tension at a time when they should be calmly studying, preparing for their exams.

As Deputy De Rossa pointed out, in relation to education generally we have the worst pupil/teacher ratio in Europe and we have huge problems in education because of the huge numbers going through the system. We have the lowest per capita spending on education in Europe at present because of the huge numbers in education. Teachers have coped magnificantly with all of that and they are willing to cope in the same splendid fashion with the difficulties that will beset them in the months and years ahead. While this warfare is going on between teachers and their employers it is difficult to make any advances in many of the causes which must be tackled. Education is not suited to all these tensions. It should proceed at a regular pace with correct decisions being taken, with reflection and with consensus.

The Deputy has one minute.

The teachers are ready and willing to participate in talks with the Government. Is the Minister willing and ready to participate with the teachers in talks? If the shadow of a past Minister hangs over these talks, it should be lifted immediately.

The Minister has ten minutes to respond.

As I have only ten minutes to respond I had better be succinct because a lot of issues have been raised by the two speakers on the other side. For the information of the Deputies opposite, if not for the people outside, I will have to restate the present position and how it arose. One would think that this House had not passed a motion some weeks ago on this very issue and following a lengthy and comprehensive debate. The Government moved to modify the arbitrator's award. They moved in accordance with the terms of the conciliation and arbitration scheme, terms which have been in existence since 1973 and which were agreed by all the parties to that scheme, including the teachers' unions. There has been an effort by the teachers' unions to suggest that in some way the arbitration principle has been breached or that the Government were not entitled to take the action they took. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Government acted strictly within the terms of the conciliation and arbitration scheme. There is no question of their being in breach of that scheme.

In accordance with the terms of the scheme, Dáil Éireann modified the arbitrator's award, modified it as to the phasing of the 10 per cent awarded by the arbitrator and that is the present position. This Parliament of which the two Deputies opposite are Members modified that award by a majority vote and in a democracy that binds everyone in the House. That, then, is the present parliamentary, legal and factual position. Arbitration is not binding and I am sure that the trade unions, including the teacher unions would not wish the collective bargaining mechanism to be more binding. That has never been the case and no one has ever urged that it be the case.

The teachers' unions have refused to accept the will of this Parliament. They are insisting on being paid, albeit in some undefined way, the arbitrator's award retrospective to the original date of the award. Since that award has been modified by the Dáil it is no longer an issue and should be accepted in that light.

I would remind the Deputies that, regardless of when the award is paid, the cost to the taxpayer will be £110 million. I was interested to hear both Deputies plead eloquently for capital expenditure for our schools. A sum of £110 million would go a long way in that direction as well as towards many other elements of education.

Another common theme between the two Deputies has been the question of a mediator. This call is made in the context that the Government will not enter into talks. As recently as last Sunday I said clearly, in the course of a radio interview, that I was at the end of a telephone at any time the teachers' unions might wish to contact me. I would remind both Deputies also that since my appointment I have met the teachers' unions on two occasions and that on the last occasion, regretfully, we had to issue a statement to the effect that there were fundamental disagreements between us. I am still prepared to meet the teachers any time they may wish to meet me. If the Deputies reckon that that is what mediation is about, I wish to reassure them that I am available to meet the teachers. I have said so publicly and I am reiterating it here. A mediator might have some relevance if there was confusion as to the issues or if it was necessary to clarify issues but the issues in this instance are particularly clear. They were clarified in no less a place than this House but so far as a mediator is linked by the two Deputies with the question of talks I merely wish to say that I am at the end of a telephone any time the teachers may wish to speak to me.

On the question of examinations I accept that, like everyone else here and outside, the Deputies are concerned. However, I must make the point that this is a political Chamber and that it is not unknown for Deputies to come here to make political points. I would have been happier with the bona fides of the Deputies opposite if their concern for the pupils who are facing the leaving certificate examination had extended to the two Deputies, urging the teachers to ballot in the forthcoming vote in favour of volunteering for the examinations the same way as heretofore. I must emphasise the fact so that it becomes known outside the House that neither Deputy saw fit to appeal to the teachers to ballot in favour of taking part in the examinations. That is a grievous omission from their case and leaves me to regard their introduction of the subject this evening with a little scepticism. I shall say no more than that. I am disappointed that that call was not made.

I should like, too, to take up the point made by Deputy O'Rourke regarding the authenticity of the examinations we propose holding. I can tell the Deputy categorically that the examinations this year will be conducted in accordance with the standard of every other year, that the marking will be in line with the examination marking of every other year and that the validity and integrity of the certificates that will be granted this year will stand up to the closest scrutiny. They will be 100 per cent valid. I must make that clear to the pupils who will be taking the examinations and also to their parents. I wish to say to the pupils also that they must not be distracted by talk of disruption, that they should apply themselves to their studies in the two months remaining and that their examinations will be held.

I trust that the dedication of teachers to pupils — a sentiment I share generally with Deputy de Rossa about the teaching profession — will manifest itself in a favourable ballot in a couple of weeks time so that the examinations may take place with the teachers volunteering as has been the case up to now. That course would be eminently desirable. It would be the heartfelt wish of everyone both here and outside but again I must reiterate the position in regard to the dispute. The matter has been decided by this House. A modified award of 10 per cent is available to the teachers. This is in addition to the terms of the 25th pay round giving a total of 17.9 per cent which in any terms is a substantial award and which is being improved by virtue of falling inflation. I announced recently that the Government were willing to reappoint the arbitrator for the conciliation and arbitration scheme. This was requested from me by the teachers. It was a major issue in the early stages of this controversy. The Government and I have indicated our willingness, as a gesture of our sincerity in seeking rapprochement with the teachers, to reappoint the arbitrator. So far we have not received a response from all the unions concerned to the initial reappointment steps.

I wish to assure the Deputies opposite that the Government policy in this matter is the collective unified policy of the Government. The Deputies' attempts to implicate one of my colleagues as being involved in a different attitude from the attitude of the other Government Members is totally without foundation. We are united in our approach to this matter, united because we have no choice but to accept the democratic will of this House. This is a very fundamental issue in this dispute but one that may not have been fully recognised by the public. The position is that Dáil Éireann has spoken and that voice binds us all.

I regret that the dispute is continuing but I deny that there is any intransigence on the part of the Government. As I have said already, I have met the teachers on two occasions since my appointment. I indicated publicly last weekend, and I reiterate today, that I am prepared to meet the teachers if they wish to meet me. I do not see any role for a mediator in the issue. Mediators do not have magic formulae for resolving disputes. The thrust of the Deputies' interventions was that a mediator would have the effect of bringing the parties around the table. In that respect a mediator is not necessary because, as I have said, I am prepared to talk to the teachers. It is my earnest wish that this dispute will be brought to a speedy end by the recognition of the real worth of the Dáil award and that in the meantime the teachers will agree to participate in the examinations on a voluntary basis as they have done in the past.

Dáil Éireann may have spoken but Dáil Éireann may speak again.

I am sure that as a good democrat Deputy Wilson would wish to obey the decision of Dáil Éireann.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 15 1986.