I raise this issue to urge the Minister for Education to take a fresh initiative to resolve the impasse between the Government and the teacher unions on their claim for an early retirement package. The Minister should bring all sides around the table in an effort to resolve this dispute, which if left unresolved, will lead to the collapse of partnership, one of the fundamental principles of the White Paper on Education. It is imperative that the Minister take this initiative now. Nobody, is anxious for industrial action in our schools, least of all the teachers who feel this is the last resort following two years of prevarication, obfuscation and foot dragging by the Minister.
Because of this dispute in-service training courses related to the introduction of new leaving certificate syllabi have had to be cancelled and the introduction of these new syllabi in September is now in serious jeopardy.
The withdrawal by teachers from and non co-operation with departmental committees will clearly disrupt and slow down the implementation of many of the proposals in the White Paper. This dispute also has the potential to cause division among the partners in education. We have already seen signs of that. This would be regrettable and would shatter that fundamental plank of the White Paper, the principle of partnership.
I would remind the Minister that it is almost ten years ago to the day when a former Minister for Education, Mrs. Gemma Hussey, was in dispute with the teacher unions. That was an unnecessary dispute. It is regrettable that the Minister seems to be going down the same road.
As I said in my contribution on the White Paper, we need to avoid unnecessarily undermining the teaching profession because the teachers are an essential prerequisite to any teaching programme in our schools. I regret the selected leaks on the integrity of the school year, which were designed to undermine teachers prior to the launch of the White Paper. One got the impression that there was an orchestrated attempt to sully their names in the public domain. That is regrettable because teachers are essential to the delivery of any education programme. It is my understanding that the gap between the two sides is quite small. A potential solution is there, the costs of which would be within the parameters of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. It is important to stress that this claim is being pursued under the umbrella of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work which facilitated the pursuance of this issue along with others. Failure to resolve this dispute could also have implications for the Programme for Competitiveness and Work itself and for the social partnership agreements.
The Minister has had the actuarial figures prepared by the teacher unions for a number of weeks. Surely she must have come to some conclusions arising from her examination of these figures. It is time to bring these conclusions to the negotiating table. There have been many misleading comments and statements about this dispute, particularly about the number of teachers who would avail of the option and the cost of such a scheme. Not all teachers will avail of the option of early retirement. It is interesting to note that only 40 to 50 teachers a year avail of the existing scheme for primary teachers. The vast majority of teachers would not be in a position to afford early retirement because of domestic and family commitments. Many have no particular wish to retire. The teachers' claim is to have the early retirement option available to them. They are satisfied that the costs of such a scheme are well within the parameters of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work.
The Minister made a solemn promise two years ago at the teacher union conferences to deliver an early retirement package and received a standing ovation for making that promise. A year later she made another promise to have negotiations on an early retirement package concluded by 30 September 1994. She failed to keep those promises. Real talks only began last February. Their collapse before Easter marred what was in any event a hasty launch of the White Paper. The ploy to launch the White Paper before the teacher conferences to divert attention from the early retirement issue did not work. It was a cynical ploy unworthy of the Minister. Unless this dispute is resolved quickly the world of Irish education will be divisive, troubled and strife-torn. We need to replace political incompetence, which has dogged this dispute, with some degree of competence and leadership on the part of the Minister.