Private Members' Business. - Teachers' Dispute: Motion.

I move:

"That Dáil Éireann condemns the Government's handling of the ASTI dispute by:

its failure to make meaningful intervention at an early stage,

refusing to meet the ASTI,

the illegal manner in which pay was deducted from ASTI members,

and bearing in mind the threat to the future of 60,000 leaving certificate and 60,000 junior certificate exam students and the long-term consequences for the fabric of the education system of a protracted dispute, calls on the Government to enter into immediate negotiations with the ASTI;

and furthermore calls on the ASTI to co-operate immediately with the holding of the leaving and junior certificate examinations.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Coveney, Deenihan and Browne(Carlow-Kilkenny).

That is agreed.

In moving this motion, we in Fine Gael are clearly saying that the consequences of a "do nothing" approach by the Government are too enormous to contemplate, that instead of both sides to this dispute continuing, as they have done for the past ten days, in justification mode, it is high time both parties moved into direct dialogue and to facilitate this dialogue the ASTI should immediately co-operate with the holding of the leaving certificate examination.

For every day this strike continues, enormous damage is being done. We should consider the plight of all the students, but primarily the 60,000 leaving certificate students. For 14 years they have worked their way through the education sys tem, conscious from an early age that this juncture in their lives was a critical one, which in many respects would determine their future. Now all of a sudden factors outside their control are about to undermine all their studies and the most serious questions are being raised regarding the 2001 leaving certificate examinations. Will the examinations proceed and, if so, when? What will become of the oral, aural and practical examinations?

To date the Minister has failed to outline and roll out in detail his contingency plans and to convince the public that the logistical arrangements are in place to facilitate the holding of these examinations. If these obstacles can be overcome, will scripts be corrected and, if so, by whom? Will those who will be designated as suitable to correct these examinations have the same skill as those who corrected examinations in previous years? When will the results be available? What about students who have been offered places in colleges in the United Kingdom contingent on leaving certificate examination results before the end of August? How will examiners factor in provision for the different levels of tuition received by students depending on their school and financial circumstances? Those are only some of the more immediate and obvious questions. The enormous additional pressure which all this uncertainty places on these students is unacceptable.

Sporadic student demonstrations demanding an end to this uncertainty have taken place throughout the country in recent days, except the Government has an agenda to smash the ASTI union and is intent on humiliating its membership into submission. It appears to me, as it does to the students, their parents and ASTI members throughout the country that the only way to make progress at this juncture is by having direct talks.

While leaving certificate and, to a lesser extent, junior certificate students are the immediate victims, we should be aware that long-term damage is being inflicted on the education system. This damage is difficult to quantify, but when relationships break down at school gate level, as is inevitable, given the harsh words being exchanged through the media by representatives of all parties to this dispute, it will be very difficult to establish the relationship on the same basis of trust, respect and shared objectives.

I was inundated over the weekend, as I am sure were my parliamentary party colleagues and other Members of this House, with representations from teachers and pupils who, by virtue of the Government's intransigence and incompetence to work to bring about a resolution to this dispute and the vacuum thus created by that reluctance, are squaring up to each other in the classroom and at the school gate. Herein are the seeds of destruction for our education system in the long term.

I draw the Minister's attention to a letter, which, in more succinct words, aptly gets to the heart of this message. I received this letter from Loreto secondary school in Youghal, County Cork. It reads:

On behalf of the Board of Management of this School, we would urge you as a public representative to do everything in your power to unblock the seemingly intractable difficulties which the country is now facing because of the continuing and worsening ASTI Industrial Action. Anxiety continues to deepen among pupils and parents. Traditionally good relations among school communities are becoming increasingly strained and it is now imperative that a solution be found immediately.

In the eye of this storm the Minister for Education and Science headed for Malaysia, the Taoiseach is preoccupied with arrangements for a second U2 concert and the students will be home alone for two more days this week and three days next week. The contingency plans, which the Minister assured us would work, are disintegrating under the spotlight and not even the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, is in sight to offer words of consolation to teachers out of the corner of his mouth – taxi drivers, one; leaving certificate students, nil.

Can the Deputy not do better than that – that is very poor.

Our education system, especially since the advent of free second level education, has served Ireland well. For historical reasons, probably going back to the era of the hedge schools, the teaching profession has been held in high regard in Irish society. As a consequence, we have benefited from a continuous stream of highly qualified and well motivated graduates making themselves available as teachers. As a result, our economy has prospered and many of the multinationals that locate their industries here cite the quality of the Irish education system and the graduates it produces as one of the main reasons for choosing to locate here far ahead of any of the tax or other incentives the country offers. However, we would do well to remember that this scenario cannot be taken for granted. Our successful economy is competing aggressively for graduates, offering larger salaries and less responsibility, but education and schools throughout the country are feeling the pinch. Secondary schools are witnessing unprecedented difficulties recruiting teachers. In certain subject areas, the alternative career options now available in the private sector mean that people are voting with their feet and subject choices have been withdrawn.

There is increasing evidence each year of people leaving the profession to pursue alternative careers and the Department's career break scheme is attracting increasing numbers. Allied to this startling problem, a large swathe of secondary teachers are progressing too slowly along an incremental salary scale that is too long and there are not adequate prospects of promotion or recognition for those teachers. This is rapidly leading to a demoralised and poorly motivated profession. With the middle ranks stymied and the rejuvenation process for the profession faltering, we have the ingredients of a looming crisis in our schools in the medium to long term. It has manifested itself in some schools with restrictions on subject choices, not because graduates are scarce but because the alternative employment options are attractive.

Unless remedial action is taken, it will not be long before the end product of our education system, the well rounded and well educated student, is in short supply and the knock-on benefits of the quality students and graduates we have had over the years, and the contingent benefits that has brought to our economy, will evaporate. This is what has been happening the teaching profession during the Minister's watch. It is not, contrary to popular opinion, all about the short working week and the long holidays. It is largely about job satisfaction. For many teachers this is becoming increasingly more difficult to find under the terms and conditions of their current employment. Potential teachers are simply walking away to take up more attractive alternatives.

When contemplating how to resolve this dispute we would do well to remember what has happened to education in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America where, increasingly, a quality education can only be had at a considerable financial cost. The UK is obliged to import teachers from South Africa and elsewhere all over the globe, while some schools cannot provide adequate teaching cover for the full five day week. This is the whirlwind which we may yet reap unless we take urgent steps to make the career more attractive again.

Another reason for this crisis in the classroom is the changed school environment over recent years and the feeling that teachers are isolated and on their own when dealing with the many social problems which now manifest themselves in the classroom. These problems – drug abuse, disciplinary difficulties, family breakdown and the increasing involvement of students in the workplace – are all serving to undermine the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom and the Department of Education and Science has singularly failed to provide the necessary supports to both schools and individual teachers to cope with these additional pressures and demands for which their training has left them ill-equipped.

This is the background against which the current dispute with the ASTI should be reviewed. Of course nobody is suggesting that the Government can give two fingers to congress, unilaterally breach the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness and snub the other two teacher trades unions, but the manner in which the Government has reacted to the democratic decision of ASTI members regarding its participation in Congress and regarding the PPF has progressed from initial apparent indifference to the consequences to incompetence and ineptitude as the consequences became more apparent.

The failure to recognise 15 months ago the significance of the ASTI decision has led us to where we are now. In all this time, no realistic attempt was made to face up to the issue in a meaningful manner. When the ASTI strike began to impact, the Government's decision to deduct pay for days when teachers, although available to teach, refused to supervise and boards of management, on good advice, closed schools for insurance related reasons was the real turning point in this dispute. From that day onwards previously moderate members of the trades union became hard liners and a difficult dispute became immeasurably more difficult to resolve as a result. If the pay deduction was a turning point, the intemperate and confrontational tone of the Minister, his predecessor who lectured us from the United States and the Taoiseach since the recent Labour Court ruling, has only served to stiffen the resolve of striking teachers not to be humiliated and ground into submission.

This dispute is now in classic stalemate. An irresistible force meets an immovable object. As a result on a daily basis unacceptable pressure is mounting on examination students and long-term damage is being inflicted on the fabric of the education system. With both sides still resolutely in justification mode, the consequences, both immediate and long-term, are too catastrophic to contemplate.

Fine Gael cannot accept the Government line that nothing can now be done to resolve this dispute short of an ASTI climb down. The stakes are too high and the consequences too enormous for this. Fine Gael now believes that the Government should convene a emergency meeting of the social partners to discuss the present crisis.

Given the fact that the Labour Court has implicitly recognised that the ASTI has a sustainable case, consideration must be given to devising an alternative formula to benchmarking, the remit of which would be ring-fenced to ASTI members only and the operation of which would not compromise or undermine the claims being pursued by the INTO and the TUI in this fashion. Indeed, it is ironic that both the INTO and the TUI are processing higher pay claims than the ASTI, albeit in a different fashion, over a longer timeframe and through a PPF approved mechanism.

Benchmarking has become the conflict zone in this dispute. The term to ASTI members, for one reason or another, is associated with Margaret Thatcher and the UK, with league tables and performance related pay. For others it is the equivalent of approaching an ATM. The reality is that no attempt was made by the Minister for Education and Science to sell the concept to those who opted out of the PPF until it was too late. Indeed, the rushed attempts late last year to bring forward payment dates and to fast track the establishment of the process served only to con firm doubts of its whimsical nature up to that point. The meeting with social partners should also reconsider the issue of an up-front payment in the context of teachers' duties, supervision and substitution. We further believe that the Government should proceed as soon as possible, and by agreement, with the establishment of an education commission to consider all the non-pay elements in education which need radical review.

The approach I have outlined offers a genesis of a solution. It recognises the difficulties of the parameters of the PPF while identifying scope in lateral movement within that context for a solution to emerge. The Government should convene this meeting of social partners as soon as possible and immediately thereafter meet with the ASTI. On this basis, the ASTI should lift its threat to the leaving certificate examinations, drop any threat of industrial action pending the outcome of these negotiations and commit itself to a full ballot of its members on any outcome from these negotiations.

The Government's amendment to the motion will only further entrench both sides to this dispute. It refers to achievements under PPF and tax cuts, but it does not face up to the fact that the ASTI, by a democratic decision of its members, has removed itself from that and is seeking some mechanism to facilitate a resolution to its dispute. I cannot see how a resolution will emerge in the absence of dialogue. A resolution will not fall from the ceiling. Therefore it is incumbent on the Minister and on the Taoiseach to intervene directly at this stage.

Although I have not consulted directly with the social partners, I believe that they would be amenable to finding a solution to this dispute. These, after all, are stakeholders in society. The education system is the cornerstone on which the successful economy of recent years is founded. It is in the best interests of the social partners that nothing is done to undermine the continued capacity of the education system to attract highly motivated graduates into the teaching profession and subsequently to supply the conveyor belt of high quality graduates which emerge from the third level institutions to fill the posts available in the economy.

The only line in the Government's amendment from which one might take some comfort is the one which calls on the ASTI to work with the Government. How else can the ASTI work with the Government other than through dialogue with the Government? Nobody is suggesting that there is a preconceived outcome to these talks. Everybody must go into them with an open mind. The Government must, in the context of PPF, consult with the social partners, but there must be a willingness on both sides. Having consulted extensively with ASTI members, parents and pupils, I believe there is a willingness to compromise and settle. On that basis, the other side to this motion is quite implicit in so far as it places an equal obligation on the ASTI to respond to any goodwill gesture by the Government.

As I said in my speech on a number of occasions, the consequences of digging in and of continuing to justify the position which has us in deadlock are too enormous to accept. Sooner or later somebody must facilitate dialogue. If it happens sooner rather than later, then the damage will be miminised and this year's leaving certificate and other certificate examinations can proceed but if the deadlock is long-term, the integrity of the examination system and the livelihoods of pupils sitting their leaving certificate will be undermined and that is too high a price to pay not to mention the long-term damage being inflicted on the education system as a result of this dispute.

Will the Minister outline in detail his contingency plans? On previous occasions on Question Time, the Minister refused to roll out details on the basis that we were awaiting a Labour Court recommendation. It is becoming apparent that there is a cloud of serious magnitude hanging over the capacity of the Department to organise the examinations in the absence of—

The Deputy is trying to create one.

The Minister will have an opportunity to reply and to outline details.

Given that other teacher unions have indicated that they do not want their members to get involved in carrying out what have been ASTI duties in the operation of examinations to date, I fail to see how these examinations can proceed. The Minister has not to date, in any meaningful way, squared up to the issue of the logistical problems associated with organising the practical, oral and aural examinations. Students who turn up to conduct oral examinations normally get a tape recorder from the school involved and a list of students to be assessed. If this is an ASTI school in which co-operation is lacking, it calls into question in a most serious way the capacity to carry out these examinations.

At the core of this dispute are the 60,000 pupils who are at a crossroads in their lives. Continued self-justification will not assist these students – in fact, it will only serve to increase the pressure they are under. That is entirely unacceptable. I appeal to the Minister and the ASTI to be reasoned in their response to this debate and to facilitate dialogue as quickly as possible.

Mr. Coveney:

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this motion which condemns the Government's handling of the ASTI dispute to date. It is nothing short of an outrage that this Government and, in particular, this Minister for Education and Science have allowed a situation to develop where we now have an uncompromising stand-off between ASTI members and the Government with neither side seemingly willing to give an inch towards compromise.

This dispute is not new and the Government cannot complain about a lack of sufficient time to find solutions. The dispute has been simmering and steadily increasing in intensity for nearly 12 months. That teachers have not been satisfied with their pay and the concerns of the ASTI in relation to the principle of benchmarking have not taken this Minister by surprise, yet he has taken no successful, decisive action to bring this dispute closer to a resolution nor has he taken any action that has even improved relations between his Department and the ASTI. The truth is the opposite has happened. The most decisive action the Minister took in this dispute, which resulted in a dramatic deterioration of relations and an increase in tensions between both parties, was when he illegally deducted the pay of all ASTI members for the days when supervision was withdrawn before Christmas.

We now find ourselves in a stalemate where the ASTI has rejected the recent Labour Court recommendation and the Minister and the Taoiseach are refusing to even talk to the ASTI unless the talks begin entirely on the Government's own terms. The Taoiseach said during the Order of Business today that the Government will continue to do everything possible to resolve this dispute, yet he is not even willing to sit down and talk directly with the ASTI unless on his own terms. We, in Opposition, cannot stand by while this Government continues to try to grind the ASTI into submission by adopting a toughening out policy. A resolution must and will be found to this dispute sooner or later. Only the Government can ensure that it is sooner rather than later.

The damage being done to students and their families as this dispute continues cannot be underestimated by anybody. Some 120,000 young students are in the final stages of preparation for leaving certificate and junior certificate examinations. With two more days of strike action planned by the ASTI this week, with three days planned for next week, with perhaps all out strike in weeks to come and with the potential refusal of ASTI members to co-operate with examination supervision and correction of State examinations, the whole fabric of our State examination system and our secondary education system as a whole is in danger of collapse this year.

I remember better than most preparing for and sitting my leaving certificate. I clearly recall the worry and the pressure as the examination time drew closer. Students and their parents are on edge at this time of year anyway, particularly if they are involved in the leaving certificate. It is a time when they need support from the education system, not a breakdown. Do they not have enough with which to cope without wondering if their teachers will teach them next week or even if their examinations will go ahead as normal? It is the children, the students, who are the victims here because of the Government's decision to tough this one out until the ASTI gives in. Instead of looking for solutions, the Minister seems more intent on outlining how examinations will run without the ASTI, and he has not even done that comprehensively.

The long-term damage to the education system as a result of this dispute is very significant. The Minister will know that students' desperation and frustration are now turning to anger in certain parts of the country. Reports of leaving certificate students squaring up to their teachers in the schoolyard, the large crowd expected to march on Dáil Éireann tomorrow in protest and students walking out of their classrooms today in more than 30 locations around the country show just how damaging this dispute is becoming for our secondary school education system as a whole. If parents and their children continue to lose faith in the education system and its teachers, it may take years to rebuild the positive relationship between teachers and students that has been so beneficial to Ireland and its education system in the past.

There is a huge imbalance between students affected by this dispute and those who are not and between students who can afford grinds and those who cannot. Time is of the essence in this dispute. Students' anger and frustration continue to grow, parents' anger is increasing by the day and teachers and the teaching profession are suffering massively. Everyone affected by this dispute is suffering but, in particular, the students. We, in Fine Gael, recognise the difficulties for the Government in any negotiations that may take place and that any resolution to this dispute should not threaten the wider partnership agreement. A resolution, therefore, is not straightforward. However, that does not mean that the uncompromising stance this Government is adopting can be justified. Like all disputes, negotiation is what is required if accommodation is to be found.

I have said that time is of the essence. Both sides must begin the negotiations without preconditions because if the toughening it out mentality continues, the consequences, as my colleague, Deputy Creed, pointed out, will be dire for teachers, students and the education system as a whole. I call on the Minister to show some initiative and to get the talks going.

All teachers have made a major contribution to this country in their commitment to the education system. Outside their teaching duties, they have given an extraordinary commitment to voluntary activities both inside and outside the school. I have first hand experience of this. Great work has been done in the areas of sports, the arts, public speaking and so on. Every school has a number of teachers who are committed to extracurricular activities such as sport in addition to the PE teachers. Their commitment to sport has proved to be a great outlet for thousands of young people. There is now a great danger that this goodwill and voluntary effort may be lost forever because of this dispute. Few people acknowledge this contribution from teachers. On the contrary, they have been vilified by certain commentators in recent weeks. An embittered teaching profession would be a disas ter for the education system and the Government is doing its best to create that. Our teachers are dedicated professionals and this contribution to society must be acknowledged and respected. That must also be the starting point in this debate.

The nature of teaching and the daily routine of the classroom is now more demanding. Teachers must handle a wide range of social problems on a daily basis and these impinge greatly on their teaching. They carry a heavy work load. The 22 hours a week teacher is a myth. Teachers work well beyond their 22 hours class contact per week preparing class work, monitoring performance, attending meetings, arranging school events and so on, both inside and outside the school. They also take part in a wide range of in-service training.

The dispute is deadlocked and it is not good enough for the Taoiseach to continue with his mantra, "I will not speak to the ASTI". He has not been reluctant in the past to talk to every organisation in the country. If the Taoiseach opens discussions with the ASTI I am confident a fair compromise can be reached quickly. He has acknowledged that teachers will receive a salary increase. I saw him on television in a report from Washington in which he said they would get their increase. The Labour Court also acknowledges this.

An up-front goodwill payment to all teachers will break the deadlock and their co-operation with the examination system will be secured. I appeal to the Taoiseach for the sake of all parents and students, especially those facing examinations, to begin talking now and help to resolve this crisis in our education system.

Teachers are by their nature conservative and do not wish to be on the picket lines. The Government has responsibility and it must act. There is no room for further prevarication and intransigence on the part of the Government. As Deputies Creed and Coveney stated, the Government has succeeded in turning parent on teacher and pupil on teacher but the Minister should remember that they could both turn on him next week. He should not underestimate the problems ahead for the Government. There is genuine concern regarding the political ramifications of what is happening within Government and no doubt the Minister will react to the dispute later this week.

Deputy Creed has proposed a solution which gives a way out to the Government. For the sake of leaving certificate students, it should be taken. Shortly, parents and students may turn on the Government. The bottom line is the Minister will not admit the oral examinations cannot take place without the ASTI and the examination papers will not be corrected without their expertise. The oral examinations cannot be run without ASTI teachers and the written examinations will not be corrected without them.

The Minister should accept Deputy Creed's solution. He should talk to the teachers and give both sides a way out, otherwise the Minister will stand indicted in the future when people look back on this period and examine how he coped with the dispute and the damage he did to the education system.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Ní neart go cur le chéile. Tá an sean-fhocal sin oiriúnach, ní hé amháin don stailc féin ach do réiteach na ceiste chomh maith. Gan cur le chéile nó, b'fhéidir, teacht le chéile ní bheidh aon réiteach againn. Agus muna mbeidh réiteach againn ní bheidh cothrom na féinne le fáil ag na mic léinn i mbliana.

It is as clear as a pike staff that discussions must take place if this strike is to end. I do not know why anybody should have to explain that. If the strike continues for another 12 months or two years it will still take face to face negotiations to bring it to an end. There is no advantage in going through the pros and cons of the dispute in public. It is enough to know there is a strike, students and parents are seriously upset by it and, despite what some cynics might say, teachers are also upset.

The leaving certificate examinations are only a few weeks away and supervision and marking of the examinations must be organised properly. I refuse to accept at this late stage that the correction of examination papers can be done without teachers, despite the comments of some interviewers on our national airwaves who rushed in where angels and Ministers feared to tread.

I cannot understand why the Taoiseach who has earned a reputation as a great settler of disputes is now on his own form of strike action by refusing to meet a group which holds different views to him in regard to the PPF. Is it not incredible that on something as difficult as that, he has one view and the ASTI has another? The Nationalists and Unionists in the North hold different views, yet, to the Taoiseach's credit, he has gallantly battled to try to get them around the table to negotiate but because he has a different view to the ASTI he has said he will not talk. Earlier he outlined all that has been done in regard to this dispute and said that he would be prepared to meet the ASTI within five minutes if it raised the white flag. That is not the way to negotiate. The Taoiseach has skills beyond such a line.

The 1913 lock-out occurred when trades unionism was in its infancy and when domination rather than discussion ruled the day. Times have changed and nowadays workers no longer come out with their hands in the air in abject surrender. Only last November at the launch of a book by Padraig Yeates on the 1913 lock-out the Taoiseach stated: "The 1913 Lockout was an early demonstration of mutually destructive employer and trade union power. We have moved an immense distance since those days". How far have we moved when there is a deadlock in the current dispute? I do not wish to make an exact comparison between the 1913 Lockout and this strike. The Labour Court, which said the teachers had a justifiable claim for an increase in salary and then told them to accept what they had already turned down, may have been tied by guidelines, but, as a result, its findings were not of any benefit in terms of getting ASTI members off the picket lines.

The leaving certificate examination is the gateway to every student's future. Some may cope with the trauma of the strike but many will not achieve their full potential. For their sakes, I ask for common sense to prevail so that this strike can be called off. A meeting is not difficult to arrange nor is a frank exchange of views and a suggestion about the future may be all that is needed to permit a return to work.

Using the PPF as an excuse for not holding talks is akin to the shout of "No surrender". I ask the ASTI members who have made clear their willingness to talk, to accept this meeting as a gesture of goodwill on the Government's part and to call an end to the threat to this year's examinations. The students have endured enough. Let us get down to the serious business of talking through this problem. It must happen sometime and therefore, instead of continuing to make shapes, let us make proposals.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"commends the Government and the Minister for Education and Science for their efforts to resolve the ASTI dispute, including the provision, in conjunction with the social partners, of increases amounting to 22.6% for teachers together with a 10% reduction in personal taxes and, for the first time, a benchmarking process through which public servants can obtain further pay increases by comparison with graduate entry employment groups in the private sector; and further commends the Government for its determined and continuing efforts to bring about a resolution of this dispute through every industrial relations procedure available, including conciliation, independent arbitration, facilitation by the Labour Relations Commission and, ultimately, a full hearing by the Labour Court; and for its agreement to establish a forum on education and the changing role of teachers as recommended by the Labour Court: and calls on the ASTI to work with the Government and the social partners to obtain their objectives and to co-operate immediately with the holding of the leaving and junior certificate examinations.".

The decision of the ASTI Central Executive Council to reject the Labour Court recommendation without referral to a ballot among the association's general membership and to embark on industrial action and a campaign to undermine the examinations process is incomprehensible to most right-thinking people. Our first duty as a Government is to protect the future of our second level students and especially those who are sitting State examinations this year. We will continue to do everything in our power to resolve this dispute in association with the national partners. We have been patient and have made every effort, both behind the scenes and through the industrial relations processes, to find a solution but every proposal for settlement in harmony with the social partnership and the PPF has so far been rejected by the leadership of the ASTI. We have now reached the 11th hour and in the interests of this year's exam students I had no choice last week but to begin to put our contingency plans for the examinations into operation.

So there were none before this?

I said the plans were to be put into operation. These plans were outlined by me to my Government colleagues on Tuesday last and the Government decided to establish an interdepartmental examinations implementation task force to oversee the administration of the contingency plans and to pursue the conduct of the public examinations on the basis of the contingency plans commencing with the advertisement for superintendents. The task force held its first meeting this morning and advertisements for superintendents appeared in today's newspapers. I understand the response is overwhelming.

Delivered by hand or over the phone.

Meanwhile, the Government will continue its efforts to resolve the dispute and to ensure that this year's exam students are given the support they deserve. This problem began when the ASTI decided to break away from the social partners, reject the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness which guarantees fair treatment and a share in the nation's prosperity for all sectors of Irish society, and leave the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. All sides in this House endorsed the social partnership and recognised the vital role of the social partners in charting the way forward for our economy and for our people in the increasingly open and challenging times that lie ahead. We have provided through social partnership the jobs and opportunities our children need, an end to forced emigration, the return of many families from abroad to worthwhile occupations, new investments in education and health and equality and unprecedented growth and prosperity.

People all around the world are wondering how the Irish people have done it. It is really very simple, we did it through social partnership with everybody pulling together. Ireland will continue to prosper and provide opportunities for our children if we learn from the lessons of the recent past and work out our difficulties through a part nership in which everybody contributes and everybody gains. We cannot allow a situation to develop in which the leadership of one union, the ASTI, can undermine the social partners and wreck the PPF. The ASTI has been assisted by its own conciliation and arbitration process, the intervention of the Labour Relations Commission and finally by a full hearing of the Labour Court. The efforts of all these have been rejected out of hand by their leadership.

The ASTI leadership continues callously to pursue its demands for special and preferential treatment for their members above and beyond the majority of teachers and all other public servants and are prepared to jeopardise the future of the most vulnerable second level students, the examination students, in reckless pursuit of that claim. The Labour Court, which is the single most experienced independent national forum in dealing with industrial relations disputes, was asked to consider both the union's claim in respect of the ASTI teachers' pay and the position of the Departments of Education and Science and Finance in relation to public service pay policy and to make recommendations for the resolution of the dispute.

I propose to share my time with Deputy Killeen.

Just as well. We could not listen to much more of this.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The court concluded that the claim for an up-front payment for ASTI members is not justified, according to the Labour Court, as they have benefited from the PPF increases amounting to 8.5% to date and increasing to 16% by 1 October 2001. By 1 October next an ASTI member holding an honours degree and an honours H. Dip, with ten years service, will have received an up-front payment of £4,488 under the PPF. When the PPF is concluded, teachers will have received a total increase in pay amounting to a massive £295 million. The court's view is that these payments can be viewed as up-front payments as the ASTI is not party to the PPF. The Government also agreed that 25% of any increase arising from benchmarking will be paid with effect from 1 December next.

The court considered the issues in relation to compensation for the cost of living, increased pay in respect of past productivity and flexibility have been addressed in national agreements by pay increases, tax concessions and a number of special awards to teachers over the years. The court considered that the ASTI arguments in relation to the contribution of ASTI teachers to the success of the economy can be made by many other groups also and the court did not uphold the ASTI claim on these grounds. The court also concluded that teachers have a sustainable case for a pay increase by comparison with other graduate entry employment groups and that the bench marking process being used by other teacher and public service unions to measure the value of jobs and responsibilities is the most appropriate mechanism to evaluate that aspect of the ASTI case.

Too much of a queue at the ATM.

The court found it difficult to accept that the ASTI teachers' case was unique in that other teacher unions and others within the education system have accepted this process as a means of addressing their not inconsiderable claims.

In its formal recommendations, the court went on to say that the ASTI should process its claim for recognition that teachers' pay is depressed by comparison with other graduate entry employment groups through the benchmarking process. In this respect, the court highlights the developments which have taken place in relation to the benchmarking process since the ASTI originally rejected it as an acceptable process. It notes in particular that, first, the benchmarking body will not be recommending the introduction of performance-related pay – this was one of the concerns expressed by the ASTI leadership; second, it is a totally independent body presided over by a High Court judge; third, it has a substantial budget, a full-time secretariat and resources for independent research and will be able to evaluate each case on its merits and on the basis of its research findings in a fair, equitable and objective way; and the Labour Court also notes that 25% of any increase arising from benchmarking will be paid with effect from 1 December 2001 – the original proposal was that no payments would be made during the period of the PPF.

The court also recommended that an expert review of education be undertaken involving all the partners in education covering a wide range of areas, including legal and management structures, developments in education, the role of the teacher, teacher training and accreditation and support systems in schools. The terms of reference to be agreed between the partners and the review body are to be in place by 1 June 2001. The Government has accepted this recommendation and authorised me to proceed with its implementation.

Third, the court recommended that, as a gesture of goodwill and without prejudice, on acceptance of its recommendations by the ASTI, pay should not be deducted for the five "days of action", that is, the days during which teachers withdrew from supervision and substitution.

At this point, I wish to put on record the appreciation of the Government for the expertise, professionalism and diligence with which the Labour Court conducted its investigation of and deliberation on this claim. It has upheld the highest standards of integrity and independence for which it is universally acclaimed.

The decision of the ASTI leadership to target the examinations process by withdrawing from the supervision and marking of examinations and attempting to classify anyone who undertakes this work as "strike breakers" is extraordinary and shows the ruthless intent of the ASTI leadership.

That is helpful jargon.

ASTI members are employed on a contract to teach by various boards of management and they have been processing a 30% pay claim in respect of that employment. ASTI members enter into contracts with the Department of Education and Science each year in respect of the supervision and/or marking of the leaving and junior certificate examinations. This is a separate contract with a different employer which is not connected in any way to the teaching contract and which is remunerated separately. There is no dispute in relation to this contract. However, the ASTI has decided, without a specific ballot of members contracted for the examination work, to withdraw from any involvement in examinations work, effectively taking secondary industrial action in relation to a dispute with another employer. Whatever about the legal status of such action, the attempt to categorise as "strike breakers" those people who take up work which ASTI members have not volunteered to contract for is unworthy of a professional organisation and amounts to bullying tactics.

Who is the bully?

I am very disappointed the ASTI has summarily dismissed the Labour Court's findings and has renewed its campaign of industrial action. I am disappointed it has implemented a ban on examination related work that has resulted in the rescheduling of the leaving and junior certificate oral and practical tests that were scheduled for the period from 26 March to 6 April. I will shortly make an announcement in relation to the alternative arrangements that will be implemented after Easter for assessing candidates' oral language and practical skills.

The Minister has no contingency plans.

We have contingency plans.

Where are they?

Is the Deputy trying to upset the students?

That is what the Deputy's statements are doing.

The Minister has gone a long way towards doing that tonight.

The Minister without interruption.

I am particularly aghast that, in implementing a ban on examination related work, the ASTI action includes a ban on making arrangements for candidates with special needs to take their examinations. This is a further example of the ASTI's strategy of targeting the most vulnerable as the means of advancing their claim. I am annoyed with that and I will not conceal that fact. It is wrong and the ASTI should not have done it.

It is the Minister's responsibility to provide examinations.

They should not be damaging the students either.

The Minister is doing that.

I assure the House, as well as all students and their parents, that the State will run the 2001 certificate examinations to the best of its ability. As has already been indicated, the results of the examinations may issue later than usual if delays are experienced during the marking process.

What about the UK students?

A delay will be unavoidable in the case of the junior certificate. It is essential that the high reputation enjoyed by our public examinations continues and that public confidence in the examination system is preserved.

The Minister is failing to do that.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): The Minister should sit down and talk to them.

What the Deputy is doing politically is trying to damage that; that is all that interests him.

The Minister has already done that.

The primary concern is the students. They are, and should be, at the forefront of the minds of Government and the officials of my Department, not to mention at the forefront of my mind.

They will be at the forefront of the Dáil tomorrow.

I assure every young person who is preparing for examinations in June that all the resources of the State are being mobilised to ensure that a true, fair and proper examination will be held for leaving and junior certificate.

Students should not allow their minds to be deflected by the mischievous undermining, by some people, of the standing of the examinations. The examinations will be held and they will be of at least equal standing with past and future examinations. In regard to contingency arrangements, it is incumbent on me, as Minister for Education and Science, to safeguard the examinations and, to that end, my Department has developed contingency plans for conducting and marking the examinations having regard to the necessity of maintaining a quality approach to the marking process.

Resolution of the dispute remains the top priority. Making contingency arrangements is essential in the interests of the students. Time has run out and I must proceed with the contingency arrangements.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Can the Minister not sit down and talk?

Why was the Minister in Malaysia last week?

It is my sincere hope that there can be a resolution of the dispute. It must be emphasised, however, that the examinations must take place and all the resources of the State will be placed behind the efforts of my Department to hold them.

Last week I established an interdepartmental task force which draws on all relevant Departments and organisations within the State to ensure that the examinations will be held in a way which upholds the highest standards of quality and integrity for which the State's education system is internationally respected. It has already begun its work.

The Government is asking the people of Ireland to support this effort. An advertisement was placed in today's daily newspapers inviting members of the public who are prepared to act as superintendents in this year's examinations to contact my Department. I urge them to make themselves available for this work and to support our efforts to ensure that the examinations proceed as scheduled. I intend to place a further advertisement shortly in relation to appointments of examiners for all subjects in the examinations.

What about the orals?

We are making arrangements for them also.

For Christmas?

My Department has already had a series of initial contacts with the managerial bodies of post-primary schools to address both the issues associated with conducting the examinations on a contingency basis and to explore how time available for tuition can be maximised for all examination candidates over the balance of the school year. These contacts will continue to ensure that the best interests of the examination candidates are served, both in holding the examinations and in maximising tuition time.

I appreciate the support and co-operation of the National Parent's Council Post-Primary and the school management bodies at second level for our endeavours. My officials will maintain regular and close contact with them to keep them fully informed of the contingency arrangements and to identify with them specific roles that they may play in assisting our efforts and in supporting the students through this difficult time.

All right thinking citizens of this country must question the motives and actions of the ASTI leadership. Two independent bodies have examined and rejected ASTI claims for separate, pre-emptive treatment for its pay claim. The Labour Court pointed out that ASTI members will have received an up-front payment amounting to 16% by I October next. In addition, they will receive 25% of any increase from benchmarking with effect from 1 December next. The Labour Court upheld ASTI's assertion that its members merit a pay increase on its claim that its members have fallen behind other professions in recent years but held that the benchmarking body was the appropriate forum for processing their claim.

The Labour Court recommended, and the Government accepted, that an expert review of education be undertaken involving all partners in education and that the review should cover a wide range of issues. I consider that such a review is timely and I am making preparations for an expert and broad ranging review of education to take place. ASTI has cynically targeted students sitting State examinations by curtailing teaching time between now and Easter and by overtly threatening arrangements to hold examinations without ASTI teachers.

In response to Deputy Creed, we are working closely with the social partners and with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions every day and we will continue to do that. We are working absolutely and completely with the social partners and with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions every day and I will continue to do that.

Last week the Taoiseach wrote to ASTI in response to the association's request for his personal intervention. The Taoiseach told the ASTI that the State will conduct its examinations to the best of its abilities. ASTI may feel able to abandon the students in this predicament, the Taoiseach wrote, but the Government will not.

Scurrilous.

I have met with ASTI officials on numerous occasions in order to seek a workable way of resolving this dispute. Some of those meetings seemed to have reached positions where a solution might be achieved. However, the ASTI negotiators seemed unable to convince the leadership to grasp the opportunities for resolution. It is clear to all at this point that the sole concern of the ASTI leadership is their 30% pay claim over and above the terms of the PPF. They do not seem to care who suffers in the process of achieving their aim, nor do they seem to care whether their claim is justified in the wider national context or if the national interest is damaged.

I hope the Minister did not rush home from Malaysia to deliver that.

The people from University College Cork were very disappointed with Deputy Creed's comments because they are trying to improve the position of the university and so were Trinity, Galway University and the other universities involved.

(Interruptions.)

Chaith mé breis agus fiche bliain mar mhúinteoir sular tháinig mé isteach sa Teach seo. Tá roinnt mhaith múinteoirí eile sa Teach freisin agus is dóigh liom go dtuigeann siad go léir cás na múinteoirí agus na deacrachtaí atá acu.

Ní dóigh liom áfach go dtuigeann éinne i ndáiríre cén fáth a bhfuil Cumann na Meán Mhúinteoirí lasmuigh den chóras atá ann do dhaoine eile sa seirbhís phoiblí.

Íoctar múinteoirí na tíre ar an scála céanna, scála coiteann na múinteoirí. Má éiríonn le Cumann na Meán Mhúinteoirí ardú pá a bhaint amach dóibh féin beidh an scála tuarastail céanna ar fáil do gach múinteoir bunscoile agus meánscoile sa tír. Is dócha gur chóir dom féin a fhógairt mar sin, fé mar is gá faoi Acht na hOifige Poiblí, go mb'fhéidir go mbeidh buntáiste le fáil agam féin má éiríonn leo sa stailc seo.

Mar chomh-mhúinteoir tá sé deacair a thuiscint cén fáth a bhfuil grúpa amháin de na múinteoirí ag taisteal bóthair amháin agus an dá ghrúpa eile ag taisteal bóthair eile. Ach, fé mar a dúirt mé, beidh siad ar an scála céanna ag deireadh an lae.

Ba chóir do Chumann na Meán Mhúinteoirí teacht chun cainte leis an Roinn. Is léir go bhfuil cuireadh ón Taoiseach mar a léirigh sé anseo inniu. Is léir go bhfuil cuireadh ón Aire, mar a léirigh seisean anocht.

The aspect of the dispute which ordinary people find most difficult to understand is not the teachers' demand for better pay but the refusal by the ASTI to have that aspect of their claim for a pay increase based on comparison with other graduate employment examined and adjudicated on by the same independent body and subject to the same procedures as the other public service unions, including the other teacher unions. That is a particular difficulty for the ASTI. The public service benchmarking body, as agreed under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, is the ideal body to examine this aspect of the ASTI claim. Anybody could understand if the ASTI were not satisfied at the end of the process that they might embark on this action. It is very difficult to understand why they would embark on it before the process is undertaken.

Benchmarking is basically about comparing public service pay and jobs with pay and jobs across the economy with a view to ensuring that public service pay rates compare favourably with comparable employment in the private sector. The unions have fought hard to establish this principle. This was the objective of the Government and of the public service unions in framing the benchmarking process and establishing the public services benchmarking body. The benchmarking exercise involves much more than a pay review in the traditional sense. One of the difficulties is that a great many people either do not understand what benchmarking is or decide not to want to understand it. As well as examining rates of pay the benchmarking body will examine and compare existing roles, duties and responsibilities in the public service and across the economy. This is designed to ensure that it does not look simply at pay rates applicable to jobs with similar titles but looks at the jobs themselves to establish how comparable they are.

In undertaking its research it also has to have regard to differences between the public service and the private sector and also between different groups in the public service in working conditions, in the way work is organised, in conditions of employment and other benefits and in the area of responsibility which is of enormous interest to teachers. The benchmarking body will examine the jobs as they currently exist and actually operate in practice. They will seek to compare them to similar jobs in the private sector and also compare the reward packages applying to both. The benchmarking body has not been mandated to recommend an introduction of individual performance related pay. This is one of the difficulties put forward to a lot of rank and file teachers. I understand, as a former teacher, why they have reservations about it. Public service employers and unions recognise that even if one wished to introduce elements of performance related pay this could only be done when a performance management system is in place and functioning. Even then it would be difficult.

Benchmarking is about ensuring that the public service can compete fairly to recruit, retain and motivate its staff. It is a matter of extreme and pressing interest to the State. The benchmarking body will be able to evaluate each case on its merits and on the basis of its research findings. In this way its work is similar to the exercise carried out for many years by the review body on higher remuneration in the public service where, for example, the pay of Members of the Oireachtas and senior public servants has been compared to pay rates applying to similar jobs in the private sector and in the most recent review, in the case of the Oireachtas, with the public sector. Many of us have heard people complaining bitterly on the media about the success of Oireachtas Members with the last round of the review body. At the same time they steadfastly refuse to benefit from the same system themselves. It flies in the face of common sense and reason.

The Deputy has left Senator O'Toole's script behind.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Deputy Burke has a particular interest here and it is difficult to reach the conclusion that that interest is coterminous with that of parents and pupils. It is not coterminous with that of parents and pupils sitting exams. I am not about to be lectured by him in view of his performance here tonight.

Senator O'Toole gave the Deputy a good lecture recently.

The body will not seek to introduce pay for productivity. While employers may seek certain changes, there is no obligation on the body to accept them. It is open to the unions to raise their own issues. There are issues which need to be raised by teachers. One would expect the unions to pursue the issue of pay for supervision, which is something many teachers feel crept in and they are not paid for it. There is a place to argue that case. The public services benchmarking body is a totally independent body chaired by a High Court judge. The composition and terms of reference of the body were agreed by the Government and the public service unions. The body has resources to do a particular job and, as the Minister explained, there is already an agreement that 25% of whatever is agreed will be paid from 1 December. It has its own research programme and will be able to evaluate scientifically the case made by all the people making submissions. Written submissions have already been sought and they intend to hear oral submissions in the autumn.

It would be an advantage if speakers from the other side of the House would make some attempt to make constructive suggestions for the remainder of the debate. There are those in employment in schools at second level who have difficulties in their terms of employment which could be addressed. Initiatives can and will be taken. It is a great pity to find a large body of this House working against a resolution. There are initiatives which can be taken to resolve the dispute. It is a great pity to see a large element in this House working against a resolution.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Rabbitte.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The leaving and junior certificate examinations are due to commence in 77 days. At this point in the academic year it is normal for examination students to be anxious but, for the class of 2001, that anxiety has been surpassed by huge distress and anger, of which we will witness more in coming days. The dispute between members of the ASTI and the Government has reached a pitiful new low. Positions on both sides have become deeply entrenched and it is the entirely innocent victims of the dispute, examination students, who are suffering most. With only ten weeks to go before one of the most important challenges of their lives, they do not even know whether their examinations will proceed. How can these young people be expected to do themselves any kind of justice, faced with so many lost teaching days and such complete uncertainty about their futures?

There is a narrow window of opportunity for action to be taken to resolve the dispute, but it will only be available for a short time. If the dispute continues beyond next week, there is no doubt, but that it will result in very heavy casualties among students and teachers alike and it will, ultimately, be the Minister who will pay the price.

From the outset the Government's approach to the dispute has been incredibly irresponsible. The Government was elected to run the country. Government should provide good leadership and ensure essential rights such as the constitutional right to education are available to all citizens. However, the megaphone diplomacy in which the Taoiseach engaged when he sought to lecture teachers through a series of articles inThe Irish Times did not display leadership, but was, instead, an exercise in complete arrogance. The Taoiseach appears to have decided to embark on a personal crusade against the ASTI, regardless of the consequences of that action. Equally, the Minister for Education and Science has neglected the national interest in his serious mishandling of the dispute. His contribution this evening was in the same vein and will further inflame teachers' anger and annoyance.

The Minister has sought to provoke teachers from the outset and proved himself to be incompetent. He acted unlawfully in accessing lists of ASTI members for the purposes of withholding pay, but was, ultimately, forced to repay the money. His actions significantly soured the entire atmosphere of the dispute and made militants of many formerly moderate teachers. The Minister also damaged relations at an early stage in the dispute by announcing to the media before Christmas that his Department was engaged in contingency examination plans. This act demonstrated the lack of any serious will on his part to find a resolution to the dispute. Had the Minister applied himself seriously to solving the dispute in its initial stages rather than preparing for a more deadlocked position, the current situation might never have arisen.

Among the litany of the Minister's actions which angered teachers, parents and students, the one which caused the greatest outrage was his decision to travel to Malaysia and Singapore last week for St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

This extraordinary decision was the last straw as far as many parents were con cerned and they, with teachers and students, are rapidly losing any confidence in the Minister's ability to resolve the dispute.

The Government's strategy is crystal clear. It is designed to dig in and break the teachers. The consequences of such an approach will be appalling for everyone. Enormous pressure is being exerted on students and the stress they are experiencing is, simply, not fair. The Minister cannot allow this situation to continue.

Did the Deputy ever hear of the Labour Court? She is ignoring the State's industrial relations machinery.

The Minister should have some manners.

Deputy Shortall to continue without interruption.

The Minister had his chance; it would do him no harm to hold back a little. His actions to date have done nothing to help the situation.

The Labour Party condoned picketing of the examinations.

The Minister is being silly; he should stop twisting matters.

Deputy Shortall to continue without interruption.

The consequences of the Government's strategy will be extremely dangerous for the entire education system. That strategy is likely to result in a deeply demoralised and embittered teaching force. We cannot afford to let that happen. A new initiative is urgently required at this late stage. As with all other disputes, this one must eventually be settled through a process of discussion and negotiation with movement on both sides. The sooner that movement occurs, the better.

Let me turn my attention to possibilities for a resolution. While Deputy Creed's proposal is a sound one and has potential, there are other options. When the ASTI voted to stay out of the national agreement, it was greeted with what has now become a Government mantra. Its members were told that they were obliged to pursue their claim through the PPF and the benchmarking body. While it may prove very inconvenient and make life difficult for the social partners, a group of workers has a constitutional right to pursue a pay claim and there is an onus on the Government to ensure a mechanism is in place whereby such a claim can be pursued. There is no such mechanism in this instance.

That marks a significant departure for the Labour Party.

The Minister for Health and Children should solve his own problems.

While "benchmarking" has become something of a buzz word—

The Deputy is moving away from social partnership.

I will return to that issue in a moment, if I am allowed to continue.

The Minister for Health and Children got out of the Department of Education and Science in time.

When will he be leaving the Department of Health and Children?

While "benchmarking" has become something of a buzz word, it should be remembered that when it was signed up to as part of the PPF last year, few people knew what it entailed. It has yet to be fully explained and to prove itself as an effective mechanism for linking productivity with rewards. There is still much uncertainty as to what precisely benchmarking involves. In many ways, the scope of the benchmarking body has been broadened, thanks to the ASTI, but it is still a largely unknown quantity.

It has been broadly accepted by most that the Labour Court has failed to deliver anything new or tangible for the ASTI. It was interesting to listen to the debate at last week's meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Science – I do not know whether the Minister has had an opportunity to read the transcript—

Bhí sé as láthair.

There was cross-party agreement at the meeting that nothing new had emerged from the Labour Court and that the ASTI leadership had nothing tangible to bring to its members for ballot. When one considers the manner in which the Labour Court operates and the position outlined by the Government on public pay policy, the court had little room for manoeuvre. The hard-line position adopted by the Government offered no possibility of flexibility or a down payment. The Minister's hard-line position ensured that the Labour Court was not able to come up with any new initiative and that was deeply disappointing to everyone, including his own party's backbenchers. I will finish that point tomorrow night.

Debate adjourned.