Industrial Action by School Secretaries: Statements

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the issue of school secretaries and caretakers. I recognise the very important work these staff and the other support staff carry out in the running of our schools. In my time as Minister and beforehand, I have spoken to a number of school secretaries about their employment conditions and I understand the issues they have raised.

Earlier this year I relaxed the moratorium for those community and comprehensive and education and training board, ETB, schools with enrolments of 700 and more. This allows them to employ additional school secretaries up to a maximum of two per school. There are 91 schools in the community and comprehensive and ETB sector that meet this criterion, based on the information currently available to this Department. This is an initial step and has taken immediate effect.

To outline the background to the issue, schemes were initiated in 1978 and 1979 for the employment of clerical officers and caretakers in schools.

The schemes were later withdrawn in 2008. These schemes have been superseded by the more extensive capitation grant schemes. The current grant scheme was agreed in the context of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress published in 1991. The majority of primary and voluntary secondary schools now receive assistance to provide for secretarial, caretaker and cleaning services under these grant schemes. It is a matter for the individual school to decide how best to apply the grant funding to suit its particular needs.

The scheme offers much greater flexibility to schools to manage their resource requirements. The level and extent of services provided are a matter for the school authorities which, through the discretion afforded under the scheme, apply diverse arrangements for secretarial and caretaker services as resources permit. Where a school uses the grant funding for caretaker or secretarial purposes, staff taken on to support those functions are employees of individual schools. Terms of employment, including the type of contract that best meets the school's requirements, are agreed directly between the school as the employer and individual employees. Boards of management are obliged to comply with employment legislation in the same manner as any other employer in the State.

My Department has made significant efforts in recent years to improve the pay of school secretaries and caretakers who are employed using capitation grant assistance. On foot of a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, my Department engaged with the unions representing school secretaries and caretakers. This engagement included an independent arbitration process in 2015 under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 for staff and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period. The arbitrator's recommendations were accepted by both sides and the various measures have been implemented to date. This arbitration agreement covers the period up to 31 December 2019.

Following the arbitration process, grant funding used by schools to fund the salaries of ancillary staff is being improved on a phased basis between 2016 and 2019 to enable schools to implement the arbitration outcome. Schools received a 5% increase in capitation from September 2019. Over the course of the school year 2019-20, an additional €10 million will be allocated to primary and post-primary schools, of which €4 million will be allocated in 2019. The arbitration agreement was designed to be of greatest benefit to lower paid secretaries and caretakers. For example, a secretary or caretaker who was paid the then minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in 2015 prior to the arbitration was, from 1 January 2019, paid €13 per hour, which is a 50% increase in that individual's hourly pay. The annual full year cost of the measures recommended by the arbitrator is €22.5 million.

In these circumstances the current industrial action by Fórsa members is considered unwarranted, not least because the period of the current arbitration agreement has not expired. Officials from my Department met Fórsa representatives in September. Management bodies representing the employer schools impacted by the action were also in attendance at the meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to explore the details of the pay claim as presented by Fórsa and the nature of the industrial action. The Department restated to the trade union that its claim will be fully considered once the current costings have been determined on completion of the surveys.

On Monday, 30 September, Fórsa requested that my officials agree to use the services of the Workplace Relations Commission in an effort to resolve this dispute. Standard practice in industrial relations procedures would be for any action to be suspended once it is agreed to refer a dispute to the WRC. Fórsa's request is under consideration and my officials will respond to the union shortly. As the union has previously been advised, the Department remains open to having further dialogue with Fórsa. I urge Fórsa to call off its industrial action to allow space for that process to take place.

When will the Minister receive the final surveys from the schools?

The Deputy will have an opportunity to speak later.

He does not have that in his statement.

If that information is available, the Minister might provide it.

Fianna Fáil has consistently voiced its support for school secretaries and caretakers. We have organised meetings with our parliamentary party and the representatives have organised briefings for the Oireachtas. Our Deputies have voiced support at public meetings across the country. The position in which secretaries and caretakers find themselves is manifestly unfair and a pathway to address it must be developed.

Secretaries employed directly by the Department of Education and Skills can earn double or even treble what is earned by those employed directly by other schools. The irony is that in the school plebiscites taking place at present, where an ETB is selected as the patron of the school, a secretary employed in that school will be a State employee with a reasonably good salary, pension rights and Civil Service terms. That is not the case if Educate Together, the Catholic Church or a Gaelscoil, not an ETB, is the patron. The situation is particularly galling in the context of the role that secretaries play in schools. They are vital for providing the Department of Education and Skills with the information it requires on a host of issues. Perhaps the Minister will address what impact the industrial action is having on the gathering of information by the Department. In some cases, it is only the secretary who has access to particular databases.

It is deeply disappointing that school secretaries have been forced to engage in industrial action. We do not wish to see it happening but it is due to the failure to engage by the Government. The Minister outlined the arbitration that started in 2015 and concludes this year but he did not clarify what else is in the arbitrator's decision, which is that the Government would engage this year with a view to putting a new arrangement in place from January 2020. That is what this debate is about. If meaningful talks were taking place between the Department and Fórsa, I doubt that Fórsa and the secretaries would have an issue.

When a strike or industrial action occurs in the private sector, one will hear Ministers pontificating that the industrial relations mechanisms of the State must be used and that they are available to all the parties. In this case, Fórsa has asked the Department to go to the WRC to discuss this, but the Minister's reply today is extremely disappointing. He says his officials are considering the matter. All Fianna Fáil is seeking is that the Minister talk to the union about this. Talks always happen. The Government appears to allow situations to fester and eventually it gives in to talks. These are talks about something it was asked to do four years ago. The Government has made the situation worse in recent days by mischaracterising the nature of the dispute and insinuating a potential cost to the State of hundreds of millions of euro per year.

The secretaries I have met on the protest - I would not even call it a picket line - are lonely voices. They are surprised and delighted to be joined by SNAs and teachers at the doors. They are brave people who, in some cases, went out alone to start a picket. I strongly urge secretaries who are not members of a trade union to join one. Fórsa is the one that is taking this action but there are other trade unions. They should join one because the secretaries who are members of a union and taking this action are fighting for their rights. It is ironic that in possibly the most heavily unionised sector in the State secretaries are a lonely voice and many are not unionised.

I think they should join a union. Our understanding is that Fórsa has asked the Minister to use the services of the Workplace Relations Commission. That needs to happen as soon as possible. If it happens, we will let the Minister have the space for it, as we always have done with industrial disputes. He should get the talking started.

I wish to put on record my appreciation and gratitude to the secretaries and caretakers in our schools, who do a wonderful job and in many cases are the heartbeat of their schools. In the school where I served as a teacher, Noreen, the secretary, had three different principals and provided continuity from one to the other, as well as between teachers and principals and between students and parents. She is not alone in that. Through my role as a public representative, I have had occasion to visit many schools to see the incredible co-ordination work a secretary has to do. They are often the longest-serving member of staff and are often the most trusted and indispensable member. However, under the current model of employment they are the most neglected and this is not good enough.

The Minister said he wanted to support school secretaries and he makes the right noises about addressing the issue constructively. However, we have not seen any action to date. This is a matter of huge concern as 90% of our school secretaries are not recognised for the vital work they do. They are not in a pension scheme, are not paid for summer holidays and do not know from one year to the next how they stand. Given the challenges schools have, we need to be able to support the heartbeat of the school, that is, the secretary and the caretaker. They need to be treated with the same respect as are the 10% employed by the Department of Education and Skills.

I am delighted to be able to speak in support of school secretaries. All public representatives, as well as anybody who has interaction with schools, whether they are parents or members of the community, will know the unbelievable amount of work school secretaries do. They are the rock within the school, they facilitate communication between parents and schools and they keep the school going. We have to make sure we take seriously the work of school secretaries and caretakers.

The debate is whether they are employed by the Department or another body. As sure as night follows day, a case will be taken and the Government and the State will have to open up to their responsibilities around employing school secretaries. We have to look for better conditions for these workers because they are a vital cog in our education community. Many other groups fall into this category and if it is not taken seriously and proper employment conditions not given to them, there will be a ruling against the State which will cost us enormously.

School secretaries are the engine room of any school. They keep things working, ticking over and gelling together. They epitomise the jack of all trades except that they are also masters of all trades. I have had many dealings with school secretaries over the years at my son's schools and in schools across west Cork where I worked. They really keep the show on the road and it is so unfair that they are paid differently depending on who employs them. It is very hard on the secretaries who are not paid as well as those in other schools or, indeed, in their own school.

I ask the Minister to look at this. I acknowledge every school secretary and caretaker for the trojan work they do and I thank them for it.

Nothing moves in a school without the school secretary or caretaker knowing about it. The jobs they do vary enormously, from correspondence and telephone calls to welcoming guests and inputting menus for school lunches. If a child is hurt they go to the secretary. The school would grind to a complete halt without them and the caretakers.

There is enormous inequality among school secretaries and between school secretaries and other employments. The variation in pay is enormous and many do not qualify for pension entitlements, which is appalling. This is replicated in other parts of the public sector, often where the Government has been trying to get out of paying by saying it is not the employer, such as in the case of community employment scheme, CE, supervisors. It constantly states it is not the employer, despite the fact that these employments have been created by the State and the money has been provided for them by the State. They are employees of the State in all but name. Many who are thinking ahead to retirement are very concerned as to how they are going to manage. For many school secretaries, this is not just about fairness but potential hardship. Their incomes are so limited that they are very concerned and they need this to be fixed, which is what they deserve.

Protests are happening at 250 schools around the country and some 1,000 schools are affected. I commend all those involved. It is very difficult and credit is due to Fórsa as it is a difficult area in which to organise. Credit is due to the secretaries who got involved in the campaign and in the industrial action to stand up for their rights. This has gone on for far too long, in fact for decades. The Minister previously referred to the various Ministers who have been over this area but who failed to address it. I hope the current Minister is the Minister to address it. Some secretaries are earning €12,500 per year, which is absolutely appalling. They are on irregular short-term contracts which force them to sign on during the summer holidays. A few hundred are paid directly by the Department but the majority of the 3,500 school secretaries are paid through the annual ancillary grant that is awarded to schools by the Department. In our alternative budget, which we launched yesterday morning, we allocated €7 million to this issue, which will work towards pay equality for school secretaries. However, we need to go far beyond that and I hope the Department addresses this in the budget coming up in the next week.

People give out about public sector pay at times but it should be a matter of pride for the State to pay its employees well. We should be proud of paying public servants well and fairly but these secretaries are not paid well, fairly or proportionally to the work they do. There is huge inequality and there are issues relating to pensions, all of which need to be fixed.

No one can question the unique and valued position of the school secretary and our schools cannot function without them.

Our education system needs them. I doubt this will be disputed by anybody. Even by just sitting with a child who might have been called to the office to be given bad news or a child who is going home sick, secretaries perform a role that a teacher managing dozens of children in a classroom cannot perform.

The Department of Education and Skills has failed to seriously engage with school staff or the trade union to resolve this issue. The Department states that schools must pay their secretaries through the capitation grant, which is a farce. One cannot ask schools to juggle the cost of heating, lighting and paying staff. It leaves these workers in an unsustainable position of low pay, with no holiday or sick pay, no real job security and no access to the public service salary scale. This is not the school's fault. The fault lies squarely at the feet of the Government which is being penny wise and pound foolish. It has allowed these workers to fall through the cracks and is denying them fair pay and conditions while wasting hundreds of millions of euro through mismanagement of large capital projects. I am proud to stand with the school secretaries.

School secretaries have my full support and that of Sinn Féin. Many Members have mentioned that secretaries are probably the first port of call for any situation. As parents, we have all phoned the school seeking assistance and it is always the school secretary who answers. Many points have been made about equality in wages and fair pay. This issue has been ongoing since 1978 and it still has not been sorted out. It is about fairness and equality within the workplace. Schools and the education system need secretaries. Inequality always causes friction. I do not know if previous speakers mentioned parity between capitation grants and what capitation is supposed to be used for. It is totally unacceptable to force schools to choose between secure pay and conditions for secretaries, heating the school or paying for the lighting in the year ahead. We have not learned anything since 1978. Previous speakers mentioned very low pay and the absence of holiday and sick pay. The greatest worry for school secretaries is the lack of job security. The service they provide in schools and the education system is priceless and vital. It complements the education system and builds trust in the system and schools. The Government does not recognise that. It must give secretaries what they are entitled to, namely, fairness and equality. They play an invaluable role in the educational sector, the community and our towns, villages and cities. I commend school secretaries and wish and pray that this issue will be sorted for the betterment of everybody.

I stood with the secretaries of a number of schools in Wicklow, including St. Cronan's national school in Bray, and St. Brigid's and St. Kevin's national schools in Greystones. The regard in which the secretaries are held was evident because the parents, pupils and teachers stood with them in solidarity and support. They know the role the secretaries provide in their schools. They are the glue that holds the fabric of our education system together. Many words about school secretaries being critical have echoed across the Chamber but unfortunately that sentiment will not get us to where we want to be. All of the compliments are deserved but they are not reflected in the way school secretaries are treated. Secretaries do not have access to holiday pay or sick pay. They have no job security and no way to progress on any sort of pay scale. They have no access to an occupational pension in retirement. For all of the praise from Government, what do secretaries have to show for it? They have little or nothing. For far too long, school secretaries have been exploited. I do not use that word lightly but this exploitation by successive Governments needs to end.

The actions taken by the Government on this issue to date have not been genuine. I do not say that lightly either. The recent survey by the Department of Education and Skills was announced over the summer and the documents were sent to the schools just as they were returning for the new term after the summer, which is the busiest time of year. The Department did this knowing full well that this would delay action being taken in budget 2020. Sinn Féin has made provision in our alternative budget to address this issue. It is interesting and welcome to hear Fianna Fáil Deputies speak so highly of school secretaries. We know the arrangement in this House is that Fianna Fáil is propping up Fine Gael in government. The party will have a critical role in the formation of the budget to be delivered next week. I hope it will follow through on the words and sentiments its Deputies expressed in this Chamber and ensure the discrimination against school secretaries is corrected in the budget next week.

On behalf of the Labour Party, I strongly support the campaign by Fórsa and welcome the support of the INTO for the campaign to have a just wage and terms of pay and conditions for school secretaries. In practice, the school secretary is one of the first people that children and parents get to know when a child goes to school. That applies at primary and secondary level. They are a key part of the school community and the culture of the school and they are welcoming to children, especially in the early years, and their parents. They are indispensable to the school leadership team. The Department of Education and Skills, in trying to improve our education system and the opportunities and quality of education available to our children, has made school leadership a key concept. The school secretary is critical to the school leadership team. It is a false economy on the part of the Minister to cavil at upgrading the terms and conditions of the school secretary.

I have been reading the figures on the country's income up to 30 September, which were just published by the Minister for Finance. It will come as good news to the Minister that the economy is doing very well because most workers are getting a pay increase of between 2% and 3% a year, while tax bands and allowances have not expanded. Most workers are paying more taxes, as shown in the income tax receipts declared for the nine months to 30 September. I believe there would be all-party agreement in the House if part of what workers and taxpayers have contributed to the growing tax base for the first nine months of 2019 was devoted to righting the situation of school secretaries. We should pay school secretaries not just a minimum wage but a living wage and more. Their pay should take into account their devotion to their work and productivity and their almost unquantifiable contribution to the social fabric of the school, including the welcome and guidance they provide to people when they arrive with a child in a school about which they know very little.

All of that must be recognised as an incredibly valuable skill and as an asset to all of our children. School secretaries are indispensable to principals, deputy principals, and teachers who have varying responsibilities in school. School secretaries have been key to the changes that have happened in schools in recent decades, such as the mainstreaming of children with disabilities and children on the autism spectrum, whether they are very high-functioning children or children with very big challenges, into primary and secondary schools. We have spoken about that mainstreaming on many occasions and it was the correct decision. The Minister recently recognised this key role of the secretaries in respect of schools managed by education and training boards, ETBs, whether community national schools at primary level or community colleges at second level. He has said that where such a school has more than 700 pupils, it can have two secretaries. That is a very positive move.

The fact that school secretaries do not get holiday pay and have to sign on for the summer months is really wrong. The secretaries who have to sign on welcome the fact that they can do so, but they should not have to. Their terms and conditions should include appropriate holiday pay. They should also be provided with occupational pensions. One of the school secretaries at the launch by Fórsa and the INTO, which I attended, was Maeve Hurrell, who has been a secretary in an Educate Together school for more than 30 years. People like her and Mrs. O'Doherty from Donegal, both of whom are due to retire relatively soon having given their whole working lives to children in their schools, will not have an occupational pension. The Department of Education and Skills and the Government must address this issue as a matter of urgency in next Tuesday's budget. It is likely to cost somewhere between €10 million and €30 million extra a year to immediately bring in a scheme that recognises this issue.

It is no accident that this section of the workforce, which works very hard, has gone unrecognised and has been relatively unorganised. What do those in this section of the workforce have in common? Most of them are women. It is because they are women that it has been easy to disregard and undervalue their skills and the commitment they show to the schools in which they work. I hope that the Minister will have a positive announcement to make in Tuesday's budget. I suggest that he start with €20 million or €30 million a year. In the context of the waste of money for which his Government has been responsible, this is a relatively small allocation. Given Brexit, the situation is obviously very fluid but this amount is not much in light of the extra tax that workers are paying because of the failure to index allowances and in the context of wage increases for most workers in the economy. There is now a surplus flowing into the Exchequer's coffers arising from increased income tax receipts. Justice requires that a significant portion of this surplus - not a huge amount in the overall context, but rather a relatively modest one - be allocated to the plight of the school secretaries.

The Minister must recognise the issues with regard to their working conditions, their holiday pay, and their entitlement to sick leave and an occupational pension scheme. If he does not, his Government is saying that it wants to maintain the practice of large numbers of the workforce receiving minimal pay and conditions with no ancillary benefits or rights. That is a way to impoverish people into their old age. I do not believe that is something the Minister personally wants to do. This budget is an opportunity to set the situation right. I congratulate Fórsa and I congratulate the INTO on its support for Fórsa's campaign.

Like the Minister, I welcome the opportunity for the House to discuss this issue. It is very important and I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Business Committee for allowing us the time requested by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I have gone through the Minister's speech and I would like to raise some issues with him in that regard. The Minister says that the Department is not the employer of the staff concerned. I point out to the House that some school secretaries are employed directly by the Department. This means we have a two-tier system in employing school secretaries. Some have better pay and conditions and rights to pensions, sick pay, and the whole nine yards of workers' rights. Others have none of the above and far less pay. In one of the schools in my constituency I visited during the strike, there is a school secretary who earns €12,000 a year less than the secretary in the adjacent school. They do the same job and have been doing it for a similar number of years. One has been doing it for slightly longer than the other. It is outrageous that there are two tiers of pay for people who do the same job. This system is archaic and must be got rid of.

The survey the Department conducted has been closed for two weeks. The Department should, with some urgency, analyse the data and produce a report on it. The Minister said in his speech that the survey was issued to schools on 10 July and that this is standard practice. Most schools are closed by then. It was very unusual to choose such a date to issue a survey to principals and vice principals and to expect them to carry out such paperwork in the middle of the holidays. Now that the Minister has the data, however, he needs to move on and analyse it very carefully.

I really take issue with the statement that the industrial action is considered unwarranted. Does the Minister really believe this is unwarranted after nearly 40 years of this two-tier system? I believe most school secretaries would say that the Minister's statement, or any indication from the Department that their action is unwarranted, is unwarranted. That statement needs to be withdrawn because it is totally unfair to the school secretaries. They have spent a lifetime working under a two-tier system. They have now taken action and are completely justified in doing so.

I have a few final things to say. The Minister said that it is standard practice in industrial relations to suspend action if it is agreed to refer a dispute to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. This is true, but it is standard practice for such a request to suspend action to come from the WRC rather than from the Minister or the Department. The Department has jumped the gun by insisting that the union withdraw the further industrial action it has planned. I believe the union has responded and said that it will not do so unless the request comes through the proper channel, the WRC, and unless the Minister gives a commitment, either publicly here today or very soon, to the union or the WRC that this issue will be addressed meaningfully, while keeping the school secretaries in mind, in order to end the two-tier system and that any new agreement will result in equality and equity. As the Minister stated, this agreement runs out in December 2019. A new agreement is needed, starting from January 2020, that will end the two-tier system of inequality. The Minister needs to address that. It is not helpful for him to urge the union to call off its planned industrial action.

These people's terms and conditions have been mentioned by many others, but it is worth going through them again. I might also throw into the mix the fact that more than 8,000 special needs assistants, SNAs, are working in even more precarious and probably worse situations than those of the secretaries. That group needs to be organised and represented properly to get its rights and stability addressed. One thing that happens, which was mentioned by other Deputies, is that during holidays this cohort of school secretaries has to sign on. Imagine the bureaucracy, paperwork, and toing and froing involved in that, without even mentioning the way in which it can mess up a person's tax over the course of the year and throw his or her PAYE affairs into disarray.

It must be remembered that we are dealing with a cohort who mainly come from working-class backgrounds, who are on low pay, who are rooted in their communities and who very much rely on the few bob they get through the capitation grant. Each time they have to sign on during a holiday period, it throws all their other entitlements into disarray. They have to play catch-up all the time.

It has been mentioned that the secretaries retire without an occupational pension. On the picket lines in Ballyfermot, the people I met were extraordinary. Teachers, parents, members of the community and special needs assistants were at the gates with the secretaries. On one picket line, I met a retired school secretary who retired after 30 odd years with no occupational pension. The woman who replaced her is facing the same future. That is really disgraceful.

When one asks the secretaries what a day in their lives is like, they say that they meet and greet parents and children in addition to dignitaries and other visitors. They look after queries from parents. When children arrive late, they bring them to their classrooms. They basically act as personal assistants to the principals and they write all the letters and do the filing. They do a lot for the Department, particularly since the introduction of the primary online data records. Every child has to have a unique number. This is about accounting for each child and preventing doubling up on the capitation grant from school to school. That is fair enough but all this work is now on top of everything else the school secretaries do. The bookwork has to be done by the 30 September. The secretaries do all the accounts for their schools. They organise wages for some of the staff. They do all the filing, order buses and check out the bills. They ring parents about children when there are problems or issues. On foot of the GDPR, there is a significant amount of paperwork, particularly when permission must be sought for children to attend football, boxing or dancing or to have their photographs taken. These multitaskers ought to be praised highly by society, by the Minister and by his Department. Praise and words alone will not be enough, however. The Minister needs to open up the negotiations in a meaningful way to end an inequitable system and make a commit today in this regard. He should stop putting pressure on the secretaries and their union to call off their action. Rather, he should use the industrial relations machinery in the proper way such that the WRC will have a commitment from the Department that he will address this issue in an equitable way that will end the two-tier system.

I understand that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has to play a role in this. Perhaps the Minister for Education and Skills could clarify in his response whether the official in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform who deals with this is out sick. There are many officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Could we get over this hump and get somebody else to look after the matter without further delay? I am not saying the Minister for Education and Skills is necessarily responsible but having somebody out sick who passes the buck down the line is not an excuse for delay.

In order to move on and stop any more painful exchanges between the Minister, the Department, school secretaries and their union, it would be wonderful and really big of the Minister if he made a commitment to the school secretaries and Fórsa that he will engage with the unions in the proper manner and meaningfully to end the two-tier system and enter into an agreement, beginning on 1 January 2022, that will bring the workers' pay and conditions up to the standard they deserve.

A byline in a newspaper article I saw was a quotation from one of the school secretaries. She said that it is as if no one cares. I disagree with that because I know from my experience of teaching and from having been the chairman of the board of management of a primary school how valuable the work of school secretaries is. I understood how valued school secretaries are by staff, students and parents. On many occasions, it is the school secretary who is the first point of contact for people who call to or telephone a school.

School secretaries, along with the other ancillary staff, have a special relationship with students. Sometimes it is the school secretary who is told something by a student that can be brought to the attention of the relevant teachers or the principal. They are an integral part of a school and have an important role. We know, however, that there is inequality to be addressed.

As the Minister indicated, there is a need for accurate information. The Department stated that the issue will be considered when a survey has been completed and that there will be further negotiations with the union. I know it is a difficult situation because the Department is not the direct employer of some of the secretaries while it is the direct employer of others. In the school at which I was teaching, there were both types of arrangement.

Paying out of the ancillary grant depends on capitation, numbers, etc. It has been working in that the schools have been able to use the ancillary grant to pay the secretaries but it is up to the schools to decide how the grant is to be used. It has to be used for caretaking and other purposes also. Therefore, schools have a responsibility but they do not have the resources to meet the needs in respect of further pay, pension rights and sick leave. I am talking about the majority of schools but fee-paying schools, because they have extra resources, may be different.

Schools do their best within their resources in order to look after the secretaries. It was disappointing, therefore, to learn that some schools have not implemented the binding arbitration agreement of 2015. Again, accurate information is needed to address the issues. A figure was given of 3,500 school secretaries working in the education system, and it is stated that 10% are paid directly by the Department. There is a need, however, for more accuracy. We need the exact numbers, including because we are dealing with an historic set of circumstances. Before 1982, the school secretaries were employed directly by the Department of Education and Skills. Since then, the different system has come in. We can all acknowledge the changes that have taken place in the education system but the system of having different treatment or conditions for some school secretaries has been allowed to continue. There is a role for the WRC but if we have meaningful, effective dialogue between all the players, this can be resolved.

A small minority of school secretaries and caretakers are directly employed by the Department of Education and Skills, as mentioned already, but the majority are employed by individual school boards of management on precarious low-pay contracts. They are obliged to sign on during the summer holidays and do not get sick pay or a pension. They get paid an average of €12,000 plus. They are paid through the capitation grant schemes of schools.

It is not just about pay. Much of the Minister's statement was on pay. The secretaries want to be directly employed by the State, and rightly so. They want to have a pension. They want to get paid during school holidays and to get sick pay. This has been an issue since 1978. It is not as if it has suddenly sprung up in front of the Government. The Minister stated that he met school secretaries in his area and that he knows them, knows their experiences and knows what they are doing. I commend Fórsa on taking up the issue and organising the secretaries in this sector.

Some 94% of school secretaries have voted for industrial action to demand equal pay for work of equal value. That is a maxim I always stood up for when I was a Communications Workers Union shop steward in my job in An Post. It is one I always stand by now. It is a basic principle to have equal pay for equal work of equal value.

The work-to-rule action has withdrawn school secretaries from work and public service systems and databases on the basis that, because they are not paid or recognised as public servants, they will refuse to carry out the functions of public servants. In a letter sent to the Department on Monday, Mr. Pike, the Fórsa education organiser, advised that because there have been no discernible efforts made to resolve the underlying issues, Fórsa would shortly need to consider escalating the industrial action and to extend it to include another 150 schools where secretaries have joined the union over the past few weeks. Owing to the stance the secretaries have taken to date, more are joining the union and are willing to take a stand. I encourage every school secretary to join Fórsa in order to have their rights represented. Mr Pike went on to say, "We believe that it should not be necessary to take those measures, it is normal practice for both parties to use the services of the WRC and we see no reason why the department should refuse to participate in WRC conciliation".

I agree with Mr. Pike and it appears that most Deputies in this Chamber agree with him too. He asked the Department for a response by close of business today. He stated that if no response is received by the deadline, or if there is a negative response, further industrial action will have to be served on schools early next week. They will move quite quickly to call industrial action in schools next week if they need to do so. According to Mr. Pike, the Department has had time to analyse the returns from its survey of school principals. That is why I have asked about the closing date. I have heard it was two weeks ago. Mr. Pike has said the Department is aware of the likelihood of possible industrial action being escalated if it refuses to co-operate with the WRC.

My final point relates to the Minister's contention that it is standard practice in industrial relations procedures for industrial action to be suspended when it has been agreed to refer a dispute to the WRC. That is not my understanding. I understand it is more common for industrial action to be stood down when progress is made at the WRC. Disputes where low-level industrial action is ongoing are frequently referred to the WRC. It is wrong of the Minister to refer to this as a principle. He concluded his comments by urging Fórsa "to call off its industrial action to allow space for that process to take place". School secretaries know from experience that if they and Fórsa accede to this request, they will be drawn back into a process with no conclusion in sight. They want to get this dealt with. They want to go into 2020 in the knowledge that they are direct employees of the State. That is their bottom line. I fully agree with them and fully back them on it.

I wish to share time with Deputies Michael Collins, Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Healy-Rae.

I am delighted to speak on this important issue. I support the decision of school secretaries to commence industrial action, which began with a 68% turnout on 20 September last. That does not happen lightly. These school secretaries want to be in their jobs and in their places of work. They do not want to be taking industrial action. We praised the Minister last night for the action he took to restore the status of history - stair - as a school subject. I hope he will be able to take action in this case. There is huge resistance to such action on the part of senior officials in the Department of Education and Skills. They need to be told who is the boss. The Minister is the elected accountable person here. He is in charge of the Department. Too many Ministers are allowing officialdom in the permanent government to dictate what goes on.

The secretary is often the glue that holds a school together. Secretaries act as co-ordinators and as a kind of buffer between parents and school staff. They deal with many issues. They are on the front line of contact at all times. It can be an extremely difficult role with a significant workload. Most school secretaries like what they do and enjoy their work. As I understand it, the majority of them are represented by the trade union Fórsa. Even though Fórsa has informed us that nine out of ten secretaries perform functions that are equivalent to or exceed the work of public service workers, they have been excluded from accessing equivalent rights, such as salary scales, sick pay and pensions. That is wrong. Would the same approach be applied to senior civil servants? It most certainly would not. I am appalled to think that senior civil servants are blocking this by standing in the way of it.

It is hard to avoid Fórsa's conclusion that there is a two-tier pay system that leaves most school secretaries earning just €12,500 a year with irregular short-term contracts that force them to sign on during the summer holidays and other school breaks. We need parity of esteem here. Most importantly, we need to honour and respect the role played by school secretaries on an ongoing basis. It is time for this to be resolved. Many of these secretaries were initially employed under community employment schemes over the years. They have grown into the job, which they do with aplomb and respect for the teaching staff, the children, the students, na daltaí, and the parents and guardians. It is time they got parity of esteem. I hope the Minister will see his way to ensuring that happens.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. Prior to the recent industrial action undertaken by secretaries, most of the public was unaware of the two-tier pay system that exists in this sector. Most parents of primary schoolgoing children know the school secretary as the first point of call, the first face they come into contact with when they visit the school and the messenger between them and their children. It is appalling to think that most school secretaries have to sign on during summer holidays. Some of them are forced to sign on during shorter holidays at Christmas and Easter and during mid-term breaks. This is a kick in the teeth for these hard-working, dedicated and caring people, who are the backbone of schools' organisational structures.

I want to make it clear that I fully support the decision of the Fórsa trade union to act on last month's ballot in which 94% of those who cast their votes backed industrial action. It is appalling that the Department of Education and Skills has given them no choice other than to work to rule in a manner that involves stoppages and withholding information required by the HSE for its child dental, vision and hearing screening programmes. It is unacceptable that a small number of school secretaries are employed directly by the Department, with the vast majority of them being employed directly by school boards of management under irregular low-paid contracts that do not offer entitlements such as sick pay, holiday pay and pensions. As I am a member of a school board of management in my own community of Schull, I know what work is done by the secretary there, Paula, and by others. To be quite honest, they are only getting half the pay they should be getting for the work they have put into the school. They are phenomenal workers. The schools would be in disarray without them.

The small grants that schools receive to cover secretarial expenses do not nearly enable them to offer the better terms and conditions that are deserved in return for the work that secretaries do in the running of schools. It is absolutely vital for school secretaries and caretakers to be made direct employees of the State and to be placed on secure contracts. These secretaries are efficient and professional. They work hard alongside school principals. It is a total and absolute disgrace that they earn just €12,500 a year with irregular short-term contracts that force them to sign on during the summer holidays and other school breaks. If the Minister were on a school board of management, he would know full well how they are scraping by with their capitation grants. Boards of management in rural and urban schools have to raise funds to pay electricity and oil bills. I plead with the Minister to ensure that secretaries who are not already direct employees of the State get the pay and respect they deserve.

I am glad to get this opportunity to speak about this important topic. As we know, the secretaries are out of sorts because they are not being paid properly. It is not fair because they do a tremendous job. I met the school secretary in Kilgarvan recently when I drove the school bus because my bus driver was off. I saw that her job involves ensuring that children are loaded onto and unloaded from the buses. When we took in the buses, she closed the school gate so that no child would go out past the gate. They are primarily responsible for the safety of the children. It is a fair responsibility to be entrusted with the safety of another person's child. They have to be Garda vetted, and they have to be correct in every way, because this onus of responsibility is upon them.

As other Deputies stated, school secretaries are the point of contact between parents and teachers. They are there for the enrolling of the children. They are there at every request. They are very important. They play a very important role. When we hear that some secretaries are paid directly by the State, it strikes us that it is time for all of them to be recognised. The teachers are taken up with teaching duties. There may have been a time when things were not as intense and principals had time to deal with things, but now we need a secretary in every school for the safety of children and all that goes with it. We have to be grateful for the tremendous job they do. Parents, bus drivers and teachers realise that they cannot carry on without secretaries. I support the school secretaries.

I am delighted to be able to speak in support of school secretaries. As public representatives, all of us have encountered school secretaries over the years. I will explain how I would describe it. If a school was a motor car, the school secretary would be the engine.

The engine is the most important part of any machinery. The service and commitment school secretaries give are second to none. They are everything to everybody, whether the students, teachers, principals or parents, and an important conduit in the system that is a school. They go beyond the call of duty. A school secretary out for a walk in the evening could meet a parent who asks how Johnny or Mary is getting on in school. We can be sure the secretary will not rush, but will say things are going good or if there is a matter of concern or worry, he or she will tell the parents. They play a vital role. Our job is to fight for fairness, equal treatment and pay and ensure school secretaries are given proper recognition in their role in terms of having access to all of the benefits of other full-time employment. They do an important job in our communities and they should have the benefits that go with that.

I wish to put the name of a person who served as a school secretary on the record. Mary O'Neill, who is from Kenmare and lives on the Bog Road in Kilgarvan, has been a close personal friend of mine for many years. I mention her as an example of someone who is a highly respectable lady and gave years of service in Pobalscoil Inbhear Scéine. She exemplifies everything that is good about being a good person in an office in a school. As I recall, she ran the show. It is important to recognise individuals. Mary O'Neill is an example of what is good about being a school secretary, not just in our county but in this country. Every one of my colleagues here knows people like her. It is nice to acknowledge people who are good at their job and give a large part of their lives to their roles.

We are all putting our shoulder to the wheel in supporting secretaries and asking the Minister to try to give these people fair pay, fair play and rights. That is all they want and that is important.

I am sharing time with Deputy Seamus Healy.

The Green Party has consistently supported the Fórsa Support our Secretaries campaign which is seeking fair treatment and equality for school secretaries. This is not a dispute which has come out of the blue. Like many other Members, this is not the first time I have raised this issue with the Minister in the Dáil and it was also discussed in detail at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills in April. This has gone on long enough. We cannot continue to stand aside and allow hard-working administrators, who are central to the functioning of our education system, to struggle under such unfair working conditions. As a former teacher, I know only too well how crucial, central and critical the role of the school secretary is on a day-to-day basis in running any school and ensuring it functions properly. They are key to everything that happens in school life. The work they do far exceeds the responsibility set out in any job description to which they sign up or in those used by the Public Appointments Service.

The problem is that we have an antiquated two-tier system of employment. We have one group made up of secretaries who are under contract with the Department of Education and Skills and enjoy the benefits and protections of public servants. For every one of these secretaries, however, we have heard horror stories involving other secretaries having to draw social welfare payments in order to make ends meet over the summer months, having no access to medical leave or being denied even the moderate pay rises to which they are entitled. A resolution to this dispute is available to the Minister.

I fully support the call by secretaries for a new system of direct employment by the Department of Education and Skills to be implemented. In an education system where teachers and principals, who rely so heavily on school secretaries, are directly paid by the Department, I see no sense in school secretaries being the exception, especially when we see the inequity this separate status can cause.

Like teachers, school secretaries do substantially similar work regardless of where they are based. They are also expected to work with departmental administrative systems regardless of whether they are employed by the Department. It makes no sense for some secretaries to be working under such unfair conditions in comparison with their colleagues. A single-tier system, provided by the Department, is needed to address this.

The price of inaction will be an entirely justified escalation of industrial action on the part of secretaries, which will ultimately impact on the functioning of our schools and learning outcomes for our students. I urge the Minister to intervene now to prevent this unnecessary disruption and secure the rights of workers who have been pushed to the margins for far too long.

Fórsa has requested that the Department utilise the services of the WRC in an effort to resolve this dispute through meaningful talks. Let those talks begin as soon as possible.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and express my support for school secretaries and the industrial action currently in progress. I do so as a lifelong trade unionist, a current associate member of Fórsa and a trade union activist in its predecessor, the IMPACT trade union, previously known as the Local Government and Public Services Union and, prior to that, the Irish Local Government Officials Union.

It is clear to me that there is huge support for school secretaries across the board, and very strong support for them in Fórsa. Their teaching colleagues in the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, and other unions involved in the education system are supportive of them. Parents' associations are also supportive of the action, as are the general public. All are now demanding that school secretaries be treated fairly and the situation be addressed urgently.

This is effectively a pay justice issue. As the Minister and everybody here knows, there is a two-tier system in respect of the employment and pay and conditions of school secretaries. Some are employed directly by the Department of Education and Skills, and are paid appropriately and have conditions appropriate to that employment, including pension entitlements. The vast majority of secretaries are employed by school boards of management. While they do their best, there is obviously a very serious difference between secretaries employed by the Department and those employed by boards of management. The latter have very irregular short-term and precarious contracts of employment. They have no entitlement to sick leave, pensions or holiday pay. They have to sign on during periods such as Christmas, Easter and the summer. Even in situations where they are forced to sign on, they will not be routinely paid social welfare payments. I have had occasion to go to the independent appeals process of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure that school secretaries were paid during holiday periods. That is not good enough. In terms of pay, secretaries employed by boards of management earn €12,000 or €12,500 a year, which is considerably less than their colleagues working in the same school or a school down the road.

Secretaries are undertaking this industrial action reluctantly, but are doing so in a very committed way. The vote for industrial action is an indication of that, given that 94% voted in favour, which is an almost unprecedented figure. It is an indication that school secretaries are adamant that their pay and conditions be addressed during this round of industrial action through whatever negotiations take place.

It is important to point out that this issue has been ongoing for almost four decades. I was an activist in the union for 30 years and have been a Member of this House for the past 15 years. This issue has been raised on a regular basis for at least the past 30 years. It is time for the situation finally to be sorted out such that all school secretaries are employed directly by the Department and have appropriate pay and the conditions of employment which attach to departmental employees.

School secretaries are an indispensable part of the school scene. They are the hub of the school and undertake a range of important duties. There would be serious consequences for schools and school communities if those duties were not fulfilled.

Statistics and costings relating to this issue were presented to the committee in April. Studies were carried out in 2010, 2014 and 2018. We have studies and statistics on the issue coming out of our ears. It is time for action. It is time for the secretaries to be fairly and reasonably dealt with and for them to receive the same pay, conditions and status as their colleagues who are employed directly by the Department. I urge the Minister to intervene immediately to ensure that the secretaries become departmental employees.

I listened to the earlier contributions while in my office. As a rural Deputy who lives in an area with a significant number of national schools which very much rely on their school secretaries, I know that school secretaries are embedded in their community. It is important that we acknowledge that. It has been recognised by all Members who have spoken thus far. Deputy Healy referred to this being a legacy issue which goes back 40 years. It is important to recognise what school secretaries do within communities. It is not just a job; it is being part of the community, the school and the educational facilities of an area. Many secretaries are embedded in the school because they attended the school or their children or other family members do so. It is important that we recognise the work they do because schools and principals cannot function without a school secretary.

I spent the past two hours with departmental officials and representatives of the Minister's office, working on trying to progress this issue. I left the meeting to speak on it in the Chamber. It is important that we communicate with one another and ensure that we try to resolve this situation. The Minister may update us further in his closing address.

I acknowledge the work done by Fórsa in highlighting the issue and ensuring it is brought to this stage. On my behalf and that of the Government and the Department of Education and Skills, I wish to state that school secretaries are a very important part of society. We need to ensure that everything is resolved in the best manner possible.

Will the matter go to the Workplace Relations Commission?

I am happy to speak on the subject and to support school secretaries, as have other Deputies. Schools were delighted when they first received ancillary grants to employ secretaries and caretakers, but it has become an outmoded system which needs to be rejigged to ensure that staff, particularly secretarial staff, get full-time employment and are recognised in the system.

Deputy Healy referred to the number of studies that have been carried out. I contend that if time-in-work and value-for-money studies were carried out to assess the amount of time recovered by secretaries which allows teachers to get on with teaching, the Minister would certainly give full status, pay, working conditions and recognition to school secretaries. It would be a cost-neutral exercise.

I will not go over ground that has been addressed. Other speakers referred to secretaries being the engine room, heartbeat or glue of schools and critical to their success. I consider them to be the cornerstone of a school's success. All school principals, particularly those of small primary schools would, as the Minister alluded, agree that the successful running of a school is based on the principal having the full co-operation of and sharing responsibility with them. More importantly, it is based on the cornerstone which is the school secretary. The work the secretaries do needs to be recognised. They should be given full and unequivocal support by the House. I hope that the Minister can find a formula to so do.

I congratulate the Minister on his decision to reinstate history as a core subject for the junior cycle. Teachers, parents and, eventually, students will thank him very much for that in light of its importance in the school curriculum. It is a very positive decision.

The school secretary is the first person one meets when one goes through the doors or gates of a school. They are expected to deal with so much, including upset pupils, emotional parents and stressed teachers. As my colleague, Deputy Breathnach, stated, they are the glue that keeps the school community together. They are the backbone of schools throughout the country and it is most unfair that not all school secretaries and caretakers come under the umbrella of the Department of Education and Skills and that some are expected to work alongside colleagues who are on a different payscale and may be paid vastly more for doing the same work. I congratulate the staff, parents, students and special needs assistants who supported and stood shoulder to shoulder with secretaries across the country.

It dawned on me during a meeting with secretaries held in The Vale national school outside Bailieborough that this workforce is predominantly female. The secretaries of St. Anne's national school, Bailieborough, Ballinamoney national school, Tunnyduff national school, Shercock national school and Crossreagh national school were present. While we had coffee that morning, I asked them whether there are many males in the workforce. They had to think about it. Women fill the vast majority of school secretary posts. Is there any other workforce in which women are not paid for holidays, sick leave or maternity leave and do not have pension entitlements? Not in this day and age.

Ms Marie Brady, the secretary of St. Felim's national school, is leading the way in fighting for the cause of secretaries. She pointed out that the secretaries fighting for the cause will probably not gain very much from any improvements made by the Minister. Rather, they are fighting for the next generation of secretaries. They are to be commended on that.

I will not repeat what has been said but it is important to realise secretaries are the cornerstone of the smooth running of any school. The Minister, like Deputy Catherine Martin, is a former múinteoir scoile, and he will know that better than most. Any of us who have taken our children to school, particularly one attended by a few hundred students, be it a secondary or a national school, will know how much work those secretaries have to do. It is essential this issue be dealt with. I hope the Minister will take it by the scruff of the neck and sort it out as quickly as possible.

Like Deputy Smyth, I welcome the Minister's decision on history but he now needs to deal with the issue concerning secretaries and realise their role and function are vital. These secretaries cannot be treated differently from other school secretaries. When we consider only 10% of school secretaries come under the Department, that shows there is a huge cohort of people who need to be treated properly and respectfully. Things change, and they have to do so. This is a wealthy country in many respects. People often say we cannot afford this but I am sure the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, would agree education is the cornerstone of our society. We must ensure all these situations are rectified to ensure there are no shortcomings regarding our schools. As has been said, this issue is not the fault of the schools. The Department needs to pony up and sort this out as soon as possible. The Minister can see that Fórsa wants to engage and to sort this out.

I welcome the debate. It is obvious from all the contributions by Members of all parties and none that there is universal acceptance that something needs to be done. There is goodwill on this issue across the House and it is the Minister's job to translate that goodwill into action.

I heard the Minister respond to this issue during Questions on Promised Legislation earlier in the week. He said there have been many Ministers with responsibility for education who have not dealt with this issue and that it has been an issue for a long number of years. That is not an excuse for not doing anything; it is all the more reason something should be done.

This is not an anomaly that just needs to be fixed. This is an inherent unfairness where school secretaries are doing exactly the same job under different conditions, different levels of pay and not having the protection of being directly employed by the State which carries with it sick pay, holiday pay and a pension benefit. It is difficult for boards of management that know their secretaries are being treated differently from others. It is an unfairness that can be fixed and something that can be addressed. I am not saying it is a simple fix but there are obvious things that can be done. It is in the gift of the Minister's Department, not in the gift of the rest of us who have made our points. We could all try to score points off each other in terms of who was in government in the past. The reality is the Minister, Deputy McHugh, is in government now. He is the Minister, he can fix this and he has the goodwill of this House to do so. I urge him to fix this as quickly as possible.

I, too, met school secretaries on the picket lines. A very good public meeting on this issue, organised by the Fórsa trade union, took place in Waterford about three months ago. I went along and listened to school secretaries tell their stories. Many of the school secretaries in the room were not affected by this issue and enjoyed better working conditions but they were there in support of and to show solidarity for those who did not enjoy those conditions. If they are prepared to show their solidarity, and many of them came out on the picket lines in support of their colleagues, we have to do our job in this Chamber. The school secretaries have raised the issue, as has the trade union. They have raised concerns that the Department has not really been engaging with them on this issue, as the Minister will know. They want real engagement. We all know the only way this will be resolved is by the trade union and the Department sitting down together with a clear intention of addressing it. I encourage the Minister to do that. I hope all the contributions made here will play their part in making sure we can resolve this issue to the benefit of those school secretaries across the State.

I want to update the House. Following discussion with Fórsa late this evening, I can say the following. The Department acknowledges that Fórsa lodged a claim in respect of school secretaries and caretakers following on from a 2015 arbitration finding which expires at the end of 2019. The Department regrets that the union is now engaging in industrial action. As is normal practice, the Department will agree to use the industrial relations machinery of the State to resolve this matter. Therefore, in order to address the various issues within the claim and to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution, the Department will participate in discussions with Fórsa under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. I take on board Deputy Smith's point as to from where the instructions will come. The Department will request, and I will personally request, the assistance of the WRC in ensuring that once talks commence the industrial action be stood down to enable these discussions to progress. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on potential outcomes of the WRC process at this stage. I hope a mutually acceptable solution can be found.

I acknowledge all the contributions made this evening. The previous speaker summed it up in terms of the goodwill right across the House to try to make something happen here. We are on the same page in identifying this as an anomaly. I raised this issue when my party was in opposition. I also raised it on this side of the House, most recently last October when I got the job as Minister for Education and Skills and said that I wanted to do something about it. There is a good energy around this now. There is the space to allow the Department to finish the work on the survey.

I thank my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, and other people, through the Members' communication networks, for keeping the communication lines open to ensure this is going to happen.

On a personal level, I mention Kathleen O'Doherty from Donegal who, on behalf of all the secretaries and of the many secretaries who have campaigned on this issue for many years, worked to help to bring it to this stage. I thank the Deputies again for their contributions this evening. Undoubtedly, those contributions will help and be of value in creating awareness of the issue as these discussions take place. I wish the process well. I thank my officials who have been engaging on this issue with Fórsa. I also thank the Fórsa union for coming to this agreement this evening.

I have been asked if it is possible for the Minister to provide a note of what has been agreed; in other words, the statement he has just announced.

Can the spokespersons reply briefly to what the Minister said? He has just made a major announcement.

He has made a major announcement. The spokespersons can have one minute.

The Minister has granted exactly what Fianna Fáil had asked for and exactly what Fórsa had asked for during the past few weeks, namely, that talks would start. This is a major announcement and we welcome it. It is the start of a process but it is what the WRC asked for almost five years ago. The secretaries have had to take industrial action and I commend them on the action they have taken so far to get to this point. However, as is usual with this Government, and as I said during my contribution an hour ago, it always seems to let things fester before it eventually agrees to talks, and now it has happened during this Dáil debate this evening. It is a pity it did not happen before that but I acknowledge it is a step forward. It is what we have asked for. I just do not know why the Government had to put everybody through so much hassle to get to this point.

The first thing we should do is not play party politics with this issue and start patting ourselves on the back. It is the secretaries and caretakers who have been pushing this issue for years. Admittedly, we have been a conduit and the trade union in recent times has robustly taken on this issue but this is only the start of a process. There is a long way to go. I wish all the sides well. I want to see a resolution and I hope that we can get one. I still think it is in the gift of the Department to sort it out, notwithstanding that a process has opened up, and that is encouraging. I hope the outcome of that will be the deal and the better working conditions that those school secretaries and caretakers deserve.

I welcome what the Minister said. It is a step forward and, hopefully, will be an end to the kick-the-can-down-the-road approach which the Department has taken so far. It is important that Fórsa and the school secretaries get a signal from the Minister and his Department that they want to end the two-tier system and have an equitable deal starting on 1 January 2020. It is not my role to pre-empt any industrial relations discussions. However, now that the Minister is going to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, that is what he will have to go with. Given that there are hundreds of school secretaries watching this debate, it is a shame that the Minister could not state now that he wants to see an end to the two-tier system for the employment of secretaries and an equitable deal. He said something, however, that is positive which we welcome. We look forward to fruitful negotiations with the WRC which will end the discrimination that these women - they are mainly women - have suffered for two generations.

I welcome the Minister’s response. It is a pity that it went to the wire, however. The Fórsa union, representing the secretaries, made it clear today that if the Department was not willing to go to the WRC, its members would take industrial action next week. On the last point of calling off industrial action for the talks to take place, I was informed by the secretaries that they knew they could not concede on that because of their experience of the past 40 years trying to get this issue into the ether of politics.

I welcome this move and I hope the secretaries achieve the direct employment for which they are looking. I hope they also get all the holiday pay and pension rights that go with it. I look forward to these negotiations.

I welcome this decision he will enter talks. I hope they will be meaningful. It is a shame that it took industrial action to prompt this response. The issue of equal pay for equal work for our secretaries, caretakers and teachers in the full education system needs to be tackled. We must start with the secretaries and move on to the teachers for equal pay for equal work. There must be meaningful talks and an end to the two-tier system of pay.

I welcome the decision to go to the WRC. This is not unusual, however, and is just the first step. The important point is that the Minister and his officials go to the WRC with a view to solving this problem in a way that will mean school secretaries will be employed directly by the Department of Education and Skills. That is the bottom line and what the process must achieve.