Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (1)

Thomas Byrne


1. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the timeline for talks to commence with school secretaries; if a date will be set for the commencement of negotiations with representatives of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20075/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

Tá an cheist seo dírithe ar stad na rúnaithe agus na feighlithe sna scoileanna ar fud na tíre seo a bhfuil dhá chóras pá acu, cuid acu ar chonarthaí buan le pinsin agus cuid eile acu ar chonarthaí náid uaireanta.

This question concerns the two-tier structure for school secretaries and school caretakers, in particular the fact a very small number of them have permanent, pensionable jobs, as they should have, while the vast majority are effectively on zero-hour contracts, as the Department would have it. The question asks when negotiations will start, as mandated and agreed by the Department in the Workplace Relations Commission process.

Gabhaim buíochas don Teachta fá choinne na ceiste. Ceist thábhachtach atá ann agus tá sé soiléir go bhfuil ról lárnach ag na rúnaithe sa tír seo. Nuair a bhíonn tuismitheoirí, Teachtaí Dála nó aon duine den phobal ag dul go dtí an scoil, an chéad duine a chasfar leis ná an rúnaí ag an doras. Tá na rúnaithe ag déanamh fíor-iarracht agus tá dualgas mór orthu fadúda scoileanna a bhogadh ar aghaidh.

I recognise the very important work done by school secretaries and other support staff in the running of our schools and I am grateful to them for the contribution they make to our education system.  I have spoken to a number of school secretaries about their employment conditions and understand the issues they have raised.

Schemes were initiated in 1978 and 1979 for the employment of clerical officers and caretakers in schools.  The schemes were withdrawn completely in 2008 and these schemes have been superseded by the more extensive capitation grant schemes.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.

I have recently relaxed the moratorium for those community and comprehensive, C&C, and ETB schools with enrolments of 700 and more, which will allow them to employ an additional school secretary up to a maximum of two per school. There are 91 schools in the C&C and ETB sector which meet this criteria, based on the information available to the Department.

This is an initial step and has taken immediate effect.

The majority of primary and voluntary secondary schools now receive assistance to provide for secretarial, caretaking and cleaning services under these grant schemes.  It is a matter for each individual school to decide how best to apply the grant funding to suit its particular needs. Where a school uses the grant funding for caretaking or secretarial purposes, any staff taken on to support those functions are employees of the individual school.  Specific responsibility for pay and conditions rests with the school.

On foot of a chairman’s note to the Lansdowne Road Agreement my Department engaged with the unions representing school secretaries and caretakers, including through an independent arbitration process in 2015. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase for staff of 10% between 2016 and 2019 and for a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 to be phased in over that period.

The Deputy asked a specific question about timing. The Department has agreed to arrange a meeting with the Fórsa trade union and is currently making arrangements for this meeting to take place in late May or early June.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The arbitration agreement I referred to covers the period up to 31 December 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, has been paid €13 per hour from 1 January 2019, a 50% increase in that individual’s hourly pay.

Officials from my Department attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills on 9 April to discuss the status of non-teaching staff.

Fórsa has requested a meeting with the Department to discuss pay arrangements for grant-funded secretaries and caretakers from 2020 onwards. The Department has agreed to arrange a meeting with the union and is currently making arrangements for this meeting to take place in late May or early June.

It goes without saying that school secretaries and caretakers do great work. With all the circulars that the Minister's Department continues to fire at schools on a regular basis, secretaries actually have to take up a huge amount of schools' administrative burden. It is welcome that the Minister's Department will start talks. I would like to know the specifics. Are these talks in accordance with the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, recommendation of four years ago or are they just talks about talks? When will this inequality end? Things are unequal. The current crazy scenario is that education and training board, ETB, schools all have pensionable permanent secretaries and schools with other patron bodies do not. Many times in the last few years, plebiscites have been held among parents to decide which patron will take over a school. If an ETB takes over the patronage of a school the secretary will be permanent and pensionable. However, if patronage is taken over by Educate Together, the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, CPMSA, or one of the bodies involved in the management of gaelscoileanna, the secretaries will not have permanent pensionable jobs. That is very unfair and wrong and it needs to end. I hope that these talks, for which we have been asking for some time, will be the start of it.

I will not predetermine how the talks will develop. The important thing is that the sides are meeting. I am on public record as saying this is an issue and there is an anomaly affecting many of these secretaries. I agree with the Deputy. A lot of these issues have been raised by politicians through the years and nothing has been done. I want to end that. I want to acknowledge the campaign the secretaries are undertaking through Fórsa. A meeting has been arranged with Fórsa in regard to this and several other issues specific to secondary schools. Once again, I want to put on record that we are due to meet late in May or early in June. I want to see a pathway to ensuring some sort of certainty for these very hard-working people. I include caretakers in that as well.

We have been asking for this and the WRC has mandated it. It has taken a union campaign to implement the terms mandated by the WRC. I have met the Fórsa caretakers and secretaries myself. This needs to end very soon. If a scale like those applied to teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, is not set out, any increase like the one given before will become a ceiling rather than a floor. That is a real problem. It is not fair that the secretary, who probably knows all of the children, parents and staff of a school, is often the one person without certainty about her - sometimes his - employment. I note that it is an overwhelmingly female profession. Secretaries do not have certainty. That is wrong and it needs to end. We need to bring back something similar to what pertained before and still pertains to this day in the ETB sector.

I am happy to work with the Deputy on this. I would like to acknowledge the presence of the Chair of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. I will keep the committee and the House informed on how things develop in the next several weeks. To reiterate, we need to develop a comprehensive mechanism that will provide a pathway to a resolution. The initial conversations at the points of contact must happen. I reiterate that when my officials meet with Fórsa we intend to have a comprehensive overview and look at ways to find a solution, rather than just meeting for the sake of meeting.