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The schemes were later withdrawn in 2008. These schemes have been superseded by the more extensive capitation grant schemes.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.