23 August 2007 Edition

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Education dispute : Sinn Féin 100% behind classroom assistants

Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane

Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane

Classroom assistants — Get it sorted


The issue of job evaluation for classroom assistants is a long running dispute. Indeed it has been running for 12 years. The results have been felt not just by classroom assistants but also in the classroom. It has damaged morale among classroom assistants and clearly not been good for our children.
At the heart of the dispute is the relationship between the classroom assistants and their employers, the Education Library Boards.
In this dispute Sinn Féin are 100% behind the classroom assistants. We recognise that they have a crucial role in meeting the needs of children in our schools. At present many classroom assistants feel that if there is no change in their status that their role in schools will continue to be undervalued in what is an often demanding and responsible job.  Recent studies have shown that Classroom assistants felt they undertook complex welfare and care tasks without additional pay and often felt moral obligation or tacit pressure from the school to undertake these tasks.
The Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane, while she cannot intervene directly in the dispute between the assistants and their employers, has tried to work with all sides to resolve the dispute. Recognising that classroom assistants perform a vital role in supporting our youngest children and particularly those with special educational needs, she has met with classroom assistants, with their trade union NIPSA and with the Chief Executive’s of the Education Library Boards to encourage a resolution.
Sinn Féin and Catríona Ruane as Minister for Education recognises that it is vital that classroom assistant positions are graded and remunerated properly.
Unfortunately Cartíona Ruane like all Sinn Féin Ministers in the Executive face particular spending constraints related to the fact that the Assembly lacks revenue raising powers and that the Executive remains reliant on the British Exchequer. This case illustrates the very real limits of the devolution which we now have in the North.
Operating within existing resources, Caitríona Ruane set aside £30 million to cover the costs of the proposed settlement. This offer has been rejected by the union representing classroom assistants, who are now balloting for industrial action.
But this is a complicated matter where a Sinn Féin Minister is not in the position to resolve this situation as we would ideally wish.  The dispute is long running and complex and Minister Ruane is not in a position to impose a solution on the employers, the Education Library Boards or the classroom assistants.
What she has done is meet with all of the parties involved in the negotiations and made the resources available to resolve the dispute. There is now an onus on all parties to work together to get this dispute sorted out.
The resolution of job evaluation for classroom assistants and pay structures needs to be part of a wider advancement that sees not just their work properly valued but also a recognition that we should not be seeing the cutback in numbers of classroom assistants that are a direct result of decision taken by previous British direct rule ministers.
• Paul Butler is the Sinn Féin Education spokesperson.

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