Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

22 November 2007 Edition

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Classroom assistants - best deal available is on the table

Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson

LAST WEEK saw the resumption of industrial action by classroom assistants in the North who are members of the NIPSA trade union. Last month, a protracted industrial dispute over job evaluation and grading for classroom assistants in the North resulted in a 10-day strike action by members of NIPSA. This action closed over half of the special needs schools in the Six Counties.
Since the establishment of the Northern Executive, the Education Minister, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane, has been working with the employers (the Education and Library Boards) and the trade unions to find a resolution to the long-running dispute. The Minister has met with all the unions involved.
Sinn Féin recognises the right of all trade unions to undertake industrial action in the interests of defending and improving the pay and conditions of their members. Classroom assistants are low-paid workers with a legitimate demand for better pay and conditions. Speaking during the summer, Caitríona Ruane said:
“Classroom assistants provide an invaluable role and are a hugely positive force in the lives of the children they serve. They work with some of our most vulnerable young people, including those who have a range of special needs.”
Classroom assistants fulfil a crucial role within the education system and, as a result, work stoppages by these workers has a significant impact, particularly on special needs schools that were hit by last week’s stoppage by NIPSA members.
Tackling low pay is a core Sinn Féin policy objective, as set out within the party’s Workers’ Rights policy endorsed by this year’s Ard Fheis. However, there are limits on what can be achieved by the Executive at this time in meeting the demands being put forward by unions on behalf of their members. The best deal that it is possible to offer at this time has been put on the table. On this basis, Caitríona Ruane urged NIPSA to follow the lead of the other unions involved in the dispute and return to work.
“Our objective from the start was to achieve the best outcome in terms of pay and conditions for classroom assistants. There are, of course, financial limits on what can be delivered but I believe that the best deal possible at this time is now on the table. It was on this basis that I have strongly urged NIPSA members to return to work,” she said.
The Minister also pointed to the fact that a ministerial review of the roles of staff in schools is under way.
The offer being made to classroom assistants by the Education and Library Board is in three parts. Firstly, approximately 50 per cent of existing staff will be upgraded at a cost of £3.5m per year and up to £25m will be paid in back-pay going back to 1995.
Secondly, the Education and Library Boards have agreed that an additional £15m will be paid as a one-off lump sum to all existing classroom assistants by way of compensation to existing staff for an hour’s rationalisation for new staff; 3,195 classroom assistants with less than five years’ service will get £1,614 and 3,629 above five years will get £2,479.
Thirdly, no existing member of staff will be required to work additional hours or to change their hours of work or their times of work. Existing members of staff not upgraded will continue to receive their current hourly rates for their current hours of work. All existing staff not upgraded will continue to benefit from future pay increases. In addition, the special needs allowance currently paid to those classroom assistants working with children with special needs will be increased.
GMB members balloted on the deal voted by a 4/1 majority in favour of accepting the offer now on the table. Speaking after the counting of ballots on 5 November, Eamonn Coy, GMB Senior Organiser in the Six Counties, said:
“GMB members in the classrooms in have voted by a wide margin to accept the final offer to settle this long running issue. They now look forward for wise heads to prevail in the Education Service to conclude an agreement on the current generation job evaluation scheme to get the £40m-plus in the offer into their pay packets.
“GMB members voted to accept the offer because they understand that not a single classroom assistant now employed will be worse off as a result of the offer. No current member of staff will lose money or be required to work longer or different hours.
“Our members know that almost half of them will be upgraded worth £3.5m on the annual pay bill; they will get £25m in back pay; and £15m for agreeing to rationalise hours for new staff. GMB members in schools want to see this matter concluded so that talks begin on job evaluation for other grades like cleaners and catering staff and expect these negotiations to be just as successful for these staff.”
Unions UNISON and UNITE (T&G) are currently balloting on the offer. UNISON members started voting on Tuesday, 13 November, and this process will run for a two-week period.
NIPSA, which has not balloted its members, rejected the latest offer and resumed strike action last week, and saying that it will undertake two-day strikes between now and Christmas.
Previous talks at the Labour Relations Agency between this union and the employer, the Education and Library Boards, failed to achieve agreement.
It is important that all sides in this dispute and the public understand the constraints within which the Executive operates and the limits in terms of what can be offered to the Education and Library Boards to meet pay claims such as in this case while it remains reliant on a limited block grant from the British Exchequer.
To enable ministers to be in a better position to meet public spending demands, the trade union movement and others will have to join with Sinn Féin in working and lobbying for the transfer of finance and revenue-raising powers to the Assembly – and, in the interim, in working to secure an improved financial allocation from the British Exchequer.

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