By Mary Cahillane, INTO Executive (personal capacity)
On November 30th, the NASUWT – the largest teaching union in Northern Ireland – is taking strike action in over 100 schools in Belfast and Newtownabbey, with more strikes planned in other areas in December and in the New Year. They are striking against the fact that teachers in Northern Ireland are to receive no pay rise whatsoever for 2015/2016 and were offered a paltry 1% cost of living increase for 2016/2017. This offer was rejected by all the teachers’ unions in Northern Ireland. What was offered by the employers was insulting – amounting to an increase of 78p per day for a teacher who has six years’ service and £1.60 per day for a Principal of a 500-pupil school.
Since 2010/11, teachers’ salaries have decreased in real terms by a shocking 15%. An increase in pension contributions and little or no pay rises means that teachers’ take-home pay is now lower than it was five years ago and teachers’ salaries in Northern Ireland are 16% lower than the OECD average. To add insult to injury, the Department of Education returned unspent money allocated for the 2015/2016 pay rise to Westminster and Peter Weir – the Education Minister – told the teaching unions that they should live in the “real world” and described their pay demands as “fantasy figures”!
There is a great deal of misinformation bandied about in relation to teachers’ salaries. It is quite often wrongly linked to the length of the school day and teachers’ holidays. Teachers starting salaries are £7,500 less than other graduates and a teacher lucky enough to get full-time employment will only get to the starting average for other professions after 5 years in post. The net take home pay of a young teacher at the start of their scale amounts to no more than £300 per week, rising to £500 per week for those at the top of their scale (25/30 years’ service).
This isn’t a CEO’s salary or in any way astronomical and salaries haven’t risen substantially in over 10 years. The incremental scale for teachers is very short so once a teacher reaches the top of their scale, there is no more room for manoeuvre and no promotion prospects to earn any more money. It is also worth pointing out that teachers’ workload is very high due to the bureaucratic nature of the system and many teachers work way in excess of a 35-hour week. Many young teachers are now forced to take part-time jobs to cover the cost of their student loans in order to make ends meet.
United fightback needed against education cuts
For the last number of years, all teachers unions have been involved in action short of strike action in schools. In the main, this has amounted to a “work to rule”, where teachers are working their contracts but are not taking part in any briefings, meetings after school, or working what is known as “directed time”. Directed time is when teachers are required to be on the school premises for a number of hours per week over and above teaching time.
The INTO – the teaching union of which I’m a member, based largely in the Catholic Maintained sector in the North – is also going to announce this week that it is to ballot its members for strike action in the New Year. This is likely to result in a ‘Yes’ vote and we could see most schools involved in some form of strike action in 2017.
It is unfortunate that the teaching unions don’t co-ordinate action to maximise the impact of their campaign. There is a great deal of anger amongst teachers about the way they are being treated by Stormont. The trade unions should harness this anger and gain the support of parents who are also seeing first-hand the decimation of the education service in Northern Ireland, with fewer resources, school closures and larger class sizes. A joint campaign by teaching unions alongside parents and other education workers is needed as part of a serious campaign for pay restoration and to reverse cuts to education across the board.