ASTI dispute leaves schools, students, and parents uncertain about the future

Pressure to resolve the ASTI dispute has accelerated talks with unions on a replacement of Lansdowne Road, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray.

Aside from the implications of yesterday’s ballot result for current Junior Certificate students, the decision of members of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland to reject proposals on pay and conditions causes major uncertainty for schools, students, and parents.

As ballot papers were about to go out to schools late last month, the ASTI’s standing committee and central executive council decided what actions would be taken in the event the proposals were rejected.

As well as continuing their lack of co-operation with junior cycle reforms and non-fulfillment of 33 extra hours a year— which they say are no longer required since the lapse of the Haddington Road Agreement last summer — members may still be expected to resume strike action on restoring equal pay for all teachers.

The most disruptive element of the action begun by the union, before talks last November resulted in a deferral, was withdrawal from supervision and substitution (S&S) duties. Although the ASTI described the situation as a response to pay being withdrawn for that work and being paid to other teachers, this did not accurately reflect the situation.

Members of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and Teachers’ Union of Ireland have been awarded an increase to their salaries in two phases last September and next. As part of the Lansdowne Road Agreement (LRA), which ASTI rejected in 2015, the figure of around €1,700 matches what was previously paid for S&S.

However, from 2013, being rostered for those duties was made a core part of a teacher’s contracted work in addition to the 22 hours class time for those in full-time positions at second-level. Those teachers who opted not to do the work were paid €1,700 less than those who did, or €1,600 for those who started teaching after 2011, and that situation will continue.

In other words, all teachers were eligible for the phased increase, and the minority who do not provide S&S cover continue to be paid less than their colleagues.

As part of the proposals finalised in late November at the Teachers’ Conciliation Council, one of the few new concessions was the offer of a permanent opt-out from the work to ASTI or other teachers who had already signed up to it — but accompanied by the associated reduction in pay.

The reason the Department of Education withheld this pay increase was the ASTI’s ban on members working the so-called Croke Park hours, which ASTI says they are no longer obliged to work. This arises from the union’s non-acceptance of the LRA.

A difference of interpretation over the question of a continuing obligation ensued, and the use by Richard Bruton’s department of financial emergency law to withhold the pay increases infuriated ASTI members. However, a threatened court challenge to that legislation has never materialised, leaving the union to use industrial relations mechanisms instead to try and force a reversal.

Complications over who would recruit or roster external staff to do S&S were deepened by ASTI’s insistence that members who were principals or deputy principals could not facilitate this. With this prospect, there was uncertainty how long secondary schools might remain closed when the S&S ban took effect on the return from the mid-term break at the start of November.

A belief among many ordinary members that the Government would offer some concession was dispelled three months ago. Instead, they found themselves outside the gates as school boards told students to stay home in the absence of workable supervision arrangements at more than 400 secondary schools staffed mostly by ASTI members.

Only the intervention of the Teachers’ Conciliation Council prevented the dispute — and the subsequent closures — becoming more prolonged.

With the proposals that emerged from those talks now rejected, the recurrence of such closures is far less likely as ASTI leaders are willing to allow members do the work for a period of time to ensure schools do not close. There is also a possibility of members in management roles being permitted, as they were to have been after the first enforced closure in November, to oversee external staff’s involvement in the work.

The ASTI’s one-day strikes in pursuit of equal pay for teachers hired after 2011 could also resume. However, the union intimates strongly ahead of formal decision next week, that such action is unlikely in the remainder of this school year ahead of state exams.

However, the ongoing threat around this topic may bring it to the fore in forthcoming public sector pay discussions between the Government and other unions. Although the INTO and TUI have secured some clawback for most members in that category, newer teachers still remain proportionately less well-off than most counterparts in the public service who saw salary scales reduced by 10% from those of longer-serving colleagues.

The increases in salaries agreed with those two unions for their more recent members last September only begin to make up for the loss of qualifications allowances which were imposed by previous governments. But some post-2011 teachers are still at a disadvantage.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald’s suggestion in the Dáil earlier yesterday that three-quarters of the gap for new entrants would have been closed by the deal might be disputed; but other benefits have also now been foregone by ASTI members.

These include phased increases in salaries for post-2011 teachers, reaching 15% to 22% in time, and immediate backdated increases for all ASTI members of the payments linked to the S&S amounts. Other aspects to the deal included a restoration of salary increments, and increased flexibility in how teachers deliver the Croke Park hours, as already agreed for schools where INTO and TUI members work.

The Government may not readily admit it, but pressure to resolve the ASTI dispute has helped to accelerate talks with the wider public service unions on a replacement of the LRA. It may yet prove ironic if the ASTI does not reap any benefits from what emerges from that process in the months ahead.

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