Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has called on unions and the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) to find a solution to the current crisis at Movilla High School as teachers enter their third day of industrial action.
The Minister told the Assembly yesterday that the situation at the Newtownards school — where 540 pupils were once again told to stay at home because of the dispute between members of the NASUWT and the SEELB — could not continue and urged all parties to engage in talks.
“Everybody needs to start talking and get this resolved,” she said. “There is a way through this.”
On Monday, 25 members of the union began their strike outside the school because their pay was docked when they refused to teach a pupil they claimed assaulted a colleague.
The union claims the SEELB stopped one week’s pay for every lesson members refused to teach the pupil. However last night the board vehemently rejected this claim, saying that it only told them they “would not pay salary to those teachers who were in breach of contract by refusing to teach a particular pupil”.
The Minister said she had been told by the SEELB that it was willing to reverse its decision to suspend teachers’ pay if the union members were willing to seek mediation.
She also said she believed the involvement of the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) and Children’s Commissioner Patricia Lewsley could help to break the deadlock.
Last night the SEELB confirmed it was willing to meet Ms Lewsley and said that it had halted the suspension of teachers' pay for those who were involved in industrial action but not striking.
It said in its most recent attempt to resolve the situation it had indicated to the NASUWT through the LRA that it had now “suspended the implementation of the complete reduction of the salaries of those teachers engaged in industrial action short of strike”.
The board said it was again calling on the union to withdraw the “totally unrealistic preconditions” and enter into discussions, either under the auspices of the LRA or the Children's Commissioner.
However Fred Brown, NAS-UWT executive member, said last night that the union would not meet with the board unless two of the pre-conditions specified — that teachers full pay is reinstated and the boy is taught by someone other than the union members — were met.
The union is also refusing to disclose exactly what happened during the incident in May, but the teacher at the centre of the dispute has told the Belfast Telegraph that he was “horrified by what happened”.
He also said that he was concerned about the effect the dispute was having on all pupils.
“I hope the situation is sorted out as quickly as possible,” he added.
Meanwhile, aside from a handful of vehicles in the car park there was little sign of life at Movilla High School yesterday afternoon.
Nearby shops and takeaway outlets which would normally have been bustling with youngsters from the school reported a distinct lack of custom.
Shop assistant Leila Harfield, whose 13-year-old son is a pupil at the school, said many parents were hoping that the dispute could be resolved as soon as possible.
“It's putting a stop to my son's education,” she said. “I do sympathise with the teachers because they shouldn't have to go through this, but it's the kids who are suffering.