Viewpoint: Pupils have suffered enough
As the half-term holiday draws to a close, teachers, pupils and parents across Northern Ireland are gearing up for action on Monday. But the picture is different at the province's special schools, which face continuing uncertainty over the possible resumption of industrial action as a result of the classroom assistants' pay dispute.
Regrettably, attempts by the Labour Relations Agency to broker a deal by the deadline of October 30 ended in failure. Although one of the three smaller unions has accepted a new offer NIPSA, which represents a majority of classroom assistants, says there are still unanswered questions.
The two sides remain at loggerheads in a complex dispute, the roots of which can be traced back to an evaluation exercise which began in 2002. But with any backdated pay which is awarded to the 3,000 assistants due to be calculated from 1995, this is a deep-seated and protracted dispute.
In this case, time has unfortunately not been a healer. Although improved offers have been made , union representatives and management from the five education boards are still far apart.
It is difficult for those not privy to the negotiations to know why this row has not yet been resolved. But what is clear is that special needs children are going to be caught in the middle.
If strike action does resume, their routine will face disruption. Families will be placed under an intolerable burden by having to look after vulnerable children during the day, as well as caring for them at night and at the weekend.
This time round, the authorities have made contingency plans to ensure that in the event of a strike, schools remain open for business. As a stop-gap measure, some schools are inviting parents to come in and acts as classroom assistants.
This is a laudable objective, but it is a high-risk strategy and will require the most sensitive of handling. Any such personnel must only operate under the supervision of qualified staff.
This policy might keep some schools operating even if there is another strike, but the real challenge is to end the impasse. It appears that a breathing space has been created, with NIPSA postponing direct action for a week.
A window of opportunity is being created and it must be used by all the interested parties. If the LRA cannot secure agreement then the Minister will need to step in. To date, Caitriona Ruane has adopted a hands-off approach, pointing out that the classroom assistants are employed by the education boards, not the Department.
That distinction will be lost on the parents who are once again having to brace themselves for the prospect of disruption. All they want is for Ms Ruane to resolve the dispute and make it possible for normal life to resume. Our special needs children have suffered enough.