Viewpoint: Who's kidding who in the classroom?
The strike of classroom assistants, called for today, is not only the longest pay dispute in Northern Ireland's history, but is one of the most complex. It involves re-evaluation and re-grading of the work of the assistants, which has taken years to complete, and it also is crucially affected by the financial pressures on the five education boards, which are under strict controls by the Department of Education.
Only the Department can supply the £30m-plus which has been accumulating over the past 12 years, and only the Minister, Catriona Ruane, can find extra funds to stop the strike. Yet, despite her intervention on Monday, initiating talks with the unions, there was no more money on the table and the situation remained unchanged.
The classroom assistants, who help to keep schools running smoothly and are essential to the care of special needs children, have already voted for strike action - by 93% consent - on the offer they have been made. The unions complain that the boards have attempted to alter their members' contractual position, measuring their 32.5-hour week against a standard 36-hour week by non-teaching staff. They argue that it would mean cutting pay rates for low-paid, predominantly female workers.
Another bone of contention is that the Boards say that the level of knowledge and skills required for assistants is merely "up to" NVQ level 3. In fact NIPSA claims that the official figures show that more than 80% of classroom assistants have this qualification.
Ms Ruane has called on the education boards to implement the new gradings, so that these "valuable staff receive the pay rates to which they are entitled", following the job evaluation process. But these are empty words, unless there is agreement on the fairness of the new gradings, and more money is available to the boards.
As Sammy Wilson, chairman of the Assembly's education committee has said, the boards' hands are tied, without extra funding, and no one is clear about the cost of the classroom assistants' package, since there are so many variables. The minister's problems are obvious, when money is tight, but the public will not accept more delay in settling a 12-year dispute that is affecting morale in many schools - and is upsetting parents who so depend on the assistants for help with their special needs children.
The time has come for Mrs Ruane to call all the parties together and insist on a large dose of realism, from all concerned. Classroom assistants may be in a special category, but all non-teaching staff pay rates should be placed on scales fixed nationally. As holder of the purse strings, Finance Minister Peter Robinson must be involved, sooner rather than later.