Just days after the surprise announcement of a change in the education portfolio, about 13,000 secondary teachers went ahead with their scheduled one-day strike in support of a 21 per cent pay claim.
The ministerial change was part of a cabinet reshuffle which saw the long-serving, enthusiastic but at times confrontational Lockwood Smith shifted from education to agriculture, with education going to Mr Creech, who retains his employment portfolio to allow better co-ordination of the two areas.
The switch to Mr Creech, a minister perceived as more conciliatory and pragmatic than his predecessor, has been interpreted as a bid to calm a volatile situation fast becoming a liability in election year.
However, a hastily arranged meeting between union officials and the new minister failed to avert the strike, with Mr Creech indicating government policy would not change.
The government has offered a 2 per cent across-the-board pay rise plus a 1 per cent increase linked to performance as its opening offer. Mr Creech has said any pay increase is a matter for negotiation, but the government was insisting on a more flexible system to reward excellence and commitment, as happened in other professions.
The government was willing to pay good teachers more, and the best ones much more. "If the union keeps insisting that all teachers regardless of commitment and ability are all equally good and therefore should be paid the same salaries, then teaching salaries will never catch up with those of other professions," he said.
The strike is the first step in a programme of industrial action the Post Primary Teachers' Union has mapped out if there is no satisfactory progress with the pay talks. The teachers want a 21 per cent pay rise, more jobs, and a cap on workloads, and they oppose the concept of performance pay.