A raw deal for Northern Ireland

8th April 2005 at 01:00
The pay and conditions of Ulster's staff are falling behind England's - so who is to blame? Warwick Mansell reports

Teachers in Northern Ireland now appear to have the worst pay and conditions in the United Kingdom - and unions and ministers are blaming each other.

As controversy continues in England over the decision to give staff half a day a week for marking and preparation from September, attempts to give Ulster staff a similar deal have yet to get off the ground.

A long-awaited Government-commissioned report last year suggested a workload deal broadly similar to that for teachers in England and Wales.

The Curran report said teachers should not routinely carry out administrative tasks, and there should be a limit on covering for absent colleagues.

Yet, 18 months after the first stage of the agreement was implemented on the mainland, there have been no changes in Ulster, nor is there any immediate prospect of 10-per-cent non-contact time.

Meanwhile, tortuous pay negotiations have meant salaries for experienced teachers in the province are not keeping up with those in England and Wales.

Experienced teachers in Ulster only advanced to point two of the upper pay spine (UPS) last November. The money was backdated, but only to September 2003 - a year after experienced English and Welsh teachers started to received their UPS2 cash.

Northern Irish staff are expected to advance to UPS3 in September, again a year behind everyone else, though Barry Gardiner, the province's education minister, has said he hopes to get this backdated. So what is going on?

Mr Gardiner told The TES he did not want to apportion blame - but still manged to point the finger at the unions as he tried to explain the wage disparity.

In 2000, they had rejected performance-related pay, he said, and only agreed to the introduction of an appraisal scheme, which the Government said had to be implemented in return for the extra pay, last year.

As a result, appraisal of staff in Northern Ireland would not be launched until September 2005. However, experienced teachers, had been receiving UPS2 from September 2003 (rises on the upper pay scale are supposed to be performance-related) two years before having to be appraised. In England, UPS2 had not been introduced until two years after appraisal began.

Mr Gardiner said: "If, in 2000, the unions had said, 'performance review - no problem', teachers would have advanced up the upper pay scale."

Fern Turner, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the province had been "playing catch-up" on salaries since the unions had rejected performance pay in 2000.

Classroom unions, however, said Mr Gardiner's claims were a smokescreen for his refusal to come up with extra money.

Gerald Imison, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Mr Gardiner is trying to justify his inability or unwillingness to find the money to allow Northern Ireland's teachers to catch up with England's on UPS."

Unions also pointed to the difficulty the minister has had finding cash to support the workload recommendations of the Curran review - led by Sean Curran, a businessman and former chairman of the Northern Ireland probation board.

Although Mr Gardiner said he was committed to the report's recommendations, he admitted that there is no money to implement them. The unions say he promised last year to go to the Treasury to ask for more cash, only to return without the money.

The lack of movement on teachers' pay and conditions in Northern Ireland only fuels unions' suspicions that Labour is less concerned about education funding in Ulster than in England.

Frank Bunting, of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, and Roger Rainey, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, both point to the fact that Labour does not have any seats in Northern Ireland.

This, they said, means it feels very little electoral backlash from any controversy over underfunding.

Unions also said that Northern Ireland had lost out after the suspension of the Stormont Assembly in 2002.

Mr Gardiner denied that education was worse off without Stormont, arguing that the amount of cash the province receives is set at the same level under direct rule as it was three years ago.

He said that all ministers wanted a return to devolution of education to the Northern Irish assembly.

However, the prospects for that look bleak, meaning unions' complaints are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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