Schools: Proposed Industrial Action by the NASUWT

Question for Urgent Oral Answer – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 3:30 pm, 22nd November 2016

Mr Chris Lyttle has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Education. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their places. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Education to outline the planning that has been made for schools affected by proposed industrial action by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Industrial action by teachers has been ongoing since 2011. Very specifically, the last ballot by NASUWT was in 2011 voting for industrial action, and it has continued ever since.

The most recent escalation is linked to the recommendation by the management side of the Teachers' Negotiating Committee (TNC) regarding teachers' pay for 2015 and 2016. The total pay deal across those two years is 2·61%. The Teachers' Negotiating Committee is the recognised negotiating machinery for teachers' terms and conditions, represented on the trade union side by the Northern Ireland Teachers' Council (NITC), which encompasses the five main teacher unions, and, on management side, by the main managing authorities, particularly the Education Authority and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

The management side of the TNC issued a letter to boards of governors and school principals on 17 November 2016 that included guidance for helping schools to manage in the face of escalated industrial action. I understand that today, management side urged the Northern Ireland Teachers' Council to suspend its industrial action and engage with management side in urgent negotiations to resolve the matters that have resulted in industrial action, with a particular focus on 2017 and beyond. I think we need to see not simply settlements of disputes that have been ongoing for a number of years but whether we can reach a realistic position as we move forward from 2017-18 and for the rest of this mandate.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Speaker's Office for taking this question and the Education Minister for his response. I regret that we are only getting this opportunity so close to scheduled industrial strike action next Wednesday. Why has the Minister failed to support a 1% cost of living pay increase for teachers across Northern Ireland in 2015-16? What immediate action is he taking to avert industrial strike action scheduled for next Wednesday, which is likely to impact schools across Belfast and beyond?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am glad to see the urgency from the Member, given that I do not think he has been in contact with the Department to seek a meeting with me on the subject.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

You have refused to meet me on other issues, so —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

With respect, you have not. This may be a little bit about grandstanding rather than having real interest in the subject.

On the 1%, let us be clear: across the last two years ongoing negotiations took place, and a realistic approach was not taken. The initial position taken on the trade union pay claim, including the 1·13% increase in increments, was for an annual increase of 8·23%. That was sought by trade unions. There was then an increase, including an increment, of 3%, with no indication of a removal of that increment.

The Member and others refer consistently to the 1%, and, in particular, parity with England, Scotland and Wales has been raised. It should be noticeable that, for example, in Scotland, the pay rates are below those in Northern Ireland, and where annual increments are concerned, every teacher earning below £37,500 will receive a pay rise for 2015-16, but annual automatic increments were abolished in England a number of years ago. So, if we are looking to compare, we have to compare like with like. Even the more modest claim of a while ago of a 3% pay rise in-year would be three times what people get in England. If there has to be parity on the 1%, it has to be across the board.

There is no doubt that all of us would like more pay for a range of public-sector workers, but we are in tight financial circumstances. Let me make it clear: I want negotiations and discussions, particularly on how we deal with the rest of this mandate from 2017 onwards, but no additional money is available in-year. The Executive do not have the money, and, if it were to be injected into the system, given where school budgets are, it would simply lead to additional redundancies. If faced with the choice between additional pay and additional redundancies, I want to keep people in jobs and to put pupils first by ensuring that teachers are kept employed.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his responses. I understand that teachers are taking action over pay, workload and job security. What is the Minister doing to reduce the workload on teachers, including cutting down on paperwork and other non-teaching duties, to enable them to spend more time doing what they do best: teaching? What is he doing to help on job security issues?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

We have much greater job security than in England, for example, and that is where a like-with-like comparison is not being made. There is better tenure and job security in Northern Ireland. In that sense, there are better terms and conditions in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The Member makes a valid point about the pressures with paperwork. That is why, as part of the preconsultation exercise that I embarked on a couple of weeks ago, I wrote to every school, asking not simply where there should be greater autonomy but where burdens are being put on schools by the Department, the Education Authority or anybody else that are unnecessary and that duplicate work. I agree with the Member that, if we can reduce unnecessary administrative burdens as much as possible and, indeed, remove them, we should embrace that.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

In light of the fact that there have been increases to teachers' pension contributions and employees' National Insurance contributions as well as, in recent years, changes to income tax thresholds, will teachers be better off or worse off? How does that compare with other public-sector workers?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Member raises a number of points. There will be a mixed bag as a result of some of the changes. Income tax thresholds, for instance, have moved upwards, which means that a reduced level of tax will be paid on that side of things. With National Insurance contributions, there is additional pressure on the Executive. We always look at the headline figure on where we are with the block grant, but, because of changes made nationally to National Insurance contributions by employers, an extra £22 million burden has been placed directly on schools. Some £40 million has been placed on Education, but that is not unique to Education. I am sure that one of the Members opposite will look at the fact that a massive burden has also been placed on the health service because of those changes. In effect, it is not just a cut to Education but a cut across the board.

Other public-sector workers were mentioned. I indicated that the changes mean that, for 2016-17, everyone will get a direct pay increase and an increment, and everyone earning below £37,500 for 2015-16 will see a pay rise. Mention was made of the rate given to nurses. It should be remembered that automatic progression in teaching to the top point of the upper pay scale takes a teacher up to £37,900. For a nurse in a similar position, the maximum rate is £28,000, which is for longer hours. Indeed, a teacher's hourly rate is about 50% higher than that of a nurse when both are at the highest point of the upper pay scale.

When comparisons are made, they have to be made within the full context. It should also be indicated that the pay rises are not simply to basic pay; there is also 1% for 2016-17 on every teaching allowance, whether it is a management allowance or additional activities that the teacher does for which they are paid. That is also being increased.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Has the Minister had any feedback from principals and chairs of boards of governors re the impact of the industrial action that has been ongoing since 2011 on children and educational attainment?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There are obviously concerns out there. To be fair, despite any industrial action, children have achieved. We have seen good results in Education and Training Inspectorate inspections and in exams. The aim of this should always be to ensure that we put pupils first. The biggest concern that has been raised with me consistently, time and time again both before I came into office and since I came into office, is the state of school budgets. I have to be very wary that, as been highlighted on a number of occasions, there are schools that will move into greater deficit problems. I have to say that the solution to that, if schools are to live within budget, will be greater levels of redundancy. If we put additional costs into the system — the vast bulk of expenditure in schools is pay, particularly teacher pay — unfortunately we will simply force more people out of the profession. We will increase redundancy levels. That is something that we need to bear in mind as well, and it is why people need to think again and act realistically.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister agree with the teaching unions that the real-terms decrease in teachers' pay from 2010-11 has been 15%? Does he accept that that has a poor impact on teaching morale? Is there anything that can be done to address that?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

No, I do not agree. Indications are given about cuts to pay: pay is actually rising. For example, in the last two years, pay has risen by 2·61%. There is no inexhaustible supply of money, and that is the same throughout the public sector, where there are big pressures. The overall education budget is down this year. Given the pressures on the Executive, we are not in a position to give the 15% pay rises that people are talking about. At one stage, one of the unions talked about how they needed 13% to be brought up to parity. Those are just not realistic figures. Quite frankly, all of us have to live in the real world. There have to be discussions about how we can best move forward. However, if fantasy figures are produced for what should happen on pay, there has to be a realisation that that can only be paid for out of the budget for schools, which itself can only be paid out of the budget for education and the block grant. Such pay increases are not realistic. Instead of people grandstanding on issues sometimes, we need to ensure that we deal with things realistically.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

What action is the Minister taking to rationalise the administration of education in Northern Ireland to ensure that the system allows adequate pay for teachers and adequate resources for our schools?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There has been a wide range of rationalisation in the movement and the Education Authority. In terms of the pressures that are there, the uptake of the voluntary exit scheme has been considerable; indeed, the bid that has been put in for voluntary exit in the Department of Education is greater than that in any other Department. So there has been a reduction of staff in the Department and in the Education Authority, and that is an ongoing issue. However, given where we are with school budgets, that in and of itself will not match all of the gap. That is why we need to be responsible when it comes to levels of pay. I will try to drive out any additional cost that is in the system, but that cannot simply happen overnight. To be fair to my predecessor and to the Executive as a whole, that has been embraced in terms of VES and investing in the teacher workforce, which, as it moves forward, will not only refresh the workforce but lead to a reduction in cost pressures. However, ultimately, there is a limit to what people can be paid. As I said, if automatic increments are simply to be held onto when they are not there in other parts of the United Kingdom, teachers cannot also claim that there should be parity on every issue of pay.

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance 3:45 pm, 22nd November 2016

Would the Minister and Members not agree with me that teachers do not take lightly to industrial action but they recognise the inextricable link between teachers' pay and conditions on the one hand and the provision of first-class education to our children on the other? Is it not the case that they are defending the public service against the job losses etc involved in the Fresh Start Agreement? They are, therefore, giving good example to children and to people generally across society. In light of that, would the Minister and other Members care to join me and my comrade Gerry Carroll on the picket line with the teachers next week —

[Interruption.]

Photo of Eamonn McCann Eamonn McCann People Before Profit Alliance

— and join me in saying that they are giving good example? I say this: let us back the local teachers and defend the future of our children.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has asked his question, thank you.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I indicated at the start of my comments that there had been an ongoing state of industrial action since 2011. I suspect that, for the Member, there has been ongoing industrial action since about 1971. I will not be joining him.

With respect, the Member seems to propagate the same fantasy politics. At least I have some sympathy for the previous questioner, who asked what we could do to drive out unnecessary administrative costs. Ultimately, we should look to reduce administration, and that means ensuring that voluntary redundancies and the VES are at the maximum. If we put those savings into education funding, that is a sensible way forward. I am sure that the Member wants to see an expansion of the numbers in the public service and greater pay for everyone in it: mathematically, that does not add up. I cannot simply pluck figures out of the air or add money to it. I wait to see the industrial action where the Member and his colleague are not on the picket line; when the Member refuses to join the picket line, that is maybe when I should go onto it.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

There will have been Barnett consequentials to the pay rise that was given to teachers in England. Whilst I appreciate that that would not have been ring-fenced, did the Minister make the case to the Finance Minister that that money should come to him and his Department?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There are not Barnett consequentials to that. We must keep our spending within the block grant. There is a myth that separate money was set aside by Westminster for teacher pay. That was not the case, nor indeed, as some have alleged, was that money going back to Westminster. The money that has not gone into the pay rise has gone directly into school budgets to provide teachers with jobs. That is something that we have to realise: if we inject additional cost into the system, it will lead to redundancies. On the flip side, if we are able to spend that money directly on schools in providing education and not a penny goes elsewhere, we can actually help to protect those jobs. Those are the real choices, as opposed to the choices that some in the House would have us make.

Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP

Will the Minister detail for the House the average annual salary of a teacher in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Inclusive of employer contributions, the average teacher salary is £48,874 gross. The majority of teachers are above upper pay scale. Upper pay scale, at present, in terms of what they directly receive, is £37,870. As I indicated, increments are included in 2015-16 for anybody below that scale. Therefore, we are not talking about the low-paid. The low-paid in teaching are being protected, because they are receiving increments, which means that everybody below the level of £37,870 will see a pay increase for 2015-16.

Photo of Catherine Seeley Catherine Seeley Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I am sure that he will join me in commending the sterling and invaluable work that our teachers do, day and daily, at a time of increased pressure.

What action has the Minister taken, or will he take prior to Wednesday, to do all he can to avert strike action and to bring the ongoing industrial action to an end?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The direct relationship in respect of the pay is between TNC and the unions. I join, though, with the call from the chair of the TNC, today, urging the unions to get back around the table to look at where we can have pay settlements from 2017-18 onwards, to look at the long term and, indeed, to look at any of the issues that people want to be brought to the table. I am not going to pretend to people that there is a pot of money, which I am holding back and could give out if only there was agreement. There is no more money. That is where we are, unfortunately, in the current financial circumstances.

I do not want to mislead people. I urge people from the management side and the trade union side to engage seriously to address these issues and to get round the table and try to discuss those issues. It is a problem that previous Ministers had as well. When we were talking about the 2015-16 settlement, discussions went on for 15 months, without agreement being reached. It stretched over the last two jurisdictions. I think that people have to engage seriously.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Does the Minister agree that we train too many teachers? One of the criticisms of his two predecessors was that they asked for far too many teachers to be trained without the expectation of a job. Will he undertake to review that situation now that he has control of the numbers?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am certainly happy to work with the Economy Minister, in particular, because, obviously, there is a split. When we talk about teacher training, there is the issue of the numbers, which, I suppose, directly falls to my Department and the Economy Department, so I am happy to look at those issues. I do not think that the gap between the numbers coming into the profession and numbers being trained is that enormous. We have to look at the correct model. I think that getting the correct model for sustainability in teacher training is a wider piece of work. I am happy to look at those issues, but I do not think they are directly related to the current dispute. However, it is, obviously, an important, separate issue.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. It is disappointing that, at a time when, I believe, staff morale is low, we have this question before the House in such a manner. I thank the Minister for his efforts in assisting teachers in this role. Will the Minister explain to the House and dispel the myth that teachers on the mainland are better off than those in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There is a difference of position. As I said, starting salaries in Scotland are lower than those in Northern Ireland, and that even works up to the maximum level. I do not have the figures in front of me, but I did read earlier, if Members would give me a moment, that, in Scotland, they reach the maximum position of £35,409 at the end of the scale, which is approximately £2,500 less than in Northern Ireland. Yes, the 1% that was put in for England and Wales would leave the maximum of the scale at a higher level. However, the difference is that the Northern Ireland wage settlement for 2015-16 and 2016-17 contains pay progression by way of an automatic increment, because there has not been agreement to remove that. That was abolished in 2013 in England, which means that there is no automatic pay progression based on time served in England. You are dependent on performance and are at the whim of the board of governors. So, there is a differential on that side of it. On that basis, there is a distinction.

The pay deal across the board in Scotland, for example, was 2·5% over the last two years. It is 2·61% here. So, I think there is a myth being put out. If some of the unions were simply saying, "We will accept a 1% pay deal" or "We will accept a deal on that basis", on the basis of parity, the offers that they made, the initial positions, were, in composite terms, round about 8·3%, which is massively different from what is in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, if people are going to ask for parity, they also have to bear that in mind in their demands.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

My question has been answered.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

OK. That completes questions on the topic. Before we return to ministerial statements, I ask Members to take their ease while we make changes to the top Table.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)