Teachers' Strike Action

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 2:00 pm, 23rd January 2017

2. Mr Butler asked the Minister of Education for his assessment of the announcement by National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers that nearly 200 schools will be going on strike on 31 January 2017. (AQO 946/16-21)

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

3. Mr McPhillips asked the Minister of Education for an update on his Department's work with trade unions in relation to strike action. (AQO 947/16-21)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 2 and 3 together because they relate to the same subject.

I am disappointed that the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) is engaged in ongoing industrial action. The recognised negotiating forum for teachers’ terms and conditions is the Teachers' Negotiating Committee (TNC), at which the Department is represented. The TNC is made up of representatives from the Northern Ireland Teaching Council (NITC), which comprises the five teaching unions, and management side, which comprises representatives from the Education Authority, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), sectoral interests and the Department. Management side meets the Teaching Council regularly as part of its work on TNC and is committed to moving forward in a constructive fashion. Management side met the teaching unions 10 days ago, on 12 January, in relation to industrial action. I welcome the fact that that meeting was described by those involved as constructive. I understand that there was agreement to an exchange of discussion papers, with a further meeting scheduled for tomorrow. If we are looking for positives, it is at least a positive step that there is at least that engagement. I urge the teaching unions, which have taken, to be fair, slightly different attitudes to industrial action, to continue to get round to management side to focus on the issues for 2017 and beyond.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Thank you for your answer, Minister. We welcome any ongoing talks. Can you outline any actions that you have taken to ensure that, in this crisis, teachers will be paid adequately and work under acceptable conditions, with a manageable workload and with the appropriate support to deliver education for our children and young people?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There are a number of things in relation to that. Workload is a key issue that a lot of teachers have raised with me. That is why we sought suggestions from schools — and we are ending the collation of those responses — not simply on where there could be additional responsibility or opportunities for a greater level of flexibility for schools but about easing burdens. Particularly in a very tight financial situation, looking to where we can ease burdens on schools and teachers is vital. I am a little bit disappointed that, even among those unions that have taken the view of non-strike action, there is an impact in terms of non-cooperation with the inspectorate, because that can impact on pupils' learning.

As regards the broader financial situation, it is important that there is a focus on where we move on from 2017, because there is not a big pot of money sitting somewhere that is ready to be paid to make up for what has happened to date. I should also indicate that previous settlements included increments, which are no longer automatic in England. It is about trying to get a situation — tomorrow will hopefully be the first step in this — where people are looking forward rather than trying to resolve issues, some of which date back many years. Maybe that is a wider lesson for society in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thanks to the Minister for his answers so far. Does he agree that the potential for a resolution on teachers' pay has been compromised due to the shenanigans in the Assembly, and is he confident that a resolution will be found post-election when he abandons his post?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am not sure that "abandon" is quite the correct word on that side of things on it. Clearly, we have had issues around the broader perspective. The fact that the Executive have been collapsed by one party and that, in particular, it has been done ahead of any Budget settlement is not helpful to the overall situation. The opportunity for a greater level of resolution is that people look forward to 2017. It is not realistic to think that there is some big pot of money out there to cover the situation between 2015 and now or, indeed, to backdate that. It is also not simply a question of finding a one-off pot. If you make changes to the pay and conditions, that has a long-term impact on the school budgets and creates a level of pressure because it baselines within that. That must also be borne in mind. The opportunities for that will potentially be in looking forward to 2017. The reality is that, whether it is me or somebody else in post, the issues ultimately remain the same, and a belief that some change of personalities will suddenly make resolution very easy in many ways misunderstands the nature of the problem.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Minister to bear in mind and look closely at the work being carried out by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) during this industrial action period, because a school in my constituency, Cortamlet Primary School, has been informed that a monitoring inspection —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Does the Member have a question?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

— will take place tomorrow. Given that ETI will not be able to finalise a complete report because of the industrial action, will the Minister undertake to look at this situation to ensure that no school is left with an unsatisfactory finding and damage to the school's reputation as a result of —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I think that the Member has asked his question. I call the Minister.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

— circumstances beyond its control?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There may be certain things that are beyond my control as well in relation to that. It is unfortunate that a particular approach has been taken towards the inspectorate because that can be damaging to the school and to the reputation of the school. Let us remember that the inspectorate is not doing its work because it gets some sort of perverse kick out of this; it is doing it to try to ensure that we have proper standards in our schools. In certain regards, ETI is always a bit of an easy target on that basis on it. That non-cooperation is damaging, as I said, to our schools and to our children, and I urge all the unions and all teachers to fully cooperate with ETI. We need to see a degree of solution on this as well.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

In addition to teachers' pay, there is a wide range of issues facing education in Northern Ireland at the moment, including the suspension of the special educational needs (SEN) nursery review, the rejection of school budgets, proposed school bus charges, and most recently —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Can the Member come to his question?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

— youth workers put on protective notice. As acting Chair of the Education Committee, I have invited the Minister to provide a fuller update on these issues this Wednesday at our Committee. Will he be able to attend?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Yes, I am happy to attend that. There may be a limited amount that I can directly say on a range of those issues. The broader budgetary situation will be the same for each Department, according to the way the rules work, assuming that we are not immediately seeing a resolution to all those issues. I will be happy to tackle in detail some of the questions that the Member has raised. In some cases, there has been talk of particular proposals when, in fact, no proposals have necessarily been made. I tried to comment today on an issue that had come up where, again, there was a degree of misunderstanding and, indeed, some — not in this House — make a level of political exploitation of that without knowing the facts on that basis on it, but it is important that we shed as much light as possible on that. It may well come up in other questions on it. In terms of reviews, consultations etc, anything that is coming back into the Education Authority is not in and of itself suspended, but the protocol is that you do not really perform consultations during an election period. He mentioned, for instance, the SEN review, and there are other reviews as well. Those are very important issues, and it is important that we get a proper focus on them so that there is no distraction. I am happy to come along to the Committee to answer questions, effectively on my own, on those issues. I will try to be as helpful as possible within the constraints of the level of knowledge that I have.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP 2:15 pm, 23rd January 2017

What guidance have the employers issued to schools in relation to the proposed industrial action?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Obviously, guidance has been issued by employers — for instance, the Education Authority or CCMS — to boards of governors and school principals to assist schools in the face of escalated industrial action. It particularly advises school principals to consider contingency plans and to ascertain what the impact of the industrial action will be in the school to ensure that appropriate levels of supervision and support can be provided, to ensure accurate recording of attendance for pupils and staff and to consider the provision of home-to-school transport and school meals.

I would also indicate that, sometimes, when you drill down into figures of the impact of particular days of action, whilst some of them are geographically specific, it is not necessarily a universal position. Sometimes, it depends on which union is creating the industrial action and its level of strength within a particular school. Many schools have been able to carry on without particular impact, others have had to close the school for a day or a half day and others have had different regimes. There is slightly more of a spectrum of impact, rather than necessarily a full impact, on schools on any one occasion.