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‘We just want to be treated fairly’ say striking education support workers

Staff in dispute over pay and grading

“We love our work, but we just want to be treated fairly” – that was the message from striking education support workers in Armagh this week.

Non-teaching staff picketed outside the Education Authority (EA) headquarters on the Mall today (Tuesday) and yesterday as part of the province-wide dispute by members of NIPSA, Unite and GMB trade unions.

It is part of a long-running dispute over pay and grading.

One worker, who did not wish to be named, is a unit supervisor of a school meals kitchen and has worked for the EA and its predecessor, the Southern Education and Library Board, for 31 years.

She feels aggrieved that she earns just 70p more than a catering assistant, yet has a lot more responsibility.

She said: “You have all the book work to do, you have wages to do, you are responsible for everything coming into the school. Allergens play a big part too. It would fall on my head if anything happened to a child. It’s a big responsibility and you’re not looked after for it.

“By the time you pay a mortgage and all your bills, you have very little left to live on.”

Another striker, who works as a building supervisor in a school, added: “We do take a lot of pride in what we do and we just want to be treated fairly. Other people have got what they deserve but I feel they have forgotten about us.

“We are an important cog in the machine and t’s about being treated equally and fairly. Everyone that goes into the school is important.

“As somebody else said, we could go to another job and get paid more, but we enjoy what we do. We enjoy helping the children.”

Another woman, who has recently joined the education sector from the caring sector, works as a classroom assistant for children with special educational needs (SEN).

“Within our class there are children with sensory needs and they would actually need a place in a special school, so I have noticed misplacement of children, which makes our job harder and more challenging,” she said.

“My pay scale is SEN but we have children in our class with additional needs so if I was working in Lisanally for instance, I would be getting the additional needs pay rate. I have those children in my classroom and I’m not getting that pay.

“I enjoy my job. You can’t do special education if you don’t care and we really don’t want to be out on strike. But if you don’t take a stand and draw the line somewhere, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Department of Education permanent secretary Dr Mark Browne said, in a letter to schools, that to implement the review and award back pay from April 2022 would cost around £180m and then £90m a year thereafter.

He said that because the NI Executive did not have the funding required to implement the changes, the minister of finance should seek approval from the Treasury to bring forward funding set aside to be accessed in 2024-25.

He added: “The minister of finance is currently making that case and we await a decision from London.”

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