Schools across Northern Ireland are grappling with major disruptions and possible closures as thousands of non-teaching staff embark on a strike on Thursday. The walkout, organized by four major unions, including Unison, Unite, GMB, and Nipsa, comes amid an escalating dispute over pay, with classroom assistants, bus drivers, catering staff, cleaners, and other support workers demanding fair wages.
A representative from one of the unions estimated that between 15,000 to 20,000 non-teaching staff members are expected to participate in Thursday's strike, causing significant disruptions to daily school operations.
The Department of Education (DE) has asserted that it cannot afford to increase wages within its current budget constraints. Officials emphasized the need for additional funding to address the pay concerns and stated that they are working with the Education Authority (EA) to find a resolution.
The Education Authority anticipates "significant disruption" to schools, affecting areas such as transportation, school meals, cleaning services, and the availability of classroom assistants. The strike, expected to last the entire day for some unions and two hours for others, marks a substantial escalation in the ongoing disagreement.
Non-teaching staff members argue that a long-standing review, designed to lead to pay increases, has not been implemented. Employees from Unison, Unite, and GMB, who are employed by the Education Authority, are participating in a full-day strike, while Nipsa members will strike for two hours after the start of their shifts.
Speaking on behalf of the striking workers, Unite's regional officer Kieran Ellison blamed the Department of Education for the intensification of the situation, accusing senior management of obstructive behavior. Unison's lead negotiator for education, Anne Speed, called for a "fair reform" of pay, emphasizing that education budget cuts by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris have hindered the resolution of the issue.
The Department of Education revealed that the proposed pay increase would have a significant financial impact, with an initial annual implementation cost of £39 million for the Education Authority, escalating to £71 million after three years. However, there is currently no available budget to implement these changes without additional funding.
The strikes have garnered support from educators and school administrators. Chris Donnelly, principal of St John the Baptist Primary in West Belfast, expressed full support for non-teaching staff, acknowledging their invaluable contribution to the educational experience of children. Similarly, Raymond McFeeters, principal of Ardnashee Special School and College in Londonderry, highlighted the undervaluation of classroom assistants, despite the critical role they play in the education system.
As schools grapple with closures and disruptions, the unions remain steadfast in their call for fair pay and a resolution to the ongoing pay dispute, emphasizing the importance of supporting education in the face of budgetary challenges. The strike serves as a collective stand against what union representatives describe as the "negative direction" of the education system.
Image credit: Danny Lawson/PA
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