The Northern Ireland teachers pay strike: money or choice?

Blog
06 February 2017 by Mark Langhammer
Protesting lady
The 30th November saw the first teachers strike since the 2010 Pension strike. ATL, with the Ulster Teachers Union and the Irish National Teachers Organisation balloted members for action in December.

Following the ballot on Pay, in which 83.9% voted for industrial action (short of strike) in response to the Government’s derisory pay offer of 0% in 2015-16 and 1% in 2016-17, ATL has announced that its action would commence as of Monday 16th January.

The Minister, Peter Weir, has misrepresented the position (Belfast Telegraph 23rd November). The 0% pay ‘award’ imposed by the Minister for 2015-16 came at the end of a protracted negotiation. It is simply not sustainable to assert, as the Minister does, that teachers need to “live in the real world” or that teachers were quoting “fantasy figures”.

Money was on the table, initially through a 1% pay-rise offer, then eventually through a 1.37% final offer.  Either offer would have settled the matter, but both came with “strings attached” in the form of Performance Related Pay and an end to “time-served” progression.  Even the language used is pejorative.  Performance pay would initially affect only a minority of current teachers. However, we were acutely aware that it would apply to every single newly qualified entrant teacher in the future. New teachers in Northern Ireland typically spend many years in episodic and uncertain employment before achieving job security. Teachers did hold out for a 3% pay-rise, as a contractual buy-out, in return for accepting the educationally damaging performance policy proposed by Government. Hardly “fantasy figures”.

Performance related pay has superficial attractions as a slogan, but in schools its effects are corrosive. OECD research tells us that there is no relationship between pupil achievement and the use of performance based pay schemes. Indeed, it may reduce performance. Performance schemes undermine effective school improvement, encouraging teachers to work in isolation, not as a school community. It reduces collaboration between schools. It distorts teaching and steers teachers to the “best”, higher-achieving classes rather than the hardest to help. Teaching is a professional skill and the quality of performance cannot be measured, quantified or ranked in the way performance systems demand. Performance systems distort professional appraisal and increase bureaucracy through time-consuming appeals. The English experience shows that black and ethnic minority teachers are disproportionately punished by performance systems as are older teachers, and women teachers.

The sole purpose of performance systems is to slow teachers’ progress along the agreed pay scales to save money. Teachers understand this and, quite rightly, rejected the performance system ‘strings’ that have led to this dispute. Professionally, they could do no other!

Teaching as a graduate profession has lost status. Northern Ireland teachers’ pay now stands 16% behind the OECD average. Recent increases in National Insurance and in pension contributions saw many teachers receive a real-terms pay cut in 2015-16. Since the pay freeze was implemented in 2010-11 teachers have lost close to 15% in real terms.

Contrary to Peter Weir’s assertion, the dispute was not primarily about money.  The money was there, whether 1% or 1.37%, but was whipped away in a fit of pique because teachers resisted a damaging system of performance related pay. Mr Weir says there is no money. We say that there is money for some things, but not for others. The Executive have ways to raise money that they have yet to exhaust. There is money a plenty for Ministerial pet projects, too numerous to mention. Is it money, or choice? You decide.

Find out more about what industrial action is being taken

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Industrial relations