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'Signing on the dole embarrases them the most': School secretaries launch campaign for equal pay

Kathleen O’Doherty from Donegal has written to eight Education Ministers about school secretaries’ pay.

TRADE UNION FÓRSA has launched a campaign calling for all school secretaries to be paid equally, to be paid during the summer months and to receive sick leave.

Around 10% of school secretaries are paid directly by the Department of Education, Fórsa estimates. Between 1978 and 1982, the Department made school secretaries public servants, and paid them directly from the Exchequer. This was later rolled back on, so now only a few hundred school secretaries are paid this way.

The rest are paid through the ‘Ancillary Services Grant’. This grant, according to the Department website, is to assist primary schools that have not been provided with secretarial and caretaking assistance directly from the Department.

Those paid through the grant can receive payments as low as €12,000 a year, according to Fórsa; their pay is based on the size of the grant awarded by the government to the school (which is based on the number of students enrolled) and by school boards of management. Their hours per year are often decided on based on what the school can afford to pay.

This compares with school secretaries paid directly by the Department of Education and Skills, on salaries varying between €24,000 and €44,711 a year.

“In the most extreme cases we’ve encountered,” lead organiser Joe O’Connor said, “school secretaries earning as little as €12,700, with no entitlement to benefits such as sick pay or pension rights.”

Many school secretaries don’t realise that they’re on different rates of pay than their colleagues.

This year, Fórsa will issue a number of leaflets, badges and posters to school secretaries and principals asking them to support the campaign for shifting secretaries pay so that they are paid by the Department.

The current pay installments for secretaries run until December this year; Fórsa is calling for negotiations to begin now to introduce the new pay source for secretaries now.

Shawshank Redemption

Speaking at an event in Dublin today, Fórsa school secretaries branch chair Maria Dunne said that it was “appalling” that some secretaries paid through the ancillary grant have to sign on during the Christmas and summer breaks because they aren’t paid.

“I think what’s happened over a series of years is that their own self-confidence has been eroded. So it’s been a very oppressive stance.

I do find it upsetting that anyone who has worked up to 20 years has to sign up to the dole. What I find constantly in meetings with secretaries is that’s the thing that embarrasses them the most.

Dunne says that the reaction of principals to an increase in pay can be mixed. 

“There are some very fair principals, however, some secretaries are afraid of joining a union – especially in a small school where everything is very intimate.”

Kathleen O’Doherty has been a school secretary in Letterkenny, Co Donegal for 23 years, managing almost 600 students and 50 staff members.

In 2005 she and another secretary gathered 60 school secretaries to talk about the pay and work conditions for school secretaries. 

She has written to eight different Education Ministers about secretaries pay, including the current Minister for Education Joe McHugh, who’s a Donegal TD.

“Each of them has the same reply,” she told She said that the government has argued that secretaries have received a 10% increase over four years through the arbitration process, but “10% isn’t much when somebody is on €9 an hour”.

I had told a friend ‘I’m sick and tired of writing and doing this’ and she said to me, ‘You’re like yer man out of the Shawshank Redemption that he kept writing to the government every day to look for funding to build a library in the prison he was in. They were so fed up that they eventually sent him the money!’

A survey by Fórsa indicated that 47% of school secretaries have to sign on at some point during the year because they aren’t paid during school holiday breaks.

Members of People-Before-Profit, the Social Democrats, and the Labour Party who were present at the event all voiced their party’s support for equal pay for school secretaries.

A national day for school secretaries will be held on a date in May, Fórsa said.

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