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'During the summer she has to sign on': Some school secretaries are paid €10,900 a year, others €35,000

There are around 3,000 school secretaries in Ireland – most of whom are in precarious employment.

Image: Shutterstock/Kanghophoto

SCHOOL SECRETARIES ARE preparing a national campaign next year to address precarious employment issues and pay discrepancies.

The marked differences in salaries are because of the various methods in which secretaries are paid: some get a salary directly from the Department of Education and Skills worth between €24,000 and €31,000 while others are paid through an ‘ancillary grant’ that is given to a school’s board of management. The current rate at which the latter group is paid is €11.50 an hour.

These secretaries have no pension, sick leave or scale of pay as those paid through the Department do, and some have to apply for social welfare during the summer months.

There are around 3,000 school secretaries working at Irish primary and secondary schools. There are over 300 secretaries who are paid directly through the Department, with the rest in more precarious employment – (179 primary school secretaries and 130 post-primary secretaries at the end of the first quarter of 2018, according to government figures).

Kathleen O’Doherty, a Letterkenny-based secretary and a member of the trade union Fórsa, compared the situation to the equal pay dispute that teachers had raised over the past few years, where some teachers earn a starting salary that’s lower than their counterparts’ salaries.

“It’s just the unfairness and disparity of it,” O’Doherty said. “Even when teachers talk about equal pay, they are coming in on a lower rate – but they still have their pay and conditions.”

A secretary called me to say that she’d just been told that there was no work for her because the numbers had dropped – another said she was losing hours because they don’t have as many pupils at the school.

O’Doherty said that she understood the Department’s argument that pay rates are linked to the number of students, but “three or four students less doesn’t make such a difference that it deserves a pay change”.

Secretary Frank Considine told TheJournal.ie that the situation wasn’t fair, and some school secretaries might not be aware of the huge gaps between each other’s pay.

“If I might give one specific example to demonstrate the issue at hand, which I related to my own chairman.

Myself. School Secretary of an Administrative Principal. Mainstream school. Over 200 children, over 13 staff. My own salary, increased from €10,900 when I began this campaign, to €16,600 as a result of a review.
To my left. A colleague. School Secretary of an Administrative Principal. Mainstream school. Over 200 children, over 13 staff. Annual salary €27,000.
To my right. School Secretary of an Administrative Principal. Mainstream school. Over 200 children, over 13 staff. Annual salary €35,000.

“The overall funding all three schools receives from the Department of Education is identical. The difference in salaries is solely at the discretion of the respective boards of management.”

Considine has written to the Minister for Education a number of times in relation to pay, who he says has replied to say that he’s aware of the issue.

In one letter, Considine included three principals’ statements about their secretaries and their pay:

We have a school secretary who works 30 hours a week and a cleaner-caretaker who works 20 hours a week… The amount of money we can pay is dependent on our annual ancillary grant. Trying to pay both on a grant of between €38 and €40,000 does not leave much wiggle room. There is no such thing as increments. It is a very dead end job for a job that is so important to the school.
- Mayo principal
We have an excellent secretary, who is worth her weight in gold. We have not sufficient funds from ancillary grant to pay her over the summer months and she has to go on the dole. This, as you can imagine, is very embarrassing. - Sligo principal
We are a school of 413 children, two autistic units and almost 50 staff. The allowance given to us to pay for secretarial services is derisory I would love to see how they expect us to employ quality people in such an important job. The secretaries should be employed by the Department of Education and given the same conditions as other school staff. They are the backbone of my school.- Cork primary school principal

What are the rules around secretaries’ pay?

The two-tier secretarial pay was created in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, a secretarial and caretaking assistance scheme was set up to pay secretaries.

In 1982, a programme was set up to instigate economic progress, which included the capitation grants to employ secretaries.

Despite not being civil or public servants, in 2010 secretaries’ pay was cut under FEMPI measures, which were introduced during the recession to save money through introducing cuts to the public sector pay package.

As part of a national increase, and the unwinding of those cuts, a 10% increase from 2016-2019 was agreed. O’Doherty said that a 2.5% increase to someone who was on €9 or €10 an hour was “an insult” – but it was binding under the Lansdowne Road agreement and was agreed to.

In January of this year, secretaries being paid through the ancillary grant got their pay increased from €11.01 an hour to €11.50. In April this year it increased again to €11.79.

Those being paid directly from the Department of Education “on a salary scale equivalent to a public service salary scale” would get an increase of 1% of their salary. In October of this year it will be increased by another 1%.

A Department spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that “a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 for such staff is being phased in over the period 2016 to 2019″.

“In December 2017, the Department published circular letter 0078/2017 for primary schools and circular letter 0079/2017 for voluntary secondary schools, setting out the next steps in relation to the pay increase referenced above.

“These increases are binding and must be applied by all schools who employ staff to whom they apply.”

‘I face the real possibility of becoming homeless…’

But O’Doherty points out that secretaries paid through the ancillary grant receive “no pension, no sick leave entitlement, and no incremental pay scale increases”.

“Should an incident happen at a school, anything traumatic or serious happen within the school, there’s a 24-hour counselling service for staff and a telephone support line is set up. The only staff members that don’t get to avail of that is the secretary or caretaker paid through the ancillary grant.”

O’Doherty herself has been a school secretary for 21 years, but has no pension. She references another school secretary who had held the role for 28 years wrote to the Letters section of the Irish Times:

Next year I will retire. By that time I will have worked 29 years front of house in a State building. I like to think that being the first port of call I have served the school well. Despite this, the Department of Education will not acknowledge my contribution. I am not alone. It’s high time this difference was acknowledged and corrected.

Another secretary Jackie told TheJournal.ie that she was asked to do a number of courses before being hired in 2001 by her Dublin school’s board of management.

She said that even with the recent increases, she’s still on less money now than she was around ten years ago (before the cuts were intruduced).

“My biggest worry now is that when I retire all I have to look forward to is a State pension. My family have grown up and I find myself divorced and left with a huge mortgage which I struggle to pay at the moment, and will never be able to pay when I retire.

So after over twenty years (by the time I retire) of loyal service, I face the real possibility of becoming homeless…

Members of Fórsa are preparing for a national campaign to instigate a change to secretaries’ pay next year, once the current rates of pay that were agreed to are completed.

Since O’Doherty wrote her first letter to the Minister for Education in 2002, and years since of trying to highlight the issue to instigate change, she says “I don’t know what the secret is to get people on our side.

No matter what person you look at in this country, they have some connection with a school. Everyone comes through the school, and the first person that a young child meets is a school secretary.

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