A group of protesting teachers were warned to mind their manners by Derry’s Mayor Elisha McCallion during a heated debate over a motion calling for equality of opportunity.
The Mayor, who was chairing the Full Council meeting at the time, was speaking after some Sinn Fein Councillors were booed and heckled as they spoke in defence of the Minister for Education’s plans to introduce the ‘Investing in the Teaching Workforce Scheme’.
The Scheme by Minister John O’Dowd is intended to provide for around 500 teachers aged 55 and over to retire early with full pension, and their posts filled by a teacher who has qualified within the last three years.
However around 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the scheme to be broadened to include teachers who have graduated more than three years ago, but who have been left in limbo with no full-time posts and only temporary work available.
They have argued that the planned scheme does not deliver a level playing field for the many qualified teachers seeking full-time employment, and a protest was held outside the Guildhall on Thursday to reiterate this point to councillors as they arrived.
Afterwards, dozens of protesters packed into the lower and upper public galleries of the Council chamber at the Guildhall ahead of the monthly meeting, many of them wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Equal Rights For Teachers’.
I’m not going to ask you again to have a bit of manners.Mayor Elisha McCallion
Some also carried placards with messages including ‘First it’s the teachers, who next?’, ‘32 years old! Too old to teach!??’ and ‘Are We An Ireland Of Equals?’
During the meeting, Independent Councillor Darren O’Reilly tabled a motion that “Derry and Strabane District Council calls for equality for all teachers in relation to the `Investing in the Teaching Workforce Scheme’.”
Colr. O’Reilly said many teachers were working in an environment whereby they didn’t know day to day whether they were working, some only finding out in the morning when they get up that they are required at a school.
He added that the lack of stable employment was affecting family life for many, and because of the uncertainties in finances, many have had to leave the country to find work, while others have had to leave the profession altogether.
“This might be legally right but I don’t think it’s morally right and I call on Education Minister to rethink his policy.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Patricia Logue proposed an amendment that the council “recognises the Investing in the Teacher Workforce Scheme and calls on the Minister for Education to explore how the opportunities provided by the Scheme can be extended for teachers who are not currently availing of the scheme”.
Fourteen Councillors voted for the amendment, while 14 voted against, with eight abstentions.
Casting the deciding vote, Mayor McCallion voted in favour of the amendment, making it part of the overall motion.
Speaking to the amendment, Colr. Logue said that she has sat on two boards of governors and was among those tasked with sifting through 50 to 60 applications for one job.
She added that the new plans came on the back of the Minister being proactive after listening to all political parties, teacher unions and teachers themselves.
Colr. Logue said that as well as the 500 new posts that would become available through the scheme, there would also be the annual turnover of an additional 500 teaching. She added that the Minister’s scheme would mean that those going for these other posts would now have a greater chance because of less competition.
Independent Colr. Paul Gallagher proposed a further amendment to this “that all vacancies arising out of this scheme should be open to all teachers”, which was passed by 23 votes for to 14 against.
Both Colr. Gallagher and Independent Councillor Warren Robinson gave examples of people affected by the issues being discussed. Colr. Robinson cited the case of one local 32-year-old teacher who has been teaching on a temporary basis for seven and a half years, and who was too afraid to have a family in case a permanent teaching post came up.
SDLP Councillor John Boyle proposed a further amendment again that the council ‘also recognises the need for a considered and accessible scheme for teachers aged 55 and over to retire; is concerned about the impact that these proposals would have on teachers who have been qualified for more than three years who do not have a permanent post; and states that this scheme, if implemented, should be open to all teachers who have not yet gained permanent employment’.
His proposed amendment to the substantive motion was carried by 23 votes in favour to 14 against.
Speaking earlier, Councillor Boyle said it was disappointing that Sinn Fein had taken the position they had.
“I thought we could have proceeded to a situation of protecting the employment prospects of all,” he said.
To calls of ‘Hear! Hear!’ from the public gallery he added: “In reality this is in fact discriminatory against many of our young teachers”.
Colr. Boyle, said there have been many thousands of qualified young teachers in the north who over the years have been unable to find permanent work, the vast majority of whom qualified more than three years ago.
“It is unfair that there won’t be a level playing field.”
To a round of applause for the protesters, the former supply teacher said his party was concerned that this scheme was actually about saving costs.
Sinn Fein Colr. Michael Cooper reiterated that these jobs would be in addition to the normal annual 500 jobs turnover, which was met with a cry of ‘Where do you see these 500 positions?’ from the public gallery. Colr. Cooper said that this additional scheme would not have existed without the Minister taking the initiative to create jobs, adding that the reality was that the Minister was working to a very tight budget.
Following some further utterances from the public gallery, the Mayor intervened and addressing the public gallery said: “I’m not going to ask you again to have a bit of manners.”
Independent Councillor Sean Carr congratulated the protesters on their campaign and called on John O’Dowd to open the matter up to public consultation.
In a further contribution to the debate, which lasted over an hour, Colr. Boyle, echoed the sentiments of some on the public gallery and quizzed where these other 500 jobs were coming from. “Are they floating about in the ether?” he asked.
He said that Sinn Fein should also take responsibility for the funding situation instead of always referring back to .Tory cuts’.
Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly said that he did not see the protesters’ calling out as bad manners, but as anger, adding: “These people have the right to have their voices heard.”
He also suggested the scheme was a measure designed to cut costs, and queried where this path would lead in the future to zero hour contracts and volunteer teachers.
He added: “We often hear it said about ‘the laughter of our children’. Our children will be laughing and we won’t even hear because they will be in Australia.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Paul Fleming countered that anyone looking at the Minister’s record objectively would see the enhancements in education and welfare for children during his tenure.