Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has warned delegates at the Irish National Teachers' Organisation annual congress of further difficult and painful decisions ahead.

Delivering his first of what will be three addresses to teacher trade unionists this Easter the minister said he wanted to be frank about the resources available to education over the coming period.

He told delegates the importance of meeting EU/IMF budgetary targets could not be overstated.

On his way in to the hall the minister met a group of parents of children with special needs protesting over cuts to the number of special needs assistants in schools.

They were joined by a small group of teachers, including newly-qualified teachers.

Amid some heckles from the group, Mr Quinn told protesters he understood why they were there.

Addressing the conference before the minister, INTO President Jim Higgins praised Mr Quinn for meeting the protest. He said he admired people who were prepared to engage.

During his address, Mr Quinn said the new Government was in effect a national government. He said the job of that national government was to regain national sovereignty.

He said the recovery plan provided for a reduction in teacher numbers, despite the fact that enrolments will continue to increase over coming years.

He told delegates the government was prepared to honour the terms of the Croke Park Agreement. On the issue of small schools, the minister said the ‘Value for Money’ report being carried out by his department was not driven by any ideology. He said it was simply about ascertaining facts to inform future decisions.

Mr Quinn thanked teachers for what he called the valuable support, encouragement and stability they provided for children in this time of uncertainty. He said he wanted to commend their volunteerism.

He said he respected public service workers.

Responding to the minister, INTO General Secretary Sheila Nunan said that teachers were concerned about how the burden was shared. She said at the moment the scales were far from balanced.

To applause from delegates, she said there was no balance, fairness, or justice when the State was incapable of influencing excessive bonuses and exit packages to failed banking executives.

Yet it stood over the diminution of public services and employment opportunities to young citizens, she said.

The issue of pay cuts will dominate debate at the annual conferences of three teachers' unions being held this week.

Delegates are calling for equal pay, pensions and working conditions for new entrants to the profession.

Cuts to more than 1,000 teaching posts mean fewer jobs for young new entrants.

Salaries have also been cut by up to 16%.

Conventions for the ASTI and the TUI will begin tomorrow.

Both the INTO and the TUI say they are seeing a new activism among young and student members as a result of the cuts.

Other issues to be debated include the future of small schools, and how students, especially disadvantaged ones will be affected.