A trade union representing school secretaries has begun a campaign calling for fair pay and working conditions.

Fórsa said the current pay model in place for secretaries means that they are being treated like second class employees by the Government.

A large number of school secretaries have no security of employment, no occupational pensions, and are forced to sign on each year during summer holidays.

The union estimates that just around 10% of secretaries are directly employed by the Department of Education, with the rest working for school boards of management. This means their working terms and conditions vary hugely.

The Fórsa campaign is being backed by Ireland’s three teacher unions.

Fórsa lead organiser Joe O'Connor said that secretaries paid through their school's ancillary grant were working for salaries as low as €12,000 a year.

"There are approximately 3,500 school secretaries working in our education system", he said.

"The vast majority are subject to a system which means their pay is determined by individual school boards of management. This has led, in the most extreme cases we've encountered, to school secretaries earning as little as €12,700, with no entitlement to benefits such as sick pay or pension rights," he said.

The board of management of one school - the North Dublin National School Project - said it cannot afford to pay its secretary properly.

When it comes to pay and employment rights, secretaries like Maeve Hurrell enjoy none of the basic benefits given to other education workers such as teachers, or other State clerical employees.

Maeve has worked at the North Dublin National School Project primary school for the past 28 years yet she has no option but to sign on every summer during the school holidays.

Next June she will retire with no occupational pension. 

The school supports the Fórsa campaign for proper pay and conditions for school secretaries.

Its Principal Ruth Donald said the work Maeve does makes her indispensable. 

What the union calls the "two-tier" secretarial pay system was created almost 40 years ago.

School secretaries employed before 1982 were employed directly by the Department of Education. In some schools the union has found secretaries working side by side under the two different payment models.

She is the first person you meet when you enter a school. She plays a vital, and hugely varied, role (and 'she' is invariably a 'she').

Mr O'Connor said: "There are school secretaries who have served their community for 20 or 30 years but who will retire into poverty without any occupational pension at all."

The union is calling on the department to implement measures to treat all school secretaries with fairness and respect, with the entitlements and protections equivalent to clerical staff on public service pay scales.

INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan said the arrangements by which most school secretaries are employed are unacceptable.

"The precarious nature of the work, and the lack of access to sick pay and proper pension provision are deeply unfair. INTO supports the call by Fórsa that all school secretaries be placed on a salary at the appropriate public service grade," she said.

The union says that while school secretaries are commonly the longest serving, the most trusted and often indispensable members of staff, they are also the most neglected under the current model of employment.