The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland has called on the Government to act on pay inequality "sooner rather than later".

Addressing the ASTI conference in Wexford, union President Breda Lynch noted that there had been room for manoeuvre with the nurses, who had negotiated pay increases and improved terms, "theoretically" within the current PSSA pay agreement.

She said she hoped that the latest development outlined in an agreed government-union statement yesterday would be the pathway forward, "and sooner rather than later".

She noted that the Government's €200m proposals to address pay inequality by 2026 had been rejected by the ASTI and the Irish National Teachers Organisation.

Ms Lynch called for the reinstatement of allowances, and a return to the principle that teachers would start on point 3 of their pay scale instead of the first point - a disimprovement introduced during the austerity crisis.

She also voiced concern about an overload of new initiatives and bureaucracy, junior and senior cycle reform, and difficulties in provision for students with Special Educational Needs in schools.

She told delegates that without pay equality and improvements in the working conditions of teachers they would continue to have classrooms without a teacher, and consequent reduced subject choices.

Ms Lynch warned that the problem would only increase as the numbers in post-primary schools are projected to 400,000 by 2024 into the future.

She also urged the Government to consider payment for trainee teachers during the second year of their PME qualification - given that they are now taking longer to qualify, and are entering the profession on a lesser salary.

Delegates unanimously passed a motion calling on the union to work with the Public Services Committee of ICTU to ensure that in the next pay negotiations the Government would commit to the principle of equal pay for equal work - and a timetable for its realisation.

It comes after the Government played down the prospect of imminent talks to address outstanding pay inequality issues for teachers and other public servants before the end of the current public service pay agreement.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which oversees public service pay, has said there is no commitment to address issues outside the current Public Service Stability Agreement "at this stage".

Yesterday, in a statement agreed with public service unions, the Government acknowledged that there were outstanding issues of concern following the €200m September 2018 initiative aimed at reducing the pay gap between pre and post-2011 recruits known as "new entrants" by 2026.

In September, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe had stated that he would not be going beyond the terms of the September deal, but both the INTO and the ASTI rejected the proposals as not going far enough, and leaving significant numbers, particularly those recruited between 2011 and 2014, at a pay disadvantage.

Yesterday's agreed statement said: "The management side understands that these outstanding matters will be given full consideration either by (i) any pay review mechanism agreed by the parties or (ii) in the context of the next round of pay talks.

"It is recognised that the positions of each of the parties concerned on these matters must be given due regard in endeavouring to reach a mutually agreed resolution."

However, the statement gave no indication of a timeframe for any potential mid-term review, or for any pay improvements for teachers or the public servants affected by pay inequality.

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Asked for comment, the department said yesterday's statement referred to language agreed with the INTO last week regarding their outstanding issues on new entrants.

It goes on to state: "The text says these issues MAY [their emphasis] be examined by any pay review process put in place ahead of the next pay talks, should that situation arise, or to be considered at pay talks themselves".

The department notes that a possible pay review was suggested by the Public Service Pay Commission in their report on the health sector last August.

However, it concludes by saying that there is no commitment to address issues outside the PSSA at this stage.

The incoming chair of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Public Service Committee, Kevin Callinan, has already indicated that unions will seek a mid-term review of the PSSA following the recent settlement in the nurses' and midwives' dispute, which many believe has "stretched" if not breached the current public pay deal.

Both the INTO and the ASTI rejected the Government's September new entrant proposals by 53-47%, while the Teachers’ Union of Ireland accepted them by the same margin.

However, neither the INTO nor the ASTI has yet balloted for industrial action on the issue.

In the meantime, all newer entrant teachers are receiving the benefits of the new deal.

While the INTO described the Government statement as a "significant breakthrough", ASTI General Secretary Kieran Christie was more cautious, but acknowledged that for the first time the department was conceding that there were outstanding problems to be addressed.

He pledged that the ASTI would continue to campaign until full equality was restored.

McHugh promises 'full consideration'

The Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, has pledged that the government will give "full consideration" to the teacher unions' grievances about pay inequality - but was unable to say when teachers on lower pay will see any actual benefit to their remuneration. 

Speaking at the ASTI conference in Wexford, Mr McHugh described the issue of pay inequality as "unfinished business" - adding that teacher unions had been "vociferous" on the matter.

Mr McHugh was asked about today's statement from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform which said pay inequality "may" be examined by any review process put in place ahead of the next pay talks, should that situation arise or  be considered at pay talks themselves. However, DPER said that there was no commitment to adderss issues outside the current pay agreement "at this stage".

Mr McHugh said there were "no ifs, buts or may" - there will be full consideration, but when that would happen would be a matter for the parties.

He said he was aware that the parties to the PSSA are currently engaged in exploratory discussions on how such a review mechanism might work, and how it might inform discussions on a potential successor agreement.

He said it was now important to give space and time to the relevant parties, who will have to decide whether there is scope to address pay inequality under the current pay arrangements, or whether it would be dealt with in negotiations on a successor to the Public Service Stability Agreement.

Last year the Public Service Pay Commission raised the possibility of a potential broader review of public service pay, but stressed it must not compromise the stability of public service pay bill.

Asked about the fact that teachers were looking for action rather than full consideration, the Minister said pay inequality had been a burning issue that had been around since 2011, and reiterated his determination to address it.

Asked whether the government had now changed its policy on pay inequality, he said the government's position had "evolved".