School strikes suspended following 'very positive' talks

Roberta is standing in a playground smiling into the camera
Classroom assistant Roberta Watson said she was "mentally exhausted" [BBC]

A third trade union has suspended all school strike action while talks continue to try to resolve a long-running dispute over pay for school support staff.

Unite the union confirmed the move on Monday evening.

It comes after the Nipsa and GMB unions agreed to suspend all strikes for Monday and Tuesday over the weekend.

Bus drivers, classroom assistants, cleaning and catering staff were among those due to walk out.

Earlier, Stormont's Education Minister Paul Givan said discussions with trade unions had been very positive.

Schools were being contacted by the Education Authority to advise them that strike action should not be taking place on Tuesday, he added.

News of the strike suspension from Nipsa and GMB only came on Saturday, so many parents had already made alternative plans.

One parent, who is self-employed, told the BBC she lost a day's wage as she had cancelled all her clients.

It was estimated that about 8,000 education staff were due to strike at the same time as GCSE and A-level exams.

Megan is sitting on a bench outside with her two sons. She is wearing a black top, her sons are wearing a blue school uniform. There are trees in the background.
Megan Patchett said her sons, who have severe learning disabilities, were very "routine bound" [BBC]

Megan Patchett, a self-employed mother of three, said strikes were “extremely stressful” for her family.

Her sons Tyler and Cody, who have been diagnosed with autism and severe learning disabilities, attend a special school. She said they are very “routine bound”.

“As soon as we know there’s going to be a strike we have to let them know instantly because they know every day they get up they get dressed, they go to school,” she said.

They can have “severe meltdowns” then their routine is broken, she said.

Ms Patchett said she had cancelled her clients for Monday and because the strike was called off at the last minute, she was not able to rebook them.

However, Ms Patchett said that she supports striking school staff.

“It’s a very hard job taking care of special needs kids and I rely on those staff and have to put my trust in them and I think they should be getting paid a lot more for what they do,” she said.

Pupils sitting a GCSE exam
The strike action of support staff was due to coincide with school exams [Getty Images]

Roberta Watson works in Rossmar Special School in Limavady, County Londonderry, and has been a classroom assistant for 23 years.

“At the minute I don’t get a lunch break, I don’t get a tea break because many of the children I work with have complex needs,” she said.

“If there is a member of staff off, there is no cover.

“We need to carry walkie talkies around the school with us because we’re constantly on call, even if I’m at the toilet.

“I love my job but I am mentally exhausted by the end of the day.”

Ms Watson said a lot of people who work as classroom assistants are on such low pay that they need to take on extra work just to get by.

Kerry is standing in a playground smiling into the camera
Kerry McGuiness said the mental health of staff was being affected [BBC]

Kerry McGuiness, who also works at Rossmar, has been a classroom assistant for 25 years and said current working conditions were incredibly difficult.

“We love what we do, we love those children like our own, but we have so many things we have to do,” she said.

“I know there are members of staff who find it very difficult, and their mental health has been affected.”

Members and supporters of Unite the union protesting at the gates of Stormont
School support staff also went on strike in May [PA Media]

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme earlier on Monday, Patrick Mulholland of Nipsa described the issue of pay for the education sector as "a very long and convoluted issue which has become caught up in the political crisis in Northern Ireland".

School support workers also took part in two days of strike action in May.