“If school secretaries were predominantly male this wouldn’t be an issue”

Newly appointed Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, will have to address the issue of pay and conditions for school secretaries. Credit: Facebook / Joe McHugh TD - Delivering for Donegal.

Working in public schools but not treated as public servants, school secretaries are now organising and making their demands for equal pay and conditions heard, writes Róisín Ní Dhalaigh.

“There’s one school in Galway where there are two school secretaries sitting in the same office doing exactly the same work and one is paid by the Department of Education and the other is paid by an ancillary grant,” says Barry Cunningham, Fórsa assistant general secretary.

“One has protections that any other public servant would have, including sick pay, pension, all of those entitlements, and then the school secretary sitting directly opposite her actually signs on for the summer, has no sick leave entitlement, has no pension.”

In 1978 the Department of Education began a scheme whereby schools could take on secretaries and caretakers. As an employee of the Department of Education, any school secretary or caretaker under this scheme is a public servant, with the associated pay and conditions.

However, the scheme did not last long. It was closed to new entrants from 1982 and a new scheme was introduced; schools would now be paid an ancillary grant and would employ secretaries and caretakers directly.

The Department’s attempts to reduce public sector numbers has led to over 30 years of inequality, which school secretaries across the country are now organising to end.


One of the most stark aspects of the different treatment for the same work is in regards to pay. Depending on the size of the school, school secretaries paid by the Department are on salaries varying between €24,000 and €44,771 per annum. The other 90% of school secretaries can be on pay as low as €12,700 per year.

Maria Dunne is chair of Fórsa’s school secretaries branch. “We would deal with secretaries around the country who up to until three years ago wouldn’t have been in receipt of the minimum wage,” she says.

In 2015, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) issued an adjudication calling for a 2.5% pay increase each year for four years for school secretaries. However, Dunne points out that many school secretaries did not even receive their pay rise and had to go to their union to resolve the issue.

That school secretaries work closely with principals and management makes it easier for Boards of Management to think they can get away with resistance to applying the correct rate of pay: “You can imagine in a rural village, for example, where the school and many members of the Board are local people. And the secretary’s business is going to be known by some of her local neighbours.”

As well as receiving lower levels of pay than their colleagues, school secretaries paid through the ancillary grant are in precarious employment. They have no certainty of employment, no entitlement to public sector pay increases (despite having suffered pay cuts alongside all of their colleagues), and receive no incremental pay increases. According to Fórsa, many school secretaries have to apply to social welfare during the school holidays. Dunne says many are unaware that this counts as a gap in their employment and “they’re actually being reemployed every August or September”.

With conditions varying from school to school, how a secretary is treated can often seem to be down to luck.

“Basically it’s down to their Board of Management,” says Dunne. “They decide what [secretaries] are paid, what the conditions are. The custom and practice rule goes out the window frequently. I got a call where there was a changeover from one principal to another – they were just going to change the person’s contract who had been there for 14 years. I had to say to the person that your contract is implied even if you never had a written contract and nobody is entitled to change it just like that.”

Pay isn’t the only area where being paid by the Department or the ancillary grant makes a difference. As they are not public servants, the ancillary grant scheme school secretaries have no sick pay or maternity pay and don’t have pensions.

Fórsa points to the case of Hilary Kellett, who is nine years working in Maynooth Educate Together. Unable to work for 13 months due to extensive medical treatment for breast cancer, she saw her income reduced by half as she had no entitlement to sick pay. Kathleen O’Doherty has been a school secretary in Scoil Naomh Fiachra outside Letterkenny for 22 years yet when she retires shortly she will have no occupational pension.

A less discussed but ever-present issue is that the vast majority of school secretaries, at both primary and secondary level, are women. Cunningham is clear that this is an aspect in their treatment, saying that “if school secretaries were predominantly male this wouldn’t be an issue.”

Justice for School Secretaries

Having worked on recruitment and communication for the last 18 months, Fórsa is now moving to a national campaign ahead of the current WRC adjudication running out at the end of this year.

Cunningham says “what we’re asking for is that people are treated equally. The campaign in its infancy was all about educating both the public and politicians on the plight of school secretaries because most politicians aren’t even aware how school secretaries are paid. We have people who are working a lifetime in schools doing a myriad of jobs from first aid to looking after kids who are ill, running the school effectively in a lot of cases, and they’re leaving with no pensions entitlements, they’re leaving on horrendous money. Obviously the campaign is about all the issues but we have to start somewhere and pay is a huge issue.”

In the first place, Fórsa is looking to have all the school secretaries and caretakers who are currently paid from the ancillary grant to be put on to the public sector Grade 3 or Grade 4 scale (depending on the number of pupils in a school), bringing them into pay parity with their Department-paid colleagues.

The Justice for School Secretaries campaign will be formally launched this Thursday 17th January. While there is already support from across the education sector for the school secretaries’ demands, interest in how the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform react will be much broader as it could impact on demands in other sectors of the public service.

Cunningham and Dunne say that for the campaign to succeed public support is needed. “If you take, for example, a school with 700 students, I’d imagine that very few parents would be aware that the school secretary may be very badly paid or may be signing on to the dole during summer or Christmas,” says Dunne. “In fact, I would say that a large portion of the teaching profession wouldn’t be aware either. You see that’s how it survived so badly for so long – because no one really knew. That’s what we’re hoping this campaign will really open it up that people will be aware of it.”

Cunningham adds: “All we’re looking for is equality for really, really hardworking – in most cases – women, who look after our kids extremely well and look after our schools extremely well.”

This is the first in a series on the workers who run our public services.