Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) in Northern Ireland work to make sure children from disadvantaged households or vulnerable backgrounds don’t lose out on getting an education through absenteeism. They also have a particular role in supporting young people coming from newly-arrived families, including Syrian refugees.
Their role is not an easy one but it is vital to protect and support some of our most vulnerable young people.
EWOs are qualified as social workers but perform an educational welfare role. In so doing, they are paid £5k less than they would be if they worked as social workers for the Health Department. The huge differential in pay has resulted in a staffing crisis as EWOs and newly qualified leave to take up positions as social workers in the NHS.
The result is that fewer and fewer EWOs are left to bear the burden of empty desks. There is huge pressure on the workers themselves but also means that the needs of the most vulnerable children are being sacrificed. In the former Western Education area, union sources estimate that there is a shortfall of eight in staffing levels – with each EWO having a caseload of approximately 30 children – that means that up to 250 children are not getting the support they need.
The situation in the Belfast area is even worse with large waiting lists.
As usual, Stormont has done nothing about this developing crisis for years. The workers, almost all members of NIPSA (the largest union in N Ireland) recently voted overwhelmingly in a ballot for both industrial action short of strike action and strike action.
On Thursday May 4th workers commenced a work-to-rule. Given the huge caseloads on workers, it is certain that the impact of this industrial action will be severe. It is imperative that the DUP Education Minister is forced to move and address fully the demands of these workers.
On the same day, I stood with striking Educational Welfare officers on their picket line in Omagh town, I took their fight into the council chamber. That night I expressed my full solidarity with the striking workers and put forward an emergency proposal that the council write to the Education Minister to demand he provides full pay parity to the striking workers. It was adopted unanimously, with independent (anti-gold mining) Councillor Emmet McAleer, in particular, indicating his solidarity with the workers’ fight.
All sections of the trade union movement and Left politicians need to support the EWOs in this struggle. Their fight is not just for pay equality but to secure the staffing needed to make sure young people from severely disadvantaged backgrounds access life-changing educational opportunities.