If you had told me 28 years ago when I started teaching that I’d be leading the rallying cry of 2,000 workers from the Round O to the Diamond in Enniskillen, I don’t think I would have believed you – and yet here I am.

“What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!”

Like so many young people, I left Fermanagh at age 18 to go to university and broaden my horizons beyond Northern Ireland, with the view that I could always come back.

And come back I did, after 10 years teaching in England.

The pull to raise our family back home was a strong one.

But I doubt this will be the case now for many young people who leave these shores to pursue their studies. Why would they come back?

A beginning teacher in Northern Ireland is on approximately £9.20 an hour – less than the minimum wage – and burdened with tens of thousands of pounds of debt for getting that degree.

Teachers like me, at the top of the pay scale, are lagging behind our counterparts in the UK.

My friend in England who I trained with, who I started teaching with, and who holds the same level of responsibility at her school, takes home £700 more in her pay packet each month than me.

In Further Education, the situation is even bleaker, with our lecturers’ terms and conditions requiring them to work more hours for less money, coupled with the shocking disparity that when they reach the top of the pay scale, they earn £6,000 less than their colleagues in Primary and Post-Primary.

Is it any wonder we are already facing a recruitment and retention crisis in education?

Queen’s did not fill their PGCE course this year; teaching posts are getting harder to fill; and in Post-Primary, this means non-specialists are having to teach subjects outside their realm of experience, whilst others are choosing to teach across the Border, where they can earn up to £26,000 more for doing the same job.

Lack of investment in the teaching workforce is a lack of investment in our young people, their prospects and their future.

Pay is only one aspect of the chronic underinvestment in education.

Pupil spend is lower here than anywhere else in the UK – and decreasing, due to the savage cuts imposed by the Secretary of State’s draconian budget.

Last April saw a decimation in school budgets, with an estimated deficit of £750 million – that works out as a £2,143 cut for every pupil across Northern Ireland.

This has led to wide-ranging funding cuts to services that support the most vulnerable in our society, in turn increasing pressure on education staff.

The latest initiative is ‘Being Well Doing Well’, where teachers will be trained in suicide awareness and bereavement.

This is much needed, especially as children in Northern Ireland are 25 per cent more at risk of suicide and self-harm.

However, it is not solely motivated by ensuring staff have the skills to support young people in crisis, but to bridge the gap in the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services, whose waiting list is nine months long.

Meanwhile, the solution to the lack of places for pupils with Special Educational Needs is to create units which are underfunded, under-staffed and under-resourced.

Is a child in Northern Ireland worth less than a child in England? Is a teacher or lecturer worth less?

Absolutely not, but the figures suggest otherwise, and that fault lies with the Westminster Government and the ‘non-governance’ in Stormont.

Despite us being part of the UK – as we are reminded daily – this does not apply to parity of pay for teachers, lecturers, and other public sector workers, effectively creating a pay border in the Irish Sea.

As we know, the money is there – £584 million, to be exact – but our politicians are failing us yet again, with the DUP continuing their boycott of Stormont, and the Secretary of State’s refusal to release the funds without it being conditional on a functioning Executive.

It is time that public services are treated with the respect they deserve, and are valued rather than devalued by a continued lack of investment.

These are just some of the reasons why I choose to strike, picket and rally with fellow workers from the Trade Union Movement on Thursday, January 19.

A word of thanks to all the local businesses that showed their solidarity for those striking with refreshments at the picket lines and at the rally.

However, I find it remarkable when people withdraw their labour in the form of strike action, there is an ‘otherness’ projected in some corners of the Press.

There seems to be a narrative that striking people are not themselves affected by the strikes, that they are not themselves members of the public, also with children in schools, or relatives having or seeking medical care, when of course they are.

The decision to strike is always a difficult and agonising one, and never taken lightly.

Teaching and health sector work is a vocation. Staff know the impact strikes can have, but very few in the media ask the big question: how bad has it got that staff have no alternative but to withdraw their labour?

Too often, strikers are blamed rather than turning the focus on those who are truly responsible and holding them to account.

At the time of writing, it has been 717 days since we had a government in Northern Ireland, and the total MLA salary bill exceeds £9 million.

We have no idea what Plan B is – or in fact, Plan A. Is there even a plan at all?

Who knows what the situation will be in a few days’ time?

In what other civilised democracy would this uncertainty, a lack of accountability and transparency, be tolerated as the rule, rather than the exception?

It is time for change. Change doesn’t happen because we wish for it – it happens because we fight for it, and when we vote for it.

This fight is about so much more than fair pay. It is about what kind of society we want to live in, and we all have a collective responsibility to each other to demand better, because we deserve better.

The social contract is broken, and we need to mend it, together.

Sally Rees, NASUWT Senior Vice President NI, ICTU National Executive.