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Ulster Teachers' Union demands people be put before pounds

Julie Orr, UTU president, speaking to conference delegates in Newcastle. Picture by Kevin Cooper

PEOPLE must be put ahead of pounds when planning the future of education, a major gathering of teachers has heard.

Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) members attended the union's annual conference in Newcastle, Co Down yesterday.

Delegates debated motions that tackled controversial issues including equality, LGBT teachers and unisex toilets for transgender pupils.

Members also raised concerns about a lack of support for children with attention deficit disorder and warned that teachers were facing a special needs "time bomb waiting to explode".

In a wide-ranging address, UTU president Julie Orr, said there had not been much cause to celebrate in terms of investing in education in recent years.

Ms Orr, a P5 teacher at Ballydown PS in Banbridge, said budget cuts and financial pressures were the reality.

Five years ago, the shortfall between anticipated spending requirements and the education budget 2011-15 originally added up to more than £800 million, the conference heard.

A `savings delivery plan' was developed to address this funding gap.

"A rather clever choice of words here. A savings delivery plan doesn't seem threatening in any way, it seems rather sensible and yet it effectively masks the cold reality of the cuts needed to ensure these savings were made," Ms Orr said.

"I am not a financial analyst, but huge annual slashes in funding of between £100m and £300m cannot be covered with mere sticky plasters of £10m, £15m or even £75m one-off additional instalments. Significant cuts have been made and schools, teachers and pupils have witnessed the very real negative impacts they are having.

"Closure of schools, teacher redundancies, larger class sizes, increased pupil:teacher ratios and reduced resources. With these reduced budgets, many classroom assistants who were employed to support teachers and pupils have seen their hours drastically reduced or cut completely."

At its conference last year, members voted in favour of industrial action short of strike, which has been continuing since. At that stage they said they were "at breaking point". The latest budget announcement for 2016/17 sees further reductions.

"Sadly the future does not seem to be any brighter," Ms Orr added.

"The direction of travel for the future of teachers, and those whom they teach, appears to me to have become guided by a view that is built on the low-cost, short-term returns of business capital, rather than the long-term, high quality returns of professional capital.

"Are the policies and decisions that are currently being driven forward by our Department of Education and Education Authority being so because of strong evidence from research as to the long-term benefits to teachers and pupils or, as I fear, merely short-sighted, money saving activities which take no account of any detrimental impact on schools which may occur as a result?"

Members heard there was a danger people had lost understanding of the true value and worth of the education system.

"Can we honestly say that current decisions and policies are being made in the best interests of our schools, teachers, classroom assistants and pupils or are they being driven by monetary priorities? Let us not underestimate the value of education, but together let's celebrate it, protect it and invest in it," Ms Orr said.

"Let's prioritise, putting people, not pounds first."

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