Education news

Unions demand clarity on proposed school reopening date

Opening schools early will need the support of teachers

A PLAN for children to return to classes in eight weeks has, predictably and depressingly, caused a row. Unions are concerned about the lack of consultation, but some politicians aren't happy at unions being unhappy.

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WHEN minister Peter Weir suggested some `key cohorts' of children would be back in the classroom starting "the third week of August", barely an eyelid was batted.

A glance at a calendar revealed that the third week of August began on the seventeenth - a bit earlier than the usual post-summer return.

There were calls for clarity - but when Mr Weir then mentioned the August 17 date specifically, the response was largely one of `whoa, whoa, whoa - not that much clarity'.

At least now everyone knows what the target is.

Opening schools early will need the support of teachers, so probably best to ensure they are onside. The initial reaction suggests that many are not.

Unions say that teachers are eager to see all children back in school, but only if this is done in a safe and systematic way.

Some principals have already cautioned that it is too late to ask schools to be ready for mid-August.

The head of the INTO union in the north went a bit further when he said the August 17 target was a "ridiculous proposal".

Gerry Murphy said principals and staff had ensured key worker availability by providing facilities since March 23, in some cases seven days a week.

It was this very same staff that the minister expected to return without a significant break, Mr Murphy said.

The INTO is asking members to write to the minister to express their concern.

A template letter suggests a lack of a transparent rationale for his proposal for making "apparently arbitrary decisions" around the re-start date.

It also questions his naming specific year groups (7, 12, 14) "without reference to the scientific and medical advice".

Dr Graham Gault, the vice-president of the NAHT in Northern Ireland, said more clarity was needed.

The minister would be very well advised to talk fully with trade union bodies as soon as possible to have that all ironed out, he warned.

"That can't be left for a principal to be making those decisions on behalf of staff and it also can't be left to be voluntary," Dr Gault said.

"Clear guidance needs to come from the minister as soon as possible."

The Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) said it had been assured by the Department of Education that attendance from August 17 would be voluntary.

UTU General Secretary Jacquie White said it now appeared that directions had been issued by the minister.

Ms White said this raised significant questions around the implications on teachers' contracts and "any holidays booked".

"We would emphasise that schools should not be acting upon such directions and should wait until further official guidance is published as the legal basis with regard to that matter remains unclear," she said.

"We will continue to engage with the relevant authorities to get clarification as a matter of urgency, to ensure new arrangements won't conflict with teachers' contractual rights."

DUP member Sammy Wilson, once the chairman of the education committee at Stormont, leapt to his party colleague's defence. In doing so, he suggested that unions were "out of step" with the views of parents and schools - which caused further anger.

Mr Wilson said it was not feasible for an employed parent to be expected to use all their holiday leave "because the teacher unions don't want to let the schools open".

NASUWT National Official for Northern Ireland Justin McCamphill said Mr Wilson's comments were absurd.

"Mr Wilson suggest that unions are out of step with many teachers who want to see their pupils learning and reaching their potential. This could not be further from the truth. Teachers and support staff are already doing their best for the children and young people they teach and will feel hurt that a public representative has made these comments," he said.

"Teachers want to be back in school when it is safe to do so and will go the extra mile to help the children they teach catch up."

Mr McCamphill said the comments failed to recognise the work of teachers in providing care for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers while keeping the rest of their classes fully engaged at home.

"Many teachers have had to this while looking after their own children," he added.

"Mr Wilson hasn't considered the disruption that this will cause to schools who need to work with young people who will be receiving GCSE and A-level results. The best placed people to decide how to deploy staff are the principals of schools. Holiday periods have already been agreed, principals, teachers and support staff should be allowed to take them."

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