Chris Donnelly: Teachers serve children's education, not bureaucrats' whims

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

St Dominic's teaching staff – and young supporters – on the picket line in west Belfast during last week's strike action by teaching unions. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
St Dominic's teaching staff – and young supporters – on the picket line in west Belfast during last week's strike action by teaching unions. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

There is nothing quite like Christmas in a primary school. Watching and listening to the Primary 1 and 2 children learn their lines and sing the songs ahead of the always well attended Nativity shows is a joy.

Santa will make a visit – even if it's courtesy of a sit down lawnmower instead of a sleigh – to drop off selection boxes whilst the older children will visit housing folds and the Kennedy Centre to sing hymns and popular seasonal tunes for appreciative audiences.

Yet the warmth and excitement of the traditionally busy pre-Christmas period in schools conceals a problem festering within our education system.

Last week's half-day strike by all teaching unions is to be followed by a series of full-day strikes in the new year. Whilst this will undoubtedly frustrate many parents, it is a course of action teachers have been forced to take for reasons that should concern us all.

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Rates of pay for teachers in the north of Ireland are scandalously behind those for teachers in every other jurisdiction in these islands.

In the Republic, teachers' starting salary is the equivalent of £33,735, well above the £24,137 starting salary for teachers in the north. A teacher in Lifford earns £9,500 more each year than their equivalent across the bridge in Strabane.

This figure is also well below the starting salary for teachers in England, Scotland and Wales, who receive between £30,000 and just over £32,200 depending on the region. This continues throughout their careers, with teachers at the top end of the pay scale in the north earning between £5,000 and £7,000 less per year.

But it is not just pay that has forced teachers and school leaders into following this course of action.

The volume of administrative duties being forced onto teachers and school leaders has reached the point of being beyond ridiculous and is simply not manageable.

Bullying is something which all schools take very seriously and endeavour to eradicate and deal with swiftly when incidents occur, but the bureaucracy now involved in recording an episode and the aftermath has become absurd.

Someone in authority determined it to be essential to change the designation of Looked After Children (LAC) to Children Looked After (CLA), before proceeding to shift the bulk of responsibility for managing supporting these vulnerable kids away from social services and on to schools. The revised PEP process (Personal Education Plan) requires intensive school-based work to complete, with new layers of administration, additional monitoring and more review meetings.

Children on the special needs register (which can be above 20% in many schools) are obligated to have Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) in place of the traditional Individual Education Plans (IEPs). The new plans, rightly being boycotted by all teaching unions, will see teachers and school leaders swamped with administrative paperwork we have somehow managed to survive without until this point in history.

The human beings do not exist within a school setting to fill the void provided by the education bureaucracy's retreat from the roles it traditionally occupied. Instead of streamlining administrative processes, schools are faced with the very opposite scenario. Closing the learning gap and tackling underachievement will not be furthered by burdening school leaders and teachers with paperwork.

Bureaucrats – and other well meaning but misguided individuals – will pontificate about the necessity of provision mapping, conducting extensive and exhaustive engagements with parents and children as part of planning and reviewing support whilst necessitating completing onerous administrative form-filling duties (online to make the bureaucracy's job easier) without stopping to think how this will detrimentally impact upon the school's capacity to do what matters most: teaching our kids.

The mess made of special needs provision by those in charge has only been partially alleviated due to the brave decision of mainstream schools to step up and offer to host special needs units within their settings.

There is no additional administrative nor coordinating support provided to manage this, with school leaders left to shoulder the new layers of responsibility and administration.

There is a reckoning ahead. The politicians and bureaucracy need to recognise what is really important, appreciate the value of our teachers and help protect the primacy of learning within our education system.