A resolution to the controversial Movilla High School dispute appeared as far off as ever this week as both sides blamed the other for causing the strike.
Both the teachers' union and employers remained firmly entrenched in their positions and claimed it was down to the other to make the breakthrough move to end the high profile industrial action.
With no further negotiations between the two sides scheduled to take place, the dispute seemed no closer to ending than two weeks ago when the 25 striking teachers first took to the picket line at the Newtownards school. The pupils are currently on Halloween break and are hoping to return to their classes on Monday.
The NASUWT members voted to walk out earlier this term after their pay was docked for refusing to teach a student accused of assaulting a teacher. The 15-year-old is due to appear in court in November on an assault charge.
Fred Brown, national executive member of the NASUWT, said that the union will only accept the recommendations of an independent assessor if it is allowed to see the assessor's report on the pupil at the centre of the dispute.
“We are not idiots. No reasonable person could expect us to accept recommendations in such circumstances,” he said.
“We ask our pupils to support arguments with evidence, and we would be extremely stupid to do otherwise.
“This whole situation is unfair to pupils, parents and teachers. We want to resolve it as quickly as possible, but we will not return to a potentially unsafe working environment, and we will not be treated as mugs.
“Parents and pupils expect high professional standards from us, quite rightly.
“We demand that we are treated as professionals by our employers."
The union took out a full page advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph this week to thank parents, the local community and wider public for their “overwhelming support” for the striking teachers.
Stanton Sloan, chief executive of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, said that the report will contain sensitive personal data which cannot be disclosed to a third party without the pupil's consent.
He said: “It has been suggested that the pupil should be moved to an alternative school or educated through an alternative education provision. The pupil concerned is enrolled in Movilla High School and the board has no legal authority to remove him without the agreement of his parents.”
Mr Sloan also said that he agreed with the board of governors' decision to suspend the boy for 10 days rather than expel him. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion regarding the level of a sanction imposed on the pupil, however governors' decisions must be respected by both teachers and parents and cannot be replaced or substituted by an alternative one, even in the face of adverse industrial action.”
The SEELB chief asked the teachers to accept the offer of an independent assessment and to suspend their strike action.
He concluded: “Pending this, I cannot countenance having 540 pupils out of school and therefore I now must consider all of the options in front of me to ensure these pupils receive the education to which they are entitled.”
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)— which represents most of the other teachers at Movilla — is holding off on embarking on its agreed action to refuse to teach the pupil at Movilla pending discussions with the SEELB and NASUWT.
The ATL supports the use of an independent expert assessor and is prepared to pay for or contribute to the costs of such a report.
However, the union said it also expects that an appropriately qualified teacher will have sight of the report under controlled conditions “to verify that the recommendations flowed from the report and were not perverse.
A statement from the union said: “There is nothing in the text of the SEELB proposal in front of ATL that prevents this and our members would be deeply concerned about any further pre-condition which aims to do.”
A spokesman for the Department of Education said: “The Education Minister has urged both sides in the Movilla High School dispute to continue with dialogue in order to achieve a speedy resolution so all pupils can return to school.”