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Inspections row rages on as teachers’ unions hit out

By Lindsay Fergus

Relations between schools in Northern Ireland and the education watchdog are at an all-time low, it has been claimed.

Tensions between two teaching unions and the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) escalated this week after its chief inspector wrote to six schools where inspections could not be completed due to teachers’ refusal to co-operate.

In the letter, Noelle Buick stated: “Inspection is an integral part of the Education Minister’s raising standards agenda and not being able to carry out all the planned inspections is preventing us from ensuring all pupils are receiving a high quality education.”

Both the Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU) and Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) — whose members are engaged in industrial action in a row over increases to their pension contributions — reacted with fury.

The UTU has called for an urgent meeting with the Department of Education “to avert further damage to relationships between schools and the inspectorate”, while INTO has said a way has to be found to “re-establish the positive relationships formerly enjoyed between the frontline educators and the inspectorate”.

Gerry Murphy, INTO’s northern secretary, said: “It is not the role of the inspectorate to harass principals and teachers by continually putting pressure on them and seeking to undermine their legitimate union action.”

UTU general secretary Avril Hall Callaghan said: “Instead of being publicly critical of schools the chief inspector should be taking steps to address the concerns about inspections that all the teacher unions in Northern Ireland have already alerted her to.”

Education Minister John O’Dowd has warned the ongoing action will “ultimately be to the detriment of pupils”.

“As Education Minister I will do all within my power to resolve this dispute including dealing with areas of concern that teachers have,” he said.

“However, it must be understood that decisions imposed upon the Executive by the British Government are outside of my control.”

He refuted the unions’ claims that ETI was harassing teachers.

Mr O’Dowd said: “I do not believe that to be the case. On the contrary, I am advised that relationships on the ground between teachers and inspectors have been good in what are challenging circumstances for all.”

Background

INTO and UTU between them represent 10,000 teachers, which is about half of all teachers working in local schools. INTO was one of the teaching unions that voted for strike action on November 30 last year. Although UTU did not go on strike, it endorsed industrial action. As part of INTO and UTU’s action they are refusing to co-operate with inspectors, meaning a full inspection cannot be carried out until the action ends.

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