The Movilla High School crisis has deepened further as it enters a second week with striking teachers accused of abusing children’s rights.
The school in Newtownards, Co Down, will remain shut for a sixth day today after teaching unions and the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) failed to resolve the dispute which began after a pupil allegedly assaulted a member of staff.
The school’s 520 pupils have not been able to attend classes since last Monday when 25 teachers took industrial action after employers docked their pay when they refused to teach the boy accused of the assault.
Last night teachers’ union NASUWT accused SEELB of being “unable and unwilling” to make progress. The Board however hit back stating that it cannot give in to the union’s demands for the pupil to be taught in “total isolation” or requested to leave the school.
With no end in sight to the fallout, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People entered the row. Patricia Lewsley said she was aware of the detailed circumstances of the alleged assault and that the strike was “tantamount to the corporate abuse of children’s rights”. She added that she feared the child was being “demonised”.
“I feel this individual child’s rights and the rights of every child at that school are being used as bargaining chips,” said Ms Lewsley.
She added: “I utterly condemn violence in the classroom or school yard, whether it is against or by pupils. School must be a safe, healthy environment. But the incident was of a minor nature and in my view has been blown completely out of proportion by a national trade union that is more interested in publicity than caring for pupils.
“The teachers who are striking must accept that this child is legally enrolled at Movilla High School, and has a right to be taught. The other 539 pupils have a right to be taught. The trade union’s actions have denied all the children their right to an education,” she said.
“I call on them to immediately end the strike, and get back to teaching. If they do so I pledge I will investigate the circumstances of this incident, the actions of the school and education board.”
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keats said strike action was a last resort for the teachers. “We must not forget that at the centre of this is a school where the children want to learn, teachers want to teach and the parents want progress to be made. It is disappointing that the SEELB does not appear to want to achieve this.”
The union’s Northern Ireland organiser Seamus Searson added: “Our members at Movilla want to cause as little disruption to the children’s education and wish to have children back at school as soon as possible. However the SEELB will have to buck their ideas up and quickly.”
A SEELB spokesman added: “Through the Labour Relations Agency the SEELB has made a number of offers to the trade unions in an attempt to resolve this dispute.
“The trade unions have rejected the offers and are demanding that the pupil be taught in total isolation from other pupils and teachers in the school or that the particular pupil is requested to leave the school. The Board and Board of Governors cannot accede to these demands. However the Board will continue to make itself available for further discussions to find a resolution to this dispute.”