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'Culture of fear' among staff at Belfast's De La Salle College, says report

Published 24/08/2016

A survey reported low morale and lack of trust across the school
A survey reported low morale and lack of trust across the school

An independent report into De La Salle College in Belfast has revealed allegations of a "culture of fear" among staff.

Claims of bullying and intimidating behaviour were compounded by a teacher survey reporting low morale and lack of trust across the school following leadership difficulties.

A three-person panel led by educationalist Sir Robert Salisbury said it was unacceptable that broken relationships were allowed to affect pupils.

"The panel was disturbed that so many submissions to us raised the issues of bullying and intimidating behaviour within the school.

"These were not confined to any one section or level. Individual staff described a culture of fear."

A staff wellbeing survey confirmed the poor state of working relationships with very low morale and a lack of trust across the school, the review said.

The expert report added: "The matter was raised so many times with us that it cannot be ignored and it is difficult to see how a situation such as this could possibly foster a culture which develops the skills of younger members of staff, shares good practice, encourages professional challenge, and invites participation in the day to day running of the school by all staff."

Critical internal reports, temporary appointments in key leadership roles and limited support for principals and vice-principals contributed to problems like staff absences, the review said.

It made 40 recommendations centred on providing stable leadership and protecting children's interests.

It said: "The panel considered it was unacceptable that relationship breakdowns within a school at governance or teacher levels should impact on pupils.

"Hence we have made the strong recommendation that all must commit to making the school uncompromisingly 'child-centred' and put the education of the students firmly at its heart."

The secondary school, in the Andersonstown area of west Belfast, has more than 1,000 pupils.

Many of its staff were absent before Easter and an associate principal was appointed.

An investigation was ordered by former education minister John O'Dowd.

The panel included education expert professor Sir Robert, trade unionist John Corey and Belfast Metropolitan College's principal Marie-Therese McGivern.

It found:

:: Prolonged periods of acting appointments in key school leadership posts and the absence of any structured support or monitoring systems in such circumstances;

:: Critical internal audit reports;

:: Conflicts and differences involving the board of governors, principal, senior school leaders and staff with little support for new principals;

:: Lack of transparency around the re-appointment of the board of governors, causing deteriorating trust within the school.

The report said: "The panel urges all the parties to act on our recommendations to enable De La Salle College to overcome the unacceptable circumstances that developed, and to be a centre of excellence in teaching and learning for all the students and a good place to work for all staff."

It said an experienced human resources specialist should be appointed and a school development plan drawn up.

The board of governors, school management and the trade unions should establish immediately a school-based joint consultative committee to develop positive and constructive engagement on day-to-day industrial relations issues within the school.

Education Minister Peter Weir accepted the recommendations.

Mr Weir said: "I am confident that the panel's report will provide a sound platform for moving forward in building relations within the school and the wider community, while also making a positive contribution to ensuring that all children receive a quality education experience."

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