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De La Salle walk outs due to a serious break down of relations between management and staff

Demo at school gates after sixth formers worried about exams walk out

By Angela Rainey

Published 16/03/2016

Concerned parents of pupils at De La Salle College outside the school gates yesterday
Concerned parents of pupils at De La Salle College outside the school gates yesterday

Parents and pupils at a west Belfast school staged a mass walkout to protest against persistent and high levels of teacher absenteeism amid fears that exam results will be affected.

More than 20 concerned parents and around 50 pupils from the sixth form gathered at the gates of De La Salle College in Andersonstown after more than a third of teachers - 25 out of 70 - called in sick on Monday.

A female caller to BBC Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan Show has claimed her son was an A*/A sixth form student, but is now achieving B grades.

"My son has no director of Sixth form study, no year head and two out of three of his teachers are out," she said.

"He is suffering from stress and feels absolutely powerless."

However a teaching assistant at the school also called into the programme and insisted that the situation has been "blown out of proportion".

Education Minister John O'Dowd told the Nolan Show that he understands the dispute is down to a breakdown in relations between staff and the leadership within the school.

"Over this last year, maybe a bit more, there has been a breakdown in relationships in the school between senior management and sections of the staff," he said.

"Morale is very low. It then escalated after an incident in November where a member of staff was then dismissed from the school over quite a serious incident. That is now before the Labour Relations Agency so I can't go into too much detail on it.

"But there are serious efforts taking place to bring this matter to a resolution to the satisfaction of everyone and I believe that those people involved in trying to resolve that are serious about trying to get a result."

Mr O'Dowd said the situation has escalated beyond what anyone had expected.

"Like parents of pupils attending De La Salle College, I am very concerned about the ongoing issues at the school and the impact on its pupils," he said. 

"I understand the school, employing authority and unions are working together to resolve the situation and I would urge all involved to bring this to a resolution as soon as possible.

"I will be keeping the situation under close review."

It's not the first time the school has been criticised by parents. Last November concerns were raised that huge numbers of staff were ringing in sick, leaving pupils without lessons.

Seven of John Hughes' family, including him and his four sons, studied at De La Salle. He says it's just not good enough.

"It's been building up. It's an historical problem that's been going on for around two years," he said. "Any experience I had at the school was excellent and it was a great environment for the children, but now it seems that teachers who were contributing to the school are leaving.

"It started off with one, then another left. It's been creeping up, but it's time questions were being asked why teachers are taking such long periods off sick. Grades will be affected.

Mr Hughes phoned the school twice to find out what was going on and was told that everything was normal - a comment which he branded "nonsense".

"How can things be running as normal when the students are not getting a continuity of teaching?" he asked.

Parents are so worried about the staffing issues that they set up and have galvanised support through Concerned Parents of La Salle on Facebook, and say the standoff will continue.

Mr Hughes added: "We'll be there. Whatever industrial disputes are going on need to be addressed because there is definitely something wrong in that school.

"Whatever power struggle is going on, there needs to be some sort of resolution so the kids can regain their respect for the staff and get on with getting a good education."

Gerry Murphy, northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, said: "We remain concerned at the deteriorating industrial relations situation in De La Salle College, Belfast.

"On behalf of our members, INTO is engaged with the school's management and employing authority in an attempt to address a number of ongoing issues within De La Salle College. INTO has been made aware that a number of our members within the school are currently absent on medically certificated absences.

"At a meeting of INTO's central executive committee, on Thursday, March 10, a decision was taken, prompted by our increasing concern at the slow progress towards a resolution of the issues in the school, that INTO will ballot members within the school for further targeted industrial action.

"INTO would prefer to reach an acceptable resolution around the issues within the school, rather than see any further erosion of the industrial relations climate."

A spokesman for the school said: "When issues first arose a strategic group was set up, comprising the board of governors, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, and the following unions: INTO, ATL, NAHT and NASUWT.

A strategic plan for renewal was devised by the group and work began immediately to implement this plan.

"The intention was, and remains, to resolve any internal issues within the school through the implementation of this plan.

"The immediate priority remains the full educational provision for all students in the school.

"We can assure parents that all interests in the strategy group are working together to ensure that there is no delay in this process and that there is total commitment from all to continue to work towards a resolution."

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