Once again children at a Northern Ireland school are caught up in the crossfire of a battle between teachers and school administrators.
Pupils at Movilla High School in Newtownards are today on their third day off school as a result of strike action by their teachers.
A total of 25 teachers, backed by their union the NASUWT, have taken to the picket line after a teacher was assaulted by a pupil.
The union said it was forced to take such major action after the teachers’ pay was completely cut when they refused to teach the pupil involved — because they felt the child’s behaviour posed a health and safety risk to staff and pupils.
The union is remaining tight-lipped on exactly what happened between the teacher and pupil — but we must assume it was a serious incident to have this outcome. The child was suspended for 10 days.
A stalemate has emerged with the union refusing to enter into talks unless the teachers’ pay is reinstated and a commitment given that the teachers will not have to teach the pupil. The SEELB refuses to meet these preconditions and claims that the school’s board of governors dealt with the incident “appropriately and proportionately”.
The Movilla situation echoes events at another Ulster school four years ago when a high profile teachers’ strike took place over four days at Laurelhill Community College in Lisburn.
David Bell, a technology and design teacher, was cleared of indecent assault but admitted assault by touching a schoolgirl under the chin. He was given an absolute discharge.
Fifty-three of Mr Bell’s colleagues, all also members of the NASUWT, went on strike in 2004 — forcing the school to close — in protest over having to teach the girl behind the accusation. They returned four days later after her family agreed to remove her from the school.
In February of this year another violent incident at a school hit the headlines. Head teacher Seamus Barnes, of St Gabriel's College in north Belfast, was knocked unconscious when he was punched in the face by a relative of a pupil.
A trade union revealed earlier this year that attacks on school teachers in Northern Ireland soared over a six-year period.
According to figures released by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation the number of attacks on secondary level education staff rose from five in 2001/02 to 85 during 2006/07.
The statistics obtained under the Freedom of Information Act also showed a 20-fold increase in the number of physical assaults on primary school teachers — from one in 2001/02 to 20, six years later.
In all schools — nursery, primary, post-primary and special schools — the total number of assaults on teachers had risen year-on-year from 63 in 2001/02 to 173 during 2006/07.
The case at Movilla High is just one of dozens of similar cases likely to take place in schools across the province during this academic year.
In Newtownards, the welfare of the teachers and all of the pupils must remain at the forefront.
What is best for the pupil at the centre of the storm is also of paramount concern.
Would he be better with a fresh start at a new school? Or does he need additional support in his current school?
Children losing three days — or more — of their education also shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
Many of the pupils will be in important years and preparing to sit GCSE, AS and A-level exams. Routine is important and every day off school is a day they are missing out on learning.
Responsibility lies with the union and the education board to sort out this situation as soon as possible before it spirals completely out of control.