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MLAs ‘need to fix school issues, not play blame game’

Principals want action as the NI Assembly returns to discuss education’s Covid crisis


Liam McGuckin, principal of Greenisland Primary School

Liam McGuckin, principal of Greenisland Primary School

Liam McGuckin, principal of Greenisland Primary School

School principals have told MLAs they want solutions, not recriminations, as the NI Assembly returns ahead of schedule to debate the Covid crisis in education.

The Assembly will be recalled on Monday as schools face rising Covid cases and staff shortages, but teachers fear the debate will descend into another political blame game.

Liam McGuckin, principal at Greenisland Primary School and president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said certainty and clarity is needed over the next few weeks.

“We need meaningful contact tracing and isolation guidance for children and young people should be reinstated,” he said.

“It should also be made clear that remote/home learning will, in all likelihood, affect pupils for the rest of the term and schools should have clear advice that bubbles should remain in schools.”

One Co Down principal said he spent another Sunday trying in vain to find cover. Instead, his P5 pupils’ parents are being told there will be no school on Monday.

“What we don’t want to see is a finger pointing exercise with everyone blaming everyone else,” he said.

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“All through the pandemic, on every issue, they have been reactionary. A failure to listen is why we’re in this state today. And now we don’t want the situation further compounded by political games and posturing.”

He said the shortage of substitute teachers has been exacerbated by the decision to extend the Engage programme, which was aimed at limiting any long-term adverse impact of Covid through provision of high quality, one-to-one, small group or team teaching support

“While it was a good idea at the time, what we have now is a position where substitute teachers are tied up with providing this programme and not available to step in and help out with staff shortages.”

Another Co Down principal added that he didn’t want to see the Assembly debate turn into a row over what should have been done.

“There’s no point at this stage looking back at what we night have done several months ago,” he said.

“It should be the role of politicians to be a ‘critical friend’ when facing a crisis. Instead what we see are ‘critical opponents’. Any grandstanding does nothing but frustrate those trying to work through this.”

NASUWT union official Justin McCamphill, speaking on behalf of the Northern Ireland Teachers’ Council (NITC), said current mitigations are not sufficient.

“Staff absences are making it impossible for many schools to function in a safe manner despite the endless claims to the contrary from others,” he said. “It is particularly disappointing that additional mitigations were not put in place prior to Christmas. The situation we now find ourselves in was entirely predictable. It seems clear that the department needs help and we have provided a list of mitigations and recommendations which we believe will go some way to restoring confidence.”

Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, who petitioned for the recall, said it was needed to provide a voice for parents, pupils, teachers and wider school staff. “The Minister needs to come to the Assembly to set out a clear plan for keeping schools open which puts the safety of pupils, teachers and parents first and deals with the pressures on school staff,” he said.