Northern Ireland teachers told to count play bricks - 'absurd' audit goes down like ton of bricks
Northern Ireland's new Education Authority (EA) was last night accused of "living in cloud Lego-land" and taking the schools system to the brink as another mega-row erupted - over teachers having to count play bricks.
The blackboard barney this time is over the EA ordering an audit of school equipment with just 48 hours notice, and expecting school staff to carry it out.
The letter went out to principals dated March 29. It stated that the audit was to be carried out two days later, on March 31. And an accompanying 'guidance' memo said that "one person must be made responsible for the overall stocktake", and that "individuals should be designated an area to count".
But teachers reacted angrily - especially when they saw some of the items on the audit list. They included "toys (e.g. Lego brick sets), sensory mood balls, outdoor mats, detergents, cleaning cloths", as well as exercise, text and library books. The EA said the audit letter went to more than 1,000 schools.
The Belfast Telegraph asked the EA how many had responded - a fortnight since the March 31 audit - with their results. The answer was just six.
And that was in spite of the last line of the EA letter reading: "In the interests of your school, and in support of your management of your school's budget, I encourage you to work with us in completing this task."
Last night the Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) issued a scathing statement accusing the EA of "cynical absurdity" in its latest "bean-counting audit" and accused it of "fiddling while Rome burns".
It claimed that Northern Ireland's education system was already teetering at "critical mass", threatening "incalculable damage" to a generation of children. UTU general secretary Avril Hall Callaghan said: "Issuing an audit edict demanding information on minutiae such as how many Lego bricks school infant classes have, or how many Vileda wipes are in the caretakers' cupboards, takes cynical absurdity to new heights."
She added: "We are in a fiscal situation which risks doing incalculable damage to a generation of our brightest and most vulnerable children - and all those in between - yet the EA launches a bean-counting exercise to serve its thrall to bureaucracy, and fiddles while Rome burns." Ms Callaghan said that the education system here was being assailed from all sides.
She added: "We have a non-existent government, non-existent budgets, an EA which seems more interested in box ticking than supporting its teachers, and an Inspectorate which appears at times openly hostile to teachers."
Claiming schools were now "in an unparalleled period of upheaval", she added: "It beggars belief. What century are we living in? The situation is fast approaching critical mass. Enough is enough."
The top union official called on parents to "come on board and back teachers' calls for change".
Last night a parent governor at one major school, who asked to remain anonymous, said of the EA letter demanding the March 31 audit: "We thought, given the date, it was an April Fool jape. But when we discovered it was for real, and saw the list of items to be counted, we just came to the conclusion that the authority must be living in cloud Lego-land."
The EA said that both it and Northern Ireland's schools must carefully consider all areas of spending.
"As part of this consideration, EA asked schools to carry out a stock count," it said.
"This is standard practice in other areas, such as school meals kitchens."
It added that accurate information on the value and quantity of items held in schools was essential to both them and the EA and helped planning expenditure for the future.
"To date, six schools have provided the information requested," the EA added.
"We expect to receive further returns over the next few weeks."