What Needs to Change in our Schools in the New Year?Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 25 January 2024
In the run-up to Christmas the long- awaited Independent Review of Education in Northern Ireland was released. It had been commissioned as part of commitments contained in the New Decade New Approach deal, which restored the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2020. Its scope is very wide ranging and there are serious issues flagged up which will require vision, courage and determination to address. Sadly, the recent history of attempts by our devolved administrations to reform public services, particularly health and education will not fill anyone with optimism about our ability to take the hard decisions that are needed, as our public representatives can only do what we as voters let them do.
Part of the problem is that we want more than we can afford. We want our local hospitals to stay where they are, even when experts tell us that services need to be modernised and reorganised. We want our rural communities to be served by the schools they have depended on for generations, even if they become economically unviable. We want our multiple school systems to remain as they have always been, even when it means higher costs and duplication of services. Events beyond our control in the wider world however, including Brexit and the Ukrainian war, have triggered inflation resulting in the ‘cost of living crisis’. An already difficult economic climate for the delivery of our public services has become virtually impossible with spiralling fuel and energy costs resulting in higher heating, travel and building costs for schools and health care. Added to these budget pressures are the inevitable strikes by public service unions whose legitimate wage claims can only be afforded if more money is available from Westminster. Understandably perhaps, the Secretary of State is making more financial support conditional on local revenue raising and reforms to existing arrangements.
Against this troubled backdrop we need an urgent reset of how our services are financed and organised, and we can only hope that we achieve that as part of yet another restoration arrangement of our self- government. None of us can get everything that we want, but all of us in this place require quality education for our young people and support and health care for those of us in need regardless of our political sensitivities.
The Education Review focused on funding and found that there is an immediate need to uplift the education budgets by £291m annually.
Education in Northern Ireland is "seriously underfunded", review panel chair Dr Keir Bloom told BBC's Talkback programme.
The director of the Association of School and College Leaders NI, John Trueman, said the report "pulls no punches" and has urged Stormont to "implement the funding recommendations set out in the report as a matter of urgency". The Education Authority chief executive Sara Long also welcomed the call for an immediate uplift in funding, "following a decade of chronic underfunding"
Writing in June 2023 BBC NI Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith has set out the grim reality of what this all means for school leaders and their staffs who try and make it work every day.
“Schools are far too good at disguising their problems," he says. "Go into the vast majority of schools and you will enter a warm and welcoming place. Brightly lit classrooms, well-taught children, artwork on the walls, trophy cabinets, old and new photos of smiling staff and pupils. But those disguises mean that the real financial problems faced by education are easy to overlook." He suggests that the same alarm which we are feeling about the fact that the Health Service is struggling to cope in terms of waiting lists, GP appointments and even critical A & E care, is not yet apparent in relation to our schools but that a similar reality exists there too. He itemises cuts including school buildings programmes, IT system upgrades, counselling and learning support programmes, special needs provision and many more. These are only the tip of the iceberg however because the biggest unseen reduction is in the staff time that school leaders can no longer afford.
Back in 1974 in his celebrated book, Pastoral Care, which was a must read for those of us trained as teachers at that time, Michael Marland wrote that school is essentially ‘a community concerned with the total welfare of the young person – a caring community’. Another equally important writer on pastoral care in education was Douglas Hamblin who argued that teachers have the power to create an environment ‘within which standards of excellence are actively pursued, and healthy social and emotional development is encouraged’ as a ‘product of the relationships between teacher and taught.’
When I look back at the advice from these pillars of the educational world and remember that our schools’ system was designed on these principles, I feel that the children growing up in this increasingly complex and difficult world need this type of holistic care and support in school as never before. This of course needs more time and staffing to achieve. There is well deserved support from the public for the NHS staff coping with the crisis in our health care, but I think our school leaders and their staffs need awareness and support too.
It is sad that it takes a tragedy like the death of Headteacher Ruth Perry this time last year to remind us all of the huge pressure that school leaders are put under as they try to make our schools as good as they need to be with less resources every passing year. So, what needs to change in our schools in the New Year? The answer is surely where we as a society place them and our NHS in our list of things to worry about and to pressurise our public representatives to fight for.
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