A teachers‘ strike which has closed a secondary school for a week was today branded as “corporate abuse” of children’s rights.
The Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner Patricia Lewsley said the rights of every child in Movilla High School in Newtownards, Co Down were being used as bargaining chips.
More than half of the teachers at the 540 pupil school went on indefinite strike at the start of last week after their pay was stopped for refusing to teach a pupil who they said had assaulted a teacher.
The teachers have asked for the pupil to be removed from the school or taught in isolation. The education authorities have refused.
Talks held between the NASUWT teachers union and the South Eastern Education and Library Board broke up on Friday without resolving the dispute and the union said last night necessary progress had not been made over the weekend to reopen the school today.
Stepping into the dispute and offering to mount an investigation if the strike was called off, the Children’s Commission said the strike was “tantamount to the corporate abuse of children’s rights.”
The Commissioner said she was aware of the detailed circumstances of the incident involving the boy at the centre of the dispute and said she was concerned teachers were using a minor episode to create a scare story.
“This individual child’s rights, and the rights of every child at that school are being used as bargaining chips,” she said.
Ms Lewsley added: “I utterly condemn violence in the classroom or school yard, whether it is against or by pupils. School must be a safe, healthy environment.
“But the incident was of a minor nature and, in my view, has been blown completely out of proportion by a national trade union that is more interested in publicity than caring for pupils.”
She said she feared the union was demonising the child – and that set a dangerous precedent.
She accepted that if a child broke school rules there should be sanctions available – the pupil concerned was suspended from school for several days before being allowed back.
The Commissioner added the child, at a time of “severe turmoil in his personal circumstances” broke school rules and accepted his punishment.
Aware of all the circumstances the board of governors at the school decided he should remain .
“The teachers who are striking must accept that this child is legally enrolled at Movilla High School and had a right to be taught. The other 539 pupil’s have a right to be taught.
“The trade union’s actions have denied all the children their right to an education,” said the commissioner.
She said the union had deliberately set impossible preconditions in negotiation, refused offers of mediation and acted in an irresponsible manner.
“I call on them to immediately end the strike and get back to teaching. If they do so I pledge I will investigate the circumstance of this incident, the actions of the school and the education board.”
The teachers’ union accused the education board of being unable and unwilling to make progress and expressed disappointment at the position taken.
NASUWT general Secretary Chris Keates said if talks were to succeed in ending the dispute all parties needed to go to the table wanting to resolve the problems not with entrenched positions.
“The position of the SEELB has made it impossible to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the NASUWT.
“This is extremely disappointing as the move to strike action was not of our making and it was the last thing our members wanted to do,” said Mr Keates.
He added: “We must not forget that at the centre of this is a school where the children want to learn, teachers want to teach and the parents want progress to be made.
“It is disappointing that the SEELB does not appear to want to achieve this.”
Seamus Searson, the union Northern Ireland organiser said they were very disappointed at the education board approach to the talks.
“The terms of the deal on offer, far from improving, are actually getting worse,” he said,
The absence of anyone from the school’s board of governors was not helping the dispute, he added.
“Our members at Movilla want to cause as little disruption to the children’s education and wish to have children back at school as soon as possible.
“However the SEELB will have to buck their ideas up and quickly.”
The SEELB confirmed the school would remain closed to pupils today.
A statement said the union had rejected offers made to them and were demanding the pupil be taught in total isolation from other pupils and teachers in the school or that the particular pupil is requested to leave the school.
“The Board and Board of Governors cannot accede to these demands. However the Board will continue to make itself available for further discussions to find a resolution of this dispute,” it said.
Education Minister Caitriona Ruane called on employers and unions to keep talking to resolve the dispute.
The minister said: “The teachers and young people of Movilla High School need to get back to school as soon as possible.
“It is only through dialogue that this can be resolved and I urge both sides to continue talking so we can move on quickly.
“It is also important that the rights of all concerned are recognised and respected at all times.”