Conversations about education in Ireland make you feel like you’re at a bad family dinner. The food’s awful because someone has forgotten to prepare properly. Everyone’s fighting over scraps, even when they resemble Bridget Jones’ blue soup.
An argument erupts because everyone’s hungry and fed-up. Someone says exactly the wrong thing at exactly the right time for it to explode. Someone else bangs down their plate and leaves the table. And it’s all over. The ‘food’ goes to waste, doors are slammed, and everyone regrets turning up in the first place.
Unions and politicians seem accustomed to this style of communication. But teachers, parents and students deserve better. The truth is that if the Department prepared effectively and if we had a fundamentally adequate system in the first place, one to meet student needs, none of these arguments would be happening. In this sense my gripe isn’t with current politicians, it runs far deeper. We have grown accustomed to an inefficient system. This pandemic is simply bringing its flaws to the surface.
I was genuinely surprised to read the survey carried out by the National Parents Council this month. It reports that school communities don’t believe schools are safe for students and staff, with only 17% of respondents echoing the threadbare government mantra. Fundamentally parents and teachers want the same thing: a safe return to school and a speedier return for our most vulnerable. But the Department can’t deliver it. Why? Because they haven’t prepared in advance and more importantly, the system itself isn’t fit for purpose.
To give one example, it seems we’ve no adequate, national system in place to identify clearly who those children might be. Whilst my school uses one system to delineate such groups, another school uses something different. We also have no joint up thinking between services in Ireland. It’s no wonder the department consistently leaves schools waiting for information until the last minute; in such a fragmented, convoluted system, communication is always going to be difficult. One special school I contacted reported receiving their official opening plan this Tuesday - two days after they’d opened. The truth is, we're left with no choice but to go back by year group. Shame on our system for that.
Because parents are at the coalface of education, they haven’t forgotten what it’s about. Medics have their Hippocratic oath, teachers have an oath too. It comes in different packaging across the world but it’s ultimately that every child must be taught according to their need.
But more fundamentally, we shouldn’t be fighting for scraps. Our system should be cohesive and adequately, coherently resourced. We need to refuse the blue soup put in front of us, demand something better next time around.
Simply put, while we fight amongst ourselves about who should go back first, we miss the obvious. The need for actual safety for whoever returns. The need to vaccinate the vulnerable members of our school communities before returning. Failing this, they need to stick to NPHET advice. We’re not doing that. We’re now sending four year-groups back to primary. NPHET’s suggestion was two. As far as I can make out, they haven’t said anything since.
Paediatrician Niamh Lynch wrote a beautiful piece in this paper about how we are in a ‘silent emergency’ when it comes to our children. Our children are falling silent and it requires a ‘dynamic’ and ‘urgent’ response according to Lynch. She lists the obvious: adequate space, appropriate ventilation, rapid antigen testing and prioritisation of vaccinations for teachers, at least those with underlying health conditions.
Why isn’t this being done? In numerous countries a safe return to school is being prioritised. Children are being put first. In the UK students are being given two tests in schools and one at home. Parents are then being asked to test their children twice a week. What’s happening here? More of the same. We’ll simply open our windows in our makeshift classrooms next week, many of us still stuck in buildings not fit for purpose.
Here, while one person is screaming at the top of the table ‘schools are safe.’ Another is responding ‘no they’re not.’ A third is calling that person lazy. Another is suggesting how we might make schools a degree less dangerous. Yet another is suggesting something else. While this is going on, our children are falling silent. One student said to me this week that she doesn’t think the government cares about her. When I asked her why she explained that without teachers and unions, all children would have been back to school earlier, regardless of infection rates. I didn’t want to add to her fear and unease, but I feel the same way. I find it scary to be so unprotected and uncared for, and I’m a forty-year-old woman. She’s a fourteen-year-old girl.
The least us adults can do is ask for better on her behalf. This pandemic is providing an opportunity to think big, to change our system of education at a deeper level. I just hope we can get over our frustrations. I hope that after all the discussions and disappointments we’ll continue to turn up, admit where things went wrong and do better by our young people. When this is over, I hope we’ll put something worthwhile on the table.