Pupils put at risk over poor safety standards

THE safety of thousands of secondary students and teachers is being put at risk because schools are failing to meet basic health and safety laws, according to a union leader.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) has found that almost one third of the 270 schools which responded to a recent survey had not conducted a fire drill in the past year.

One-in-five schools did not even have a safety statement, which is a basic legal requirement for all workplaces, and 31% of teachers said the inconsistent implementation of school discipline policies was creating a health hazard for teachers.

ASTI president Susie Hall said the biggest blame for the poor record on school safety lies with the Department of Education.

"It has failed to provide the necessary supports and resources to allow schools give due attention to their obligations under health and safety legislation," she said.

Ms Hall said that, on any given day, up to 1,000 young people move through a school participating in sports, practical classes such as cookery and science, break times, drama and more.

"Schools have responsibility for the health and safety of all these young people and their teachers," she said.

The survey also found that almost 90% of schools have no written policy on bullying of staff or sexual harassment.

The president of the 16,500-member union said the department and school boards were contributing to a risk of teachers' welfare by not addressing the most common occupational hazard for the profession. More than one-third of work illnesses resulting in absence among teachers is stress, but the survey found that 82% of teachers received no training or advice on stress management in the past year.

Ms Hall repeated previous calls for the establishment of a permanent welfare service for the teaching profession, which has around 50,000 members at primary and second level.

The health and safety requirements in schools will be a key issue for debate when 450 delegates attend the ASTI's annual convention in Cork next week.

Meanwhile, a number of applicants will be interviewed for the post of ASTI general secretary next month. The post left vacant when Charlie Lennon resigned in 2003 was advertised in January and a recruitment consultant presented a shortlist to a committee of senior ASTI members earlier this month.

Deputy general secretary John White has been acting in the position for more than a year and is believed to be among those due to be interviewed, with at least one external candidate to be interviewed.

The union's vice-president Sheila Parsons is the only nominee for next week's vote to replace Ms Hall as president. However, three nominees Lily Cronin from Kerry, Michael Freeley from Mayo and Kevin McEneaney from Monaghan are in the running for the vice-president's job.

Although nominations for the treasurer's post are not taken until convention, it is believed a number of prominent members are considering contesting the position held by Patricia Wroe for the past number of years.

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