He said he has been encouraged by the responses of young children as he appeals to them on the issue in visits to schools.
“I have been speaking of the importance of ensuring that no child is ever pushed to the margin, or the collective used against a child suffering from deep, deep loneliness,” he said.
“New and sophisticated technology is now available and competes for pupils’ attention and may assist them, but has also led to the increased current danger of deeper and more far reaching bullying of vulnerable children,” he said.
The President told the Irish Primary Principals’ Network annual conference a proper aim of education and a true measure of a country is being able to value its shared health, and have the mental wellbeing of its citizens — and particularly its smallest ones — as its concern.
He was greatly concerned by the IPPN survey finding, featured in yesterday’s Irish Examiner, that one in five principals are reporting that more pupils are arriving at school hungry.
“In 2013, in our Irish Republic, the Irish people do not want this,” he said. “I know that very well from my own many visits to such places as St Munchin’s in Limerick where 500 children are fed every day — so they can learn properly by at least not being hungry — by wonderful and dedicated people.”
He said that teachers should not be impeded by bureaucratic requirements or testing exercises from sharing their talents and encouraging creativity.
Seán Cottrell, director of the IPPN, said principals strive to achieve the very best for the children in their care. But, he said, failure by the Department of the Education to address the additional workload created for them by new rules and schemes will adversely affect the quality of education.
“These initiatives arrive first in glossy publications, but to get them into action is a big challenge,” said Mr Cottrell. “The school is seen as the place to cure all society’s ills, but while we have a role to play it should be through curriculum and not through add-ons when there is only half an hour a week for social, personal and health education.
“If the wastage in the university sector was applied to primary education, we’d be well-funded. The big focus now is on fourth-level and more PhDs, but unless you get primary education well funded, the education system will crumble upwards from the bottom.”
He said two thirds of primary principals are also teachers and called for the same support as available in the North, where teaching principals have one non-teaching day a week for administration work, compared to one in every two-and-a-half weeks for some principals here.
Department of Education secretary general Seán Ó Foghlú said the burden associated with a range of new initiatives is recognised but schools are being given more autonomy in return for greater accountability to the department and parents.