Schools’ safety hit by removal of teacher substitutes

I REFER to the recent statement by Minister for Education and Science Batt O’Keeffe that, prior to 2003, schools managed without any provision for substitution cover for short-term sick leave and school business and that this did not impede their capacity to participate in relevant activities or to run things properly.

The minister and his officials seem to be totally unaware of the fact that safety legislation has changed greatly since 2003 and that the duty of care required of schools is now much greater.

There are expanded duties for boards, a much greater emphasis on safety management and an increased exposure to personal liability.

Boards of management must allocate resources for the engagement of sufficient staff to meet the requirements of safety legislation and as a result could find themselves in breach of their duty of care by failing to:

* Engage sufficient staff safely to conduct a school — particularly as the current model of substitution/supervision has established what is required to manage schools on a daily basis.

* Send sufficient teachers on a school trip/excursion, educational visit, school game — it depends on the age of the student and the type of activity, but criteria have been established for school activities and any attempt to reduce staff involvement as a result of the withdrawal of supervision/substitution cover could be interpreted as a major breach of the duty of care.

* Devise a safe system of substitution/supervision — boards have a general duty to ensure the safety, health and welfare of staff in every aspect related to their work so expecting principals, deputy principals or teaching staff to supervise large groups of students would contravene this duty.

* Maintain safe plant (not having adequate supervision of students or creating an unsafe working environment for staff).

In addition, the absence of a substitution scheme for short-term sick leave and school business has additional implications for principals and deputy principals as they will experience new demands due to different work patterns and a very changed working environment. They will have less control in influencing the way they manage schools on a daily basis as a key support to help them will have been removed.

It is also very likely there will be a major relationship change with staff, students, parents and the local community if staff and students are not allowed to partake in school-related activities or students are sent home.

Principals and deputy principals (working in close partnership with staff) have shown in a very quantifiable way that they are the key drivers of change management within the education system.

However, the removal of the substitution scheme is a change that will leave many of them isolated and vulnerable when having to make moral judgements around the safety and wellbeing of staff and students.

This is a dilemma that is unacceptable and as a result it will be incumbent on boards of management to support and protect principals and deputy principals so that the negative consequences of the minister’s proposals are not allowed to impact on their welfare.

The minister’s request to teachers in all schools to “co-operate fully with school managers in coping with this change in the interest of the students” offers little comfort.

Hankering after times past, looking for solidarity and for cooperation in the national interest is very admirable but it will not keep the legal eagles at bay when things go wrong. Nor will it protect the welfare of staff and students within schools.

Shay Bannon

Principal

CBS High School

Clonmel

Co Tipperary

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