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Range of Issues Experienced by Schools Under the Spotlight in Board of Education Report

Range of Issues Experienced by Schools Under the Spotlight in Board of Education Report

Issues facing education were highlighted at General Synod this afternoon (Friday May 12) when the report of the Board of Education was presented.

Proposing the report, Canon Jennifer McWhirter, focussed on issues raised in the report from the perspective of the Republic of Ireland. She said that the cost of living crisis had had a huge impact on schools.

Increases in the cost of heating and lighting of schools, together with increased insurance bills and the untimely delay in payments of minor works and capitation grants by the Department of Education, which has seen funds due at the end of February only being paid to schools in recent days, has meant that some National Schools have only a few hundred euro in their bank accounts at present or have gone into deficit in order to pay staff such as caretakers and secretaries, Canon McWhirter said.

She added that secondary schools under Protestant ethos have found themselves excluded from direct funding under the free scheme since 2009 as they are fee–charging schools. This places them in a particularly difficult situation as they have a fixed income from their students and have no recourse to the usual sources of state funding.

She noted that another manifestation of the cost of living crisis was the huge difficulty in getting teachers and support staff to fill positions.

Another issue faced by schools was the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine which has seen over 13,000 Ukrainian children being enrolled in Irish schools. Canon McWhirter said the children had been welcomed into schools, but unlike the Syrian refugee crisis, no additional funding had been forthcoming from the Department of Education to help with integration and learning. This meant that funding was being found by schools to items such as the provision of work books and stationary, free hot lunches, bus tickets and technology.

She said that issues faced by schools included difficulties in communication and in particular trying to teach children in a language of which they have limited understanding. She also spoke of the frustration and upset caused when children and their families are moved from one residence to another adding that it was retraumatising for the children when they have to reintegrate into another education setting.

“Across the board there has been the desire of Principals to provide in their schools a safe and happy environment for the Ukrainian children in their care, with one Principal going so far as to say that this has been her primary goal, and the learning that the children experience is secondary to that,” she said. “Church of Ireland communities across the country have rallied around the Ukrainian children enrolled in their schools with one school providing pencil cases for the children, and seeing a huge response when an appeal went out for spare lunch boxes and school bags so the children didn’t have to bring their lunch to school in the paper bag provided by the hotel in which they were staying with their room number as the only identifying mark. The huge response by our school communities in welcoming Ukrainian children and their families is not to be underestimated, but neither is the benefit each of those principals reported to their school communities in terms of diversity, learning about a new culture and school life being enriched and horizons broadened by the presence of the Ukrainian children.”

Seconding the report, and speaking from the perspective of Northern Ireland, the Revd Catherine Simpson said that in aiming to improve the educational experience for children and young people, the Church must focus on supporting children in both formal and informal settings. She highlighted some good practice in Armagh, Down and Dromore, Connor, Clogher and Derry and Raphoe.

She observed that there had been much reporting about the funding crisis in Northern Ireland and churches were helping to plug the gap in whatever ways they could. However, she said more needed to be done as the lack of investment in the education system would cause social problems in the future. “Now is the time for our churches to invest in our local schools by creating new connections and strengthening existing ones, all the while radiating and demonstrating Christ’s love,” she stated.

Ms Simpson conveyed the thanks of the Board to all who serve as governors. “In an era when some political representatives might like to remove church representatives from Boards of Governors, it is vital to demonstrate the contribution and invaluable impact churches have had on our education system since its inception, with church volunteers on Boards of Governors across Northern Ireland.  Our school system would not be able to physically function without transferor representatives on Boards of Governors helping with school development plans, finance planning and human resources – all functions of good governance.  As a Church, we acknowledge and are grateful for our Christian witness in schools and the Christian ethos that underpins our education system and are grateful for it.  Thank you to all those, lay and clergy alike who serve as trustees and as members of Boards of Governors; we thank you for your hard work and your vital Christian witness,” she said.

She also acknowledged the poor morale among school staff and encouraged all churches to reach out and support schools in every way possible.

Debate on the Report

Speaking to the report Joan Bruton (Meath and Kildare) expressed disappointment that there was very little emphasis on the Secondary Education Committee (SEC) in the report. She also sought comparative figures for the ones included in the report.

Canon Gillian Wharton (Dublin) highlighted the disparity between the numbers in schools and the grants given – grants given by the Department are based on the previous year’s enrolment. This often results in gaps in funding and she suggested that the Department could ask schools for the projected figure of pupils for the year ahead.

Archdeacon Andrew Orr (Cork Cloyne and Ross) spoke of the experience of Youghal with integrating pupils from Ukraine. He said their parish school welcomed 80 students from Ukraine with virtually no assistance from the State initially and staff had to do the best they could. To applause, he expressed thanks to the staff and teachers up and down the country for what they had done to support pupils from Ukraine. He added that the Department had since provided support and students had settled in and their presence had been an enrichment to the school and the parish.

Bishop Paul Colton (Cork Cloyne and Ross) spoke of the complexity of helping Ukrainians integrate in school communities. He commended Archdeacon Orr for the role he has played in helping to reconcile, explain and support. Separately, he said that school patronage had become more complicated and expressed his gratitude to Dr Ken Fennelly, secretary to the Board of Education RI, for his unending support for the patrons.

Canon John Clarke (Meath and Kildare) acknowledged the work in schools in relation to special educational needs. He said schools had robust policies in relation to inclusivity and added that new policies introduced by the Department seemed very heavy handed. He said he would have preferred to see more engagement with the partners in education, while he felt the new policy was probably needed.

Judith Cairns (Connor) said she appreciated the work of the Board of Education. She spoke about the Board’s support for Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE). She said that the Church could provide additional support for teachers and in homes. She expressed concern about the imposition of a compulsory standardisation of what is taught in RSE. She urged members to continue to support the input of Christian values in this area.

The Revd Adrian Dorrian (Down) said he found being a school governor one of the most fulfilling parts of his ministry. He commended the work of Dr Peter Hamill, the secretary of the Board of Education NI. He highlighted the drastic cuts to funding for schools and encouraged the Board of Education to rail against these funding cuts because there was no expectation that the results coming out of these schools would change in any way. He said that the Government in Northern Ireland was tearing schools apart which he said was immoral.

William Oliver (Derry and Raphoe) also spoke about the lack of funding for schools. He said the situation was unbelievable and that the system of education needed to be transformed so that it could be properly funded.

Concluding the debate, the Archbishop of Armagh added his thanks to Dr Peter Hamill and Dr Ken Fennelly for the work they did.




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