Compromising children’s education during shutdown ‘can’t go on’: School principal

The coronavirus crisis has created an “education gap” for many pupils that might never be rectified, a school principal has warned.

Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 6:15 am
Updated Wednesday, 27th May 2020, 4:07 pm
A head teacher in NI has warned of an "education gap" caused by the coronavirus shutdown that might never be rectified.

With Northern Ireland’s schools almost certain to remain closed until late August or early September, Chris Currie of Killinchy Primary has expressed concerns that a plan for a safe return has still not be formulated.

“We can’t go on like this. We can’t go on indefinitely paying teachers’ salaries and compromising children’s education in this way,” he said.

Mr Currie has written a four-page letter to the Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir – detailing the extensive list of difficulties facing schools as they prepare to reopen after the lengthy shutdown.

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“It is full of questions, problems and issues I feel need to be flagged up as they need to be thought about now,” he said.

“We don’t know what the new normal is going to look like but it definitely won’t be what we left in March. Once we find out what that is we need to get back to it as soon as possible.

“There have been enormous levels of disruption to children’s learning. We need to get children back to school for their own education, and for the lost time and opportunities, but also we need to support families and parents to get back to work.

“We are not childcare but that is a guaranteed by-produce of what we provide ... so parents come to rely on it. We are an important part of the system that allows parents to get to work.”

Earlier this month, the education minister said there was “no planned date for reopening of schools for normal business,” and added: “Any decision guided by science and health advice, will not be date driven.”

Mr Currie said: “There is inequality, because the teacher is like a middleman, and what the teacher provides is only as good as what is delivered at the other side by the parents or whoever is delivering it on behalf of the parents.

“The teacher can deliver fantastic lessons, but if they are not being delivered in the way the teacher wants them to be delivered – for example, some parents will deliver them brilliantly and others will choose not to get as involved.

“So that inequality is already there and there are certainly going to be issues from an educational point of view.”

Mr Currie said the school teaching curriculum is governed by a tight timetable that does not allow for the expected catch-up needed for those who have fallen behind.

“There will be gaps in children’s knowledge and it’s also going to pose problems around how we actually begin to fill those gaps, or whether we can fill them. If we are going to have to fill these gaps ... then there is going to be a knock-on delay somewhere along the line.

“In terms of the practical issues ... social distancing is a massive issue in terms of how we, especially in primary schools, put in place the recommended level of social distancing while still delivering the curriculum.

“This has never happened before so nobody knows the answers to these questions.”

Mr Currie said it is encouraging that the education minister is consulting with teachers to find a way of overcoming the many difficulties in reopening schools, however, the school principal said he believes “the wheels need to turn a bit faster” with the summer break just weeks away.

“Teachers have been flat out delivering a very difficult remote learning experience for children ... and they are doing it long into the evenings so they are going to need to take a break from it all.

“So we only have about a month before everyone breaks up for the summer holidays. I just haven’t heard enough yet to convince me that we are ready,” he said.

Mr Currie said it was looking increasingly likely that a teacher’s day would have to be spilt between the reduced numbers of pupils able to attend school – in keeping with social distancing measures – and the delivery of remote lessons to those at home.

The principal also expressed concerns that parents could struggle to hold down a full-time job if their children are not at school for the majority of the working week.

The head teacher at Methodist College in Belfast has also said there will be difficulties once schools reopen – and that games and sports will be off the timetable.

Scott Naismith said schools can only reopen “in a meaningful way” if social distancing guidelines change, the BBC has reported.

Mr Naismith made the comments in an email to parents.

He said the social distancing measure would need to be reduced from the two metres UK guideline to the World Health Organisation suggestion of one metre.

He also said that the school planned a phased reopening from August 25, but that pupils would not attend school every day.