MLA: My education was damaged when I missed a year at primary school after an arm injury

I would like to offer some personal insight into the impact primary schools being closed for a long period might have on pupils.

Alan Chambers, who is now an MLA, at Avoniel Primary School, around 1956, the year of his accident. He is in the middle of the back row, in a white T-shirt under jumper. Aged nine, he injured is arm and missed most of a year of school. "The lost learning hindered me for years," he writes
Alan Chambers, who is now an MLA, at Avoniel Primary School, around 1956, the year of his accident. He is in the middle of the back row, in a white T-shirt under jumper. Aged nine, he injured is arm and missed most of a year of school. "The lost learning hindered me for years," he writes

It is not meant as a criticism of current policy in Northern Ireland around school closures but more as what I see as an unfortunate consequence, and reality of dealing with closures brought about as part of the fight against a deadly and unprecedented virus spread.

I was brought up in a working-class home in east Belfast, more years ago than I care to remember, and the number of children from my area attending a grammar school was extremely small.

Apprenticeships in the Shipyard, the Ropeworks or Shorts would have represented the main ambitions of young boys from the area. The need to contribute to the family income was both urgent and necessary.

Alan Chambers is Ulster Unionist MLA for North Down and the party’s representative on the Policing Board

The added expense of uniform and sports kit for grammar school was a further deterrent to aspirations of extending your education in that direction.

We were taught differently than children are today in primary school. Learning then was based on repetition of spellings and tables with the whole class literally singing together their ten times tables and spelling homework in harmony each day.

At age nine I sustained a very bad arm injury in a school PE class that required three operations over a period of a few weeks to rebreak and reset a major bone in my arm.

The plaster extended from wrist to shoulder and made it difficult to get dressed in a conventional way. I was unable to attend school for the best part of an academic year. Work was sent home but was a poor substitute for the teaching of the classroom.

My mother was a product of an era when young girls attended school full time to age eleven and after that worked half a day in a mill and half day at school.

At age fourteen full time work in the mill marked the end of the education process. My father followed a similar journey and worked in the shipyard.

As I grew up, I realised that education and intelligence were two distinctly different things. My father in particular was a clever and intelligent man but his education had been limited.

That didn’t stop him achieving a lot during his lifetime and teaching me a lot about Presbyterian values. He was very involved in Labour party politics locally and contributed to standing up, at personal cost, for the rights of fellow workers.

His politics were not those of the far left but just someone who knew what was right and fair and what was not. He was a hard-working bread winner while my mother was a home maker and a star at budgeting the pennies until pay day.

Taking all that into account the amount of support for home educating in my house, with the best and most caring will in the world, was understandably limited. My parents would not have claimed to be pseudo schoolteachers.

The things that I missed learning during that year of enforced absence from school followed and hindered me for years after.

There were a range of eight and nine letter words that I would have joined in the singing mantra in class each day that should have planted them firmly in my mind but that in recent years have made me grateful for spellcheck.

I passed the eleven plus, then called the qualifying exam. It was a pure IQ test rather than the test it is now; whereby private tutoring can help achieve a better result.

Many domestic sacrifices and family loans secured, I learned later in life, were made to send me to a grammar school where I received a broad, useful and a meaningful education although I never quite understood why they tried, and failed miserably to teach a wee boy from east Belfast, Latin.

They also failed to replace my love of football and one of my first political successes, on a school council I had championed the creation of, was to have my favourite game made available as a sporting choice before I left the scene of a happy and fulfilling education.

I attended English classes in my first few years there without knowing what was meant by a noun, pronoun or adjective. Everyone else in the class knew.

I was too embarrassed to flag up this omission in my primary school education. Why was I the only one? It was taught in the classroom while I sat at home.

Simple things like that did not help me reach my full potential, whatever that might have been, in educational achievement.

I sincerely hope that the loss of classroom education time during this crisis will not haunt young people going forward like my lost time did.

I fear that the biggest and most damaging impact will be to children in homes where parents might struggle to be able to offer their children the home education support, they need for perhaps more and different reasons than my case.

I hope that when schools do get back that each child will be assessed as an individual rather than general assumptions being made around the missing pieces of their education and knowledge caused by the long break from the school learning environment.

Nobody identified the missing pages in my education journey at the time and when I realised in later years what I had missed out on I was too embarrassed to speak up.

I would not wish that experience on any child. No young child deserves to be disadvantaged by default because of this enforced and lengthy absence from school.

Identifying shortfalls in pupils learning during this pandemic will present challenges to our dedicated and hard-working teachers.

Hopefully remedial action will be put in place to fill any gaps and space created to accommodate it.

I appreciate that there was considerable political pressure from some quarters around closing schools without delay.

I sincerely hope that any medical advantages achieved by closures are not outweighed by negative issues emerging in any of our children’s future education, as happened to me.

• Alan Chambers is Ulster Unionist MLA for North Down and the party’s representative on the Policing Board

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