Principals sound the alarm as bus drivers prepare to strike

School principals have issued a last-minute appeal to striking bus drivers and Translink to find a way to avert strike action set to cause disruption to pupils sitting exams.

The Unite and GMB trade unions, who together represent the overwhelming majority of bus drivers employed by Translink in Northern Ireland, are to go on strike from tomorrow in a dispute over pay.

While the strike action is set to cripple the public transport network, principals have warned that pupils due to sit GCSE and A-level examinations could lose out with strict timing required for the important tests.

Michael Allen, principal of Lisneal College in Londonderry, said: “Parents are incredibly frustrated, particularly those with children in examination year groups.”

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Angela Passmore, principal of North Coast Integrated College in Coleraine, said: “The pupils who are due to sit exams are the pupils I am most concerned about.”

The Unite trade union has said the week-long strike is likely to “shut down all bus services” in Northern Ireland.

Both Unite and GMB members had been due to strike for one week at the end of April, but the action was suspended as members considered an improved offer from Translink.

Michael Allen, meanwhile, has said tomorrow’s action “could not have come at a worse time”.

He continued: “Next week we actually have our internal exams, but there are GCSE exams next week as well. The English language GCSE exam is next week, which is a big one that affects hundreds of pupils.

“We have been putting out messages to parents over the course of the past month, when there was initially strike agreed which was then put back following discussions, so our parents have probably been aware for around a month that was a possibility.

In terms of the dates, this could not happen at a worse time. We have many pupils who are on free school meals, but there are also many families who are finding things financially tough. Potentially, you would have younger children who may need to stay at home because they can’t get transport — and that could mean a parent may have to miss work.”

He said some assistance had been offered by Stormont, but warned that some pupils could still struggle to make it to school for the exams.

“The Department of Education wrote to schools to say that if children had absolutely no way in to do their exams that there would be some sort of financial aid given to schools if we could arrange the transport,” he explained. “The difficulty with that is that taxis won’t be that easy to get. They’re already difficult to get. In a realistic sense, we already have 10-to-12 post primary schools in this city. If you have even 15-20% of those examination pupils are phoning for taxis on that day that it just won’t happen.”

He continued: “The examinations are in a tight timescale. They must be in school, ready to do the paper at 9.15am, so it is a worry.”

He also expressed disappointment that the pupils now due to sit exams have already faced a tough time due to coronavirus, saying: “In my view, this current year 12 and 14 cohort are those most affected overall by the covid pandemic and by self isolation. They have never sat an exam before, a lot of them.

I do understand that everybody has the right to industrial action but it could not have come at a worse time.”

He added: “If the trade unions and the employers could sit down at the earliest opportunity - hopefully they have already been sitting down over the weekend - to get around a table and see if there are steps that can be taken, even to put this off until after the examination timetable. But perhaps that’s the purpose, to cause maximum impact.”

Ms Passmore, meanwhile, said: “I don’t think this has gotten the attention it deserves. I think some parents don’t even know about this. It hasn’t gotten that much coverage.

“The pupils who are due to sit exams are the pupils I am most concerned about. There is no way we can be responsible for getting transport to all the pupils, so I have offered transport to those who are sitting exams. It’s awful timing. These kids have had such disruption to their learning already with Covid.”

She added: “Everyone has the right to industrial action, but the timing is very unfortunate.”