This week sees the reopening of schools in Northern Ireland. Ahead of that, Kevin Henry from the Socialist Party spoke to Susan Parlour, an English teacher and NI Vice-President of the National Education Union, about the approach being adopted by Stormont and the education authorities.

We obviously are in the incredible situation where you have an increase in the R rate, tightened restrictions on gatherings but, at the same time, the reopening of schools. Can you outline what is happening in education? 

It’s quite incredible really. Peter Weir announced on 6th August that he had the approval of the Executive to have a full reopening of the schools. I actually had caught wind of that a few weeks earlier because I saw an email that Peter Weir had written to a parent. So I wrote to the Minister but, as usual, he just ignored me. I also emailed the majority of MLAs of the Education Committee, who again ignored me, which is quite disappointing given that they are supposed to serve the public. 

Then there was another consultation document about reopening schools that came out on 9th August.  The unions were given it at 5.30pm and asked to reply to it by 9pm that night. It was a 71 page document. The unions were not consulted at all up to this point. Everything regarding social distancing was now ‘if possible’ and ‘if practicable.’ These were the phrases that were continuously used throughout the document. So the unions replied that they were being treated with contempt and would not allow any reference to consultation with the unions to be included in the document. It is still in the document but there was no real consultation.

So what we see from this is that social distancing is more or less gone. We are dealing with 30 children in the classroom and, if you’re a secondary school teacher, you can teach up to 180 children per day, which is what I will be doing. You know, I will be teaching my full complement of classes, years 8 to 14. 

They wanted to implement ‘bubbles.’ What they are calling bubbles is a bastardisation of the term. They are supposed to be small, protective bubbles – 1 to 10 is what they use in Denmark, in Belgium it is up to 14 – yet here ‘bubbles’ are up to 240. Full year groups, that is not a bubble. In Denmark, they opened up in April, kept to 10 and brought in extra resources, extra supply teachers and used extra space. If you want to stop this virus from spreading, it makes sense that you are going to have small bubbles and you are going to have to fund it. It will cost extra money, including effectively doubling your workforce. However, Peter Weir has not given us extra funding. We were just told to do your bubbles up to 240. After third year, it isn’t possible to keep children in the same classroom because of different subject choices.

Principals and senior members of staff have had to complete and implement risk assessments without being qualified to do so, and the risk assessments that have been sent my way as a union rep are not fit for purpose. So really, I do believe we are placing people’s lives at risk. There are vulnerable staff as well, and there are staff who aren’t returning because they have underlying health conditions, and there have been cases of substitute teachers who have come in and already left. That’s the way it’s going to go over the next few weeks.

You mentioned the Education Committee and I’m curious what the other parties have being saying on this, because there is a tendency in Northern Ireland to just blame the Minister responsible – in this case, the DUP’s Peter Weir, who seems to have an approach of slavishly following what the Tories are doing – but, in reality, all the main parties are in the Executive together and bear responsibility for this situation.

Well, they have been largely silent on it but they would have had to give endorsement on the 8th August. Peter Weir is just the front man here because the main parties are all in it together. I have sent messages to some of the MLAs and very few have got back to me. Disappointingly, Chris Little from the Alliance Party, who is chair of the Education Committee, hasn’t got back. Sinn Féin have got back to me to say they are aware of the situation and empathise, but empathy isn’t going to cut the mustard here when you are playing with fire, you have to come out and take a clear stance. We are at a time when the R rate is rising so it is very serious, but it seems they are all in this together. Perhaps, the trade union movement needs to fight harder, rather than waiting to be consulted. After all, it is trade union reps on the ground who are at the coalface of this.

What do you think union reps should do in this situation? Or indeed workers, parents or pupils who feel they are going into schools that are unsafe? 

First of all, members of staff need to flag it up with reps in the school and the rep should bring it to the union. But we can’t just leave people to just muddle through, although that is what we have been left with. I would say parent power is vitally important. In England, we’ve seen parents organise and back the unions in order to get some push back. Now we have the scandalous situation where parents risk being fined and even pupils losing their places in schools if they don’t attend, which is a scaremongering approach from the Tories and hopefully Peter Weir won’t take the same approach. 

We all know that the reason we are having the reopening of schools is to restart the economy and really put profit ahead of pupils and people in general. They are pushing the idea that students have to return to school because being out of school impacts their mental health. I don’t believe that is their reasoning for one second. If they were worried about children and their mental health and their circumstances, then there wouldn’t be so many children reliant on free school meals. 

Yes, politicians didn’t care too much when people protested to defend mental health services in the past. As you said, profit is the driving factor behind this rush to return to ‘normal’ which we see throughout society. At the same time, there are obviously problems with students not being in school, so I wonder how can this be done in a safe manner? Also, what is your view of this push to continue with the transfer tests, albeit delayed, despite primary school students being under extra pressure this year?

If you look at Denmark you see a successful model to how you can reopen the schools. You keep your bubbles down to 10, you keep social distancing in place and you bring in more staff in order to do that. It might cost twice as much to do that but surely people’s lives are worth it? So I think we can learn alot from countries in Europe which have reopened. 

Every teacher wants to get back to school. I know there’s a lot of teacher-bashing going on and you get the impression teachers have been sitting around reading nineteenth century novels and drinking cocktails during lockdown, but that is simply not the case. I know from personal experience – I had to predict the grades of 300 students using my own equipment. There have been cases of staff members doing this using just a Kindle or on their phone. Peter Weir has failed to provide equipment. So every teacher wants to get back to a safe school and that is really it. What is needed is to look at best practice and for the politicians to show us the money to ensure that is done.

In regard to the transfer test, I’m completely against it. I think it is academic apartheid and I come from a system in the South where that isn’t done. It’s really of the 1940s and should be packed away, as it really has had its time. Now, we live in times that are so extraordinary, so why return to the old ways when we can make necessary changes to our education and indeed reshape and re-envision it?