Easter message from the General Secretary

A mhúinteoir a chara,

I write to you during an unprecedented time with our schools closed as our nation responds to a global pandemic.

A different approach

First of all, I want to thank and congratulate you for the way you have supported your pupils since our schools closed. We have all had to adapt and get used to new ways of working. The decision to close schools was made to protect the welfare and well-being of staff, pupils and their families. Many of our members, our pupils and their families are experiencing anxiety and pressure due to the ongoing uncertainty, while many are juggling caring with working.

In these circumstances, we must all be mindful that formal education has ceased for the time being, that maintaining academic standards is not possible and should not be our goal. Our objective as educators must simply be to do our best to facilitate learning opportunities for our pupils. As you will know, it’s quite traumatic for many children who miss the routine and safety of attending school, being taught by their teachers, learning with their classmates and following their regular timetables.

Care and compassion

Schools have adapted to their new circumstances and teachers have demonstrated how creative, caring and compassionate they are. Our members are helping pupils with a wide range of activities and encouraging them to use their imagination and initiative. Reading, exploring, playing and collaboration have continued in many homes. This is vitally important because it has been therapeutic and has helped our pupils to make sense of the anxiety they feel. Your collective response has guided and supported home learning, but notably you have shown an acute awareness of the challenges and inequalities faced by different families. In many situations there is no broadband or there are not enough devices, some family members are ill, caring for sick relatives or self-isolating, some parents work on the front line, while others have lost their jobs.

Vulnerable pupils

So many members have been in contact with INTO to tell us how worried they were for children with additional needs – those who are homeless or living in direct provision centres, those who come from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils with complex special educational needs.

On your behalf, INTO brought your concerns directly to Minister McHugh last week. I was delighted when he re-instated the school meals scheme, at our urging. We worked closely with him over the weekend to ensure that our pupils would not go hungry in the coming weeks. We are extremely grateful to principals, home school community liaison teachers and volunteer staff who are helping to make sure that these meals reach the children who need them. We have continued to engage with the Department of Education and Skills in the last week with a view to securing additional supports for vulnerable children from government. We will update members on any progress in the coming weeks.

In recognition of the need to support those great charities helping the most vulnerable in society during this crisis, our Central Executive Committee approved a donation of €10,000 each to both Barnardos and the Society of St Vincent De Paul. Both organisations have been putting the money to good use providing valuable support to children in need.

Everyone has a role to play

Our schools have many support teachers working with children who have additional needs. Some of our schools also have home school community liaison coordinators and teachers of English as an additional language, while larger schools have administrative deputy principals. These members, together with principal teachers, in-school management teams and mainstream class teachers, have demonstrated a strong desire to make a difference.

It’s really important in trying times that all team members play their part. The Department of Education and Skills has been very keen to emphasise that continuity of education for learners must remain the clear priority for teachers and has encouraged school managements to best utilise staff to facilitate the delivery of educational services. Over the next fortnight as we break for Easter, we will all have time to reflect on our work since schools closed and to prepare for what may come next.

Easter break

The next two weeks are for re-charging the batteries, getting some breathing space, re-connecting with friends and work colleagues and for doing something different, although that too will be challenging, at least until Easter Sunday.

We are not the only people in the school community who need a break. Our pupils cannot be expected to continue working remotely during their school holidays and their parents/guardians who have stepped into the breach for the last three weeks need to worry less about schooling now.

I am aware that some members will continue to volunteer in support of the school meals initiative and to provide childcare for children of key workers in the North. This spirit of social solidarity is to be commended, but I wish to stress that everyone needs a break from their normal schoolwork during the holidays.

School leaders 

The demands and expectations on principal teachers are always high and school leaders set very high standards for themselves and for their schools. While every principal has the best intentions to take breaks when schools are closed for holidays, it seldom works out as planned.

During these two weeks I hope that all school leaders can take a well-deserved break. I know that there will be some work to be done especially in schools participating in the school meals scheme and in schools providing childcare in Northern Ireland. There may also be some communication with staff – SNAs who are being temporarily reassigned, school caretakers, board chairpersons and the education departments but, despite that, I hope that principals take time out with their loved ones. Nobody knows how schools will operate after Easter, but if principals, deputy principals and assistant principals continue to work closely together next term with a positive attitude, I have no doubt that their fellow staff members, refreshed after the break will appreciate the support of their senior leadership teams and will in turn show that support to their pupils.

Well done to all of our members who have so skilfully adjusted their sails since the pandemic began.

Challenges ahead

We have faced many challenges in the last three weeks and will continue to do so in the weeks ahead. As a union we have secured guarantees that substitute teachers who were booked for work would be paid. However, we must ensure that income security is extended to our substitute members, both North and South, and we are pressing both education departments on this.

We know that many teachers and families are struggling with the concept of remote learning. We will be here for you every step of the way, publishing timely and relevant advice in the weeks to come. Your union will share your stories of stepping up during this crisis, but we need your help. In the coming weeks we will be asking members to share home selfies of you at home and at work so that we can tell your story and that of primary teachers across the island.

In the meantime, enjoy your well-deserved Easter break.

Dá fhada an lá, tagann an tráthnóna.

John Boyle,

General Secretary