News & Media

“Schools are safe” mix up goes to the heart of government dysfunction

24 November 2021

Statement by Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD
Spokesperson on Education, Enterprise and Trade
  • Substitution crisis continues to impact secondary schools

Labour education spokesperson has reiterated his call for the Minister for Education to meet with Opposition to discuss the current situation of Covid-19 in schools. Highlighting concerns raised by school communities and unions, Deputy Ó Ríordáin said it is only by working openly and collaboratively that long-term solutions will be found.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin said:

“I welcome the change in tone from NPHET today regarding schools. For the past number of months unions and school representatives have asked the government and NPHET to be honest in their appraisal of the situation, and to stop calling schools ‘safe’ when the lived experience of school communities is different.

“All the messaging around schools to date has been that they are ‘safe’ and the u-turn by NPHET on this today is welcome. The Minister and the Department must follow suit. They are not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes when they refer to schools as ‘safe’. Words matter and they have had a huge impact on the tone of the conversation between schools and government thus far.

“There are risks associated with the day to day operations of schools, that is just a fact. The work carried out by frontline school communities must be praised. They have kept the lights on and the show on the road in hugely challenging circumstances. This needs to be acknowledged by government.

“The latest and most pressing challenge relates to the ongoing substitution crisis. Heretofore, the Department has issued unhelpful guidance which has not been grounded in the reality of the day to day running of schools.

“The student teacher ‘solution’ to the substitution is welcome across primary schools but ultimately it is a temporary band aid on a larger problem. While student teachers will be paid, questions must be answered as to what impact this will have for the students and their learning outcomes. A student should be entitled to say no to substitution requests if they need to prioritise coursework like assignments or their thesis. The Minister needs to ensure that student teachers have practical supports in place so that they can continue to prioritise their own education in the first instance.

“The solution announced today may stem some of the chaos in primary schools, it will do nothing to address the crisis ongoing in secondary schools. I have been inundated with contact from principals looking for the Minister to intervene. Secondary schools are faced with the additional challenge of having to timetable substitute teachers according to the staff rota. Unless substitute teachers have prior knowledge of the school, this is leaving principals re-timetabling, diverting their attention from other issues on the ground.

“The media interviews given by the Minister in the past week are welcome and have provided some answers to the questions school communities have been asking. However I would welcome the opportunity to question the Minister directly in the Dáil to provide further clarity on the substitution crisis, on the safety of schools, on the plans for antigen testing, on the viability of this year’s leaving cert and the range of other issues being raised by school communities.”