Northern Ireland

Stalemate is causing pupils to suffer, say principals

school children Image copyright Getty Images

More than 500 primary school principals have told the head of the NI civil service that children are "suffering" and teachers are "on their knees" due to the lack of a government.

The warning comes in letter to David Sterling from the Strategic Principals' Forum, signed by about 540 principals.

They asked Mr Sterling to raise the "extreme urgency of need" facing education with politicians.

He chairs a working group at the talks aimed at restoring power-sharing.

The principals' letter, seen by BBC News NI, read: "Our school leaders are crying out for help, exasperated by the lack of governance and with significantly increasing levels of stress and anxiety."

Image caption Mr Sterling chairs a working group at the ongoing talks aimed at restoring power-sharing

It said that, in many ways, Northern Ireland was "blessed" with its pupils, schools and teachers.

"However, we do not prioritise the learning and development of our children at government level," it continued.

"We require a functioning government which prioritises our children, which promotes their healthy growth and development, which protects them from harmful economic fluctuations and which puts their futures ahead of our collective past.

The letter went on to say that teachers were also "on their knees".

Image copyright SolStock
Image caption The principals are sending similar letters to governors and parents of pupils in each of their schools

"Not only do we have a crisis facing schools right now, we also have a crisis looming within our teaching profession," it stated.

It pointed out that funding for schools in Northern Ireland had decreased, despite an increase in the number of pupils attending.

"The funding crisis that we are in right now is directly and visibly impacting our children and, significantly, our most vulnerable children," it stated.

"Our principals report a lack of essential maintenance, significant reductions in monies spent on essential learning resources, increased costs being passed to parents, reductions and in many cases termination of essential support services."

'Front line suffering'

The letter also highlighted "reduced teaching and learning support staff, reduced and in some cases total withdrawal of learning support for children with additional learning needs".

"These things are unacceptable," it added. "Our children and our front-line workforce are suffering."

The letter concluded by asking Mr Sterling to do everything in his power to encourage politicians to make children and schools their priority in negotiations towards a programme for government.

'Crying out into an empty room'

The principal of Maghaberry Primary School, Graham Gault, who wrote the letter, told the BBC schools were "past breaking point".

"Without effective government here or representation of our needs in Westminster it feels like we are crying out into an empty room.

"Our local politicians do care but without a functioning executive there is nobody to find any resolution to the problems," he said.

He said asking schools to cut cloth was an "insult" and that his school had had to ask parents to provide some essentials for their children.

"Essential learning resources such as reading books - we are having to ask parents to supply those," he said.

"The only place left to reduce money is our staff and that impacts on our most vulnerable children," he added.

'Past irrelevant to children'

He urged politicians to resume talks to restore the devolved institutions.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved power-sharing government for more than two-and-a-half years, after the DUP and Sinn Féin split in a bitter row.

"The issues that our politicians are debating and refusing to get back into government over are not issues relevant to the children in my school," he said.

"Little children with complex learning needs in a nursery - the past is irrelevant to those children. They need our government to step up and provide for them," he added.

The principals are also sending similar letters to governors and parents of pupils in each of their schools, in which they say they have a "moral obligation" to speak out for the sake of their pupils.

Some of the funding concerns raised by the principals have previously also been highlighted by the Department of Education.

BBC News NI had also revealed that almost half of schools were in the red in the past school year.

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