IPPN President Damian White statement: School leaders need support from inspectors, not more checklists

Wednesday 16th September 2020

It is not unreasonable for there to be checks to ensure that schools are operating in accordance with public health guidelines to protect all members of the school community. As employers, the Board has a duty of care to its employees and its pupils to provide a safe environment in which to work and learn. However, the move to have the primary inspectorate organise inspections of schools on behalf of the HSA is ill-judged and poorly timed, not to mention an insult to school leaders, teachers and Boards of Management. It utterly compromises the advisory and support role the inspectorate claimed to embrace before this was ever experienced by a school.

Since March 12th, when schools were forced to close their doors and school leaders had to lead learning using new and innovative ways of supporting their pupils through various online platforms, school leaders have not had a break. Before Covid-19, the burgeoning workload of principals meant that they were lucky if they managed any sort of break in the middle of the summer holidays. This summer, the vast majority of principals had no break at all, with many working 50/60-hour weeks, or more, to make sure their schools were ready to resume, with all measures in place to ensure the safety of all children and staff.

 

There are many ways in which the body of inspectors could support the heroic efforts of school leaders.

They could, as originally mooted, have supported school leaders by providing a guidance service to those seeking support to make their school ready.

They could have advocated for schools whose challenges were greater in terms of compliance with new regulations.

They could have supported principals dealing with the drip-feed of rules and regulations emanating weekly, usually on Friday evenings, from the Department of Education.

They could have intervened to support schools in devising new systems of food distribution as part of the school meals programme.

For school leaders, who have undertaken and overseen the huge changes in school physical infrastructure, new ways of teaching, altered timetables and countless policy adjustments required to keep pupils and staff safe, there aren’t enough minutes in the day, or hours in the week. They are now on 24-hour call from the HSE in the event of a positive Covid case linked to their schools. They are overseen and supported by voluntary boards of management and assisted by recently-appointed lead workers to ensure there is compliance with every issue. The safety of everyone in the school community is the top priority for every school leader, and many have sought support where they feel there are risks that need to be mitigated. This is where the focus should be – on supporting schools to implement the guidelines. The inspectorate is now seeking to carry out compliance inspections, with the blessing of the Department of Education, for the HSA. The HSA has the remit to inspect any workplace to review compliance with the guidelines. The remit of the Inspectorate is wholly different. To provide a modicum of support to schools and avoid the need for inspection visits, the inspectorate could create a template for school boards of management – based on those drawn up by the HSE for the reopening of schools - to complete and sign to show that the school has complied with the guidelines. As noted by one primary principal ‘If we can be trusted to spend million-euro devolved grants based on such a form, surely we can be trusted with this.’

School leaders and teachers have had to find different ways of working and have made good on the promises that other people made on the re-opening of schools. It would appear that the Inspectorate has not found another way of working, or of supporting schools, but rather something different to inspect. The thing about accountability is that it should work both ways. How would the Department’s scorecard look, if it were measured on a similar basis to that which is mooted for schools to be inspected?

1. Were guidelines for the reopening of schools issued in a timely fashion allowing sufficient time for their full implementation?

2. Was the procurement framework released in a timely fashion and was it fit for purpose in terms of ensuring that schools could source sufficient PPE in advance of schools reopening?

3. Were guidelines for the supporting of remote learning developed and issued to schools in a timely fashion in order to inform the work being undertaken from March to June?

4. Did every school receive a phone call from its Inspector to check how things were going and to see if they could provide any support or assistance?

5. Are adequate support structures in place to ensure that schools receive timely and appropriate advice in the event of a confirmed case in the school?

6. Is there an out of hours contact number for the DES/HSE to match the out of hours availability that has been requested of school leaders?

7. In terms of supporting the well-being of school leaders, has any account been taken of the sheer burden of work that was required to ensure schools were ready to re-open and remain open or has any account been taken of the toll that has extracted from those school leaders?

It is, perhaps, a good time to point out to the HSA the serious risk to the health and wellbeing of school leaders, who have had no break from work since March. Annual leave was given up to the preparations listed above. School leaders are now in the impossibly difficult position where they hear of a Covid case involving a staff member, a pupil or a close family contact, and must maintain silence on the matter, knowing that colleagues and students are unaware of the issue, until the HSE eventually makes contact and begins the contact tracing process. This is causing huge emotional strain on school leaders, for whom the loss of trust from staff and parents will only be one of the inevitable consequences. It is placing an impossible strain on the more than 1,800 principals who teach full-time in addition to their leadership and management responsibilities.

It is time also to point out that it is proving impossible in many areas for a principal to contact the HSE outside of office hours. IPPN has set up an out-of-hours support service for principals who have just found out they have a Covid issue to deal with in school and need support. From Friday night to Sunday evening, 18 such cases were supported. It should be the job of the HSE to provide support to school leaders in dealing with school-related Covid issues. There should be a dedicated service for schools, available at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week, which should be provided by experienced, well-informed and medically-trained personnel who can give clear guidance on the necessary steps to be taken in the event of a positive case in a school. To minimise the risk of the virus spreading within schools after a case has been notified to them, the HSE should react quickly to school Covid issues, provide information to the close contacts of the positive case as a matter of urgency (and not leave this to the principal as has happened in a number of cases), provide prioritised testing for staff and pupils, and expedite the return to school of those who test negative.

Every stage of the new government plan is based on schools remaining open. Everyone in schools are doing their utmost to ensure this happens. It is certainly not the time for school inspectors to arrive with a clipboard and checklists to be ticked to a school leader who has brought their school successfully back to operation in what is a very different reality. In all likelihood, the inspectors have no wish to be used in this manner and it is incumbent on the Department of Education to find more useful and supportive roles for school inspectors, to lift the burden and support leaders in more positive and creative ways.

ENDS

For more information, please contact pro@ippn.ie or David Buckley on 086 8200399

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