Fear. Twenty years of teaching and still it persists. It is no longer related to inspectors or the first day with a new class. Now it’s much worse. This fear wakes me in the early hours of the morning and won’t let me go back to sleep. It won’t let me because it’s out of my hands. Yet, somehow, I feel responsible. Responsible because I am the one who must tell the parent: “No, not this year. Maybe next year.”
I’m referring to the administration of educational assessments in schools and, more precisely, the impossible process of selecting suitable students. Each primary school is allocated approximately two each year, regardless of the number of students who require one. The quota is down to availability of psychologists rather than official policy. They, like schools, are understaffed.
It results in the playing out of an educational Hunger Games of sorts. Teachers must articulate the case for their student to become the successful tribute. An impossible task. How can we decide who deserves access to their education the most? All additional needs are worthy of identification and support. The impact of the delay in accessing an educational assessment causes unnecessary stress for all involved, especially parents.
The solutions to this lie beyond the walls of a school and are far from a quick fix.
But while we wait there are actions that could be taken in schools to effect real change in other areas without diluting Deis. Many principals in Deis band-one schools have raised concerns that the extension of the Deis scheme could dilute the resources for schools that need them most. The extension must also go upwards and acknowledge that circumstances in many communities are more acute than they were when schools first obtained their Deis status.
The first diving in point is swimming. In 1999 the new primary school curriculum introduced aquatics to school. Water safety and the ability to swim are important skills. Water Safety Ireland statistics tell us that on average 105 people drown each year and that in the 10-year period from 2012 to 2022, 91 children under 18 years of age drowned.
But simply inserting something on a curriculum doesn’t provide a buoyant solution for these statistics.
As things stand, even with access to grants for swimming lessons, schools must still make up the cost. This means that families can be asked for anything from €20 upwards to be taught something the Department of Education has placed on the curriculum. The costs differ because some schools are within walking distance to a pool while others must avail of transport.
The announcement that swimming lessons are on the horizon can provoke mixed feelings in children. Excitement about getting into the pool. Nervousness about dipping their head in water. But many students in Deis schools will have an additional feeling. Dread. Dread about how the note looking for money will be received. Sometimes the weight is too much, and the note never makes it home.
Everyone feels the weight of this dread. Teachers, principals and parents. But no eight-year-old should be able to make the connection between economics and their education.
The question is why? Why are schools forced to seek extra funding for aquatics? We don’t seek it to teach regrouping in maths or narrative writing in English? Why do we need it to keep swimming lessons afloat? Funding swimming is as important as the provision of free schoolbooks.
Fully fund aquatics for all schools before rolling out the free school lunches to all. There would be far less waste. It would ensure that every child in this country, regardless of socioeconomic status, would learn to swim. But most importantly they learn to swim without the negative weight some children must bear as they carry that “money note” home.
Next, there are a multitude of enrichment activities on offer outside of the school building. Educational trips provided free of charge by the Office of Public Works are excellent and never a waste. Seeing how a subject manifests in the real world can ignite an interest. It can inspire. It can motivate. However, the cost of getting there can be restrictive and rule these trips out for students in Deis schools. Fund transport to educational experiences outside of the school building. One a term.
Finally, abolish the need for pilot schemes when it comes to the provision of counselling in schools. We know it works. It worked in the school I worked in 20 years ago and it still works now. Any Deis band-one principal will confirm the need is there. School is the place where it will be accessed. But for therapy and counselling to work, they must be consistent. Schools need certainty. Students need consistency. Currently, some of the schools not included in the pilot scheme are independently co-ordinating such a service and funding it through cake sales and non-uniform days.
A report on the need for an on-site counselling service for primary schoolchildren carried out by St Patrick’s Mental Health Services and DCU states that “given the range and extent of complex difficulties experienced by primary schoolchildren, and the excessive burden being placed on primary schools to respond to such needs, urgent action is needed to develop a national framework to inform the development of counselling services for primary schoolchildren”. This report was published in 2017. Six years ago. We don’t need another pilot scheme, the need is there. Just land the plane.
This is not about throwing money at a “problem” but about removing money from being the solution so that schools can stop treading water.
Michelle McBride is a primary school teacher and Irish Times contributor