The first month of this school year has been unlike any other. Unfortunately we have not seen the worst of it yet, and we have many more months like this to come. So far, schools remain open, operating somewhere between business as usual and the “new normal”.
Sometimes this takes them far from society at large; classrooms are the only space 30 people can cluster in for five to eight hours a day, uninterrupted even as the rest of the country moves into higher and more restrictive levels of lockdown.
In doing this, the Government is defying “the science” that has led the Irish response to Covid-19. The close contact inherent to the classroom environment is likely to lead to increased transmission. Against this daunting biological reality, however, there is an equally implacable educational reality. Research in Ireland and internationally shows that online learning is no substitute for in-person learning, and that it is the most vulnerable students who are hardest hit. Generally, students who were struggling struggled more, students with special educational needs saw many of these needs unmet and students already at risk of early school leaving were more likely to leave school. In March, facing exponentially rising case numbers, school buildings had to close. Now we must do our best to ensure they can safely stay open.
How we achieve that, unfortunately, is less a science than an art. More than an art, it is a fundamentally political process, one where any sustainable solution must take account of the needs and wishes of the various stakeholders involved. Rule by decree is an efficient and effective approach in an emergency situation – it may not be conducive to achieving the buy-in necessary to function well in a chronic challenge.
School principals or leaders are the “pinch point” in the system – at the centre of the competing demands of teachers and other staff, parents, students, boards of management, the Department of Education and a host of other interested parties.
The new school year has brought no respite, only intensified anxiety over Covid-19 in the classroom
School leaders really felt the pressure during the school building closure. Some reported working 12 hours a day, six or even seven days a week, to motivate staff, keep parents informed and reach out to disengaged students, while addressing crises as they arose and trying to plan for an uncertain future. Throughout the period, many felt that the support and leadership they were providing the whole school community was not matched by support for them, or by leadership at a national level.
School leadership is made even more crucial by the context of the Irish education system. Irish schools have a high level of autonomy relative to those elsewhere in Europe. Most school leaders relish this autonomy and the agility and agency it gives to schools in their everyday running, as well as in responding to the crisis. Unfortunately, this level of authority and responsibility mean that ineffective school leadership can be damaging for a school at the best of times, and catastrophic in a pandemic.
Research by the ESRI found school leaders felt that schools had done the best they could in the circumstances and were proud of the work done by the school community to keep the show on the road. The workload and stress (for other staff and students as well as themselves) this required, however, were unsustainable.
As school leaders spent the summer preparing their school buildings for reopening, the much-needed break was never a possibility for many. The new school year has brought no respite, only intensified anxiety over Covid-19 in the classroom and urgent questions about how to address the impact of the lockdown on student learning and engagement with school.
Three recent developments are suggestive of rising tensions across the system. Firstly, the (second-level based) National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals took issue with the request for principals to provide an out-of-hours contact number in case of an outbreak in the school. Secondly, the announcement that school inspectors would carry out health-and-safety inspections on behalf of the HSE was met with anger by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network. Thirdly, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland is balloting its members about possible industrial action over Covid-19 safety concerns.
Schools are capable of incredible innovation and, at their best, are anchors for the whole community
In all three cases the organisations mainly object to what they see as a one-way flow of responsibility and accountability, and feel decisions are being made without their input and without considering their workload or wellbeing.
The Irish Primary Principals’ Network describes the use of the inspectorate in an explicitly accountability-ensuring capacity as counterproductive, seeing a consultative and constructive relationship as better suited to the unfolding situation. In recent years, the inspectorate has framed school inspections in just such terms. Perhaps the urgency of Covid-19 health and safety measures make this approach unsuitable to the task, but as schools are operating under different rules from the rest of society to be open at all, perhaps a different inspection process is needed as well. Genuine dialogue around what has to be done, how it can be done and who should do it appears the best way of forging a coherent, workable and effective systemic plan of action.
This school year is going to be one of the most difficult in the history of the Irish education system. Schools, students and parents will all have to respond to acute Covid flare-ups and the tension of living in a pandemic-stricken society while also trying to provide our young people with a normal educational experience.
Rising to this challenge requires all involved rowing in the same direction, and the only way to achieve this is to give everyone input into the direction. As we saw during school closures, schools are capable of incredible innovation and, at their best, are anchors for the whole community. Our best hope for keeping schools functioning well rather than merely surviving is to harness this potential through a collaborative national approach, with responsibility shared throughout the education system and meaningfully supportive relationships between stakeholders.
If not, one principal we interviewed warned about what would happen if demands on schools kept piling up without a corresponding increase in the available supports: “At the minute we’re juggling so many balls that if one of them falls it’s going to be spectacular.”
Prof Selina McCoy, head of education research at the Economic and Social Research Institute, and Dr Eamonn Carroll are co-authors of Learning for All? Second-level Education in Ireland during Covid-19