Education, one of the cornerstones of our society: a privilege, a necessity, something to be cherished.
While it’s very difficult to argue with these statements, it is equally difficult to justify them when our system is being stretched to its limits. Schools are - quite literally - crumbling down around us, young teachers are working more hours than they’re being paid for – mandatorily, and students are losing out on the world class education that Northern Ireland should provide.
Northern Irish schools have consistently been placed at the top of the UK in league tables, a 2012 study even placed us at the top of Europe for Primary School maths. Where does it all go so wrong, then, when teachers now are constantly on strike, infrastructure of schools is falling to pieces, and student mental health is hitting an all-time low? After all, only last month a study from the Ulster University found that more than half of the undergraduate students who took part reported a mental health problem. A new £11 million teaching facility at their Magee campus, but meanwhile 632 schools across Northern Ireland had their budget plans refused by the Education Authority.
One would be inclined to blame the political stalemate at Stormont, the Education Authority has essentially been left to its own devices. No budget has been passed, and this is just another sign of how little Northern Ireland is being prioritised by the British Government. However, even when sitting, Stormont hasn’t been the most reliable when it comes to education funding. You need only look at Líofa - an organisation that allowed young people the funding to attend the Gaeltacht for Summer Language classes who’s funding was cut by £50,000 in December 2016. While this contributed to the political crisis Northern Ireland is facing, it also removed educational opportunities from the young people of Northern Ireland and reduced social mobility in an already quite segregated state.
However, this is clearly a UK wide problem – In September 2017, Justine Greening announced that 88% of schools are still facing real-terms budget cuts per pupil between 2015 and 2020. In fact, these cuts will amount to an average loss of £178,321 per year in secondary schools. Some Leicestershire Primary Schools even had to cut teaching hours to make up for their loss of funds, meaning pupils will miss out on class time for subjects such as PE and PSHE, and have less opportunity to develop the life skills these subjects provide.
What compounds this crisis is the lack of support received by teachers. Teaching is a vital profession – but with an average starting salary of a little under what they’ve spent on tuition fees over their last three to four years, and a gruelling application process requiring not only a flawless academic record, but also a strong interview and a wealth of extra-curricular activities, there are no real structures in place in Northern Ireland to incentivise teaching. After speaking to a aspiring teacher, Eoin Agnew, he seems completely self-motivated, he instantly places the child at the centre of their own education, and of his motivation. He speaks fluently on how the importance of a holistic approach to education is being undermined. Passionate, enthusiastic and well-informed; he is essentially what makes a good teacher. But when asked about how he finds the gruelling application process, he answers with one word, “frustrating.’ Frustration seems to be a recurring theme when teachers across the system are asked about their current situation and speaking as a student my own experience isn’t very different.
After hearing from various teachers on just how many hours they were expected to work outside of school, I began to better appreciate my own teachers; from the dreaded Thursday chemistry classes after school to the open supervised studies my school holds every single day until 6pm. However, it also gave me a better understanding of how poorly our schools and teachers are valued. When a senior leader teacher at one of Northern Ireland’s top performing Integrated Colleges told me about some key issues this austerity had caused her school, it became abruptly apparent how an economic issue manifests itself in the everyday lives of students and teachers alike across the country.
Essentially, underfunding means schools cannot afford as many substitute teachers. This brings about an expectation for teachers to use their free time to cover classes and taking away from the free time they have to prepare for their own classes.
As well as this, class sizes seem to be universally growing – but funding doesn’t. This only further toxifies school resources with inadequacy. Stories of students using out-of-date textbooks, or not even being given textbooks, are becoming more and more rife. This is certainly not a world in which every child has a parent who can spend £25 on a textbook. It should not become a world where your background determines your future prosperity.
Perhaps the most pressing issue for teachers is the mandatory required hours of schoolwork outside of school hours for which they are not paid. While it is widely accepted by students and teachers alike that school certainly doesn’t end at 3.30, there are always going to be open nights, parent-teacher meetings, staff meetings and marking. A recently qualified primary school teacher told me about how she was required to stay at work for a minimum of two extra hours a day, as well as regularly skipping lunches. She didn’t even have her weekend to herself, between planning and marking for the week ahead. Was she paid for any of this? Of course not!
What becomes of us students, stuck in a system stretched to its limits with teachers pushed to theirs? Excellent exam results, clearly. But preparing for a week of tedious A-Level study at world class grammar level, all that comes to mind is pressure. Too much pressure, drained schools and drained teachers make for drained students. Excellent, passionate teachers and the passion and enthusiasm from the students they teach will not override the systematic flaws forever. The power of compassion can never be underestimated. The wellbeing of students and their teachers needs to be valued above almost everything else. Healthy and happy students will thrive under healthy and happy teachers. Here’s hoping we can fix the flaws in our system before these thriving students stop.
Eabha is 16 year old student from the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland. She is currently studying for her A-levels in Government & Politics, History, Biology and Chemistry. She hopes to pursue her passion for politics alongside a career in medicine.