During the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions were lifted enough to open up the staycation so we decided to have a family holiday somewhere in Ireland. We found a hotel in Ennistymon, Co. Clare and off we went.
One of the first things I noticed driving into Ennistymon were the number of signs littering almost every crossroad. They were all similar to the posters that politicians stick up on lampposts before elections and they were as professionally produced. However, in this case, the posters all started with the same two words:
The schools were all situated on the periphery of the town and they were trying to encourage people in the town to “vote” for them rather than another school. It’s probably a common sight around the country. I’ve seen them from time to time near my house and, I’ll admit, it makes me very cross.
National schools are designed to serve their local community. This is why in Ireland we have so many schools for the size of our population. For example, Ireland and Finland have a similar number of primary school students but Finland has over 1,000 fewer primary schools. Finland has a huge rural population and is also almost 5 times larger in size than Ireland.
Closer to home, Scotland, which also has areas of very low density like Ireland and Finland, also has far fewer schools to Ireland. In Finland and Scotland, in 99% of cases, children simply go to their nearest primary school. In Ireland, people have free choice and this means that in places where schools are situated in areas of low population, they can effectively poach children from non-local areas.
In extreme cases, you’ll have schools in tiny villages with hundreds of pupils that are shipped in from town. If you live in a provincial town in Ireland, you’ll probably be able to rattle some of the names off. I’m not going to name drop the ones in my town but there are four of them where their school enrollments would be more than 50% lower if it weren’t for “white flight.” Some very small schools will argue that they have to attract a couple of children they mightn’t get by regular means because they would risk losing a teacher. That plays into a whole other knot in the system, which I cover here:
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Not every school does this. In fact, you might tell me that you’ve never seen these signs in your area at all; and you could be right. I would wager that the places where this practice takes place is because one school in the area started the whole thing.
This electioneering of schools, to me, demonstrates the uglier side of primary school management. While school leaders tend to get on with each other reasonably well, when it comes to resources, (and, yes, enrollments are resources), all bets are off. There is no collegiality between neighbouring schools and they think nothing of taking a resource even if it means the other school loses a member of staff.
The system, of course, allows for this and we saw it recently with the awarding of the STEM grant, where roughly 15% of schools were awarded up to €10,000 for equipment. While a survey by the National Principals’ Forum showed that 91% of principals were unsatisfied with the process of the grant awarding, when one delved deeper into the figures, roughly 50% of successful candidates stated they were happy with the process. I don’t have data on how many of the successful candidates wrote to complain of the unfairness of the process but I can bet it was less than one.
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What does this tell you about school leaders? I’ve said it before, there is generally no collegiality in the profession.
We see this in its full bare repulsiveness when the SET Allocations are released. In what’s become known as the Cluster Games, where every school is given a certain number of hours per week for Special Education Teaching (based on a mystery algorithm) and the goal is for schools to find other schools to make a full 25 hour post. For example, if I had 62.5 hours per week, I would need another 12.5 hours to make a 3rd post.
Since 2017, these Cluster Games resemble a bunch of pigeons fighting over a finite number of breadcrumbs. It’s chaotic, brash, and dirty if you happen to be in the middle of it.
Like pigeons, principals don’t really care how they get their hours combined. Their only goal is to make up 25 hours and they will try and get them any way they can even if it means other schools can’t make good matches. For example, a school with 20 hours needs an extra 5 hours. Rather than finding a school with 5 hours to give, they will think nothing of looking for two schools with 2.5 hours leaving a school with 22.5 hours with no options, and the possible loss of a teaching post.
I have direct experience of being shat on. One principal rang me at my school. I said, “hello, how are you?” She said, “do you have X hours to make a cluster with my school.” I said, “I’m sorry, I….” and she hung up on me. To this day, I don’t know who she was but I remember how I felt. That’s the most extreme example I have but it’s nasty. Others have told me of similar stories.
One other thing I really can’t stand is when principals agree to work with each other to get clusters together and they agree not to engage with other schools so we can figure it out together. In the background, some of them are doing the deals anyway.
What bothers me most about the whole thing, beyond the shamelessness of it, is that this is the most overt example of how vulgar and ugly the primary education system is set up to be: 3,000+ pigeons scrapping with each other for breadcrumbs.
Of course what should happen in this case is that schools are automatically put together into clusters. The Department of Education could simply run it through a piece of software and you’d be given your cluster school.
It can be easily done and to prove it I engaged with a brilliant teacher who created a web app that could do that. However, because of the system we have, it has been edited to allow schools to find neighbouring schools to cluster with.
Schools simply input their roll number and it outputs schools within the shortest distance possible to create a 25 hour cluster. A quick call later and the deal can be done. While some schools use the app, my understanding is that many of the people only use it when they have engaged in the melée of pigeons and come out beaten and bruised and a little bit stinky looking for the breadcrumbs the toughest pigeons didn’t need.
Another good solution would be to round up allocations to the nearest post. It wouldn’t cost a whole lot of money and school principals wouldn’t need to turn into pigeons.
Another good solution would be for a collective refusal to engage in the s**tshow. If people bothered to look at the details of the circular, if a school is unable to find a cluster, the Department of Education must find a cluster for you. Essentially if every school simply didn’t make a match, the Department would have to do a little extra work for themselves. I did this in 2019 and ended up getting my hours rounded up to the nearest post.
The question is, why don’t we do this? Why are we so desperate to look after number one that we crap over our colleagues?
This year the SET Allocations for 2024–25 were uploaded in error at 11pm on the Friday night before a Bank Holiday. By the next morning, every principal in the country knew about it. The early bird catches the worm might come to mind but the patient bird might get something better.
I tweeted (these pigeon puns are never-ending) that principals that engaged in the Cluster Games over the bank holiday weekend should take a long hard look at themselves if they complain about the sustainability of the job. Many justified their reasons.
One or two even pecked at me — my favourite one being a principal that went to the trouble of finding my own school’s allocation and said it was easy for me to say!
The general consensus of responses was that they feared losing a teacher if they didn’t engage with the thing. For example:
That statement is at best unhelpful and at worst shows a surprising measure of ignorance. These represent real jobs and real people. Engagement straight away is not as simple as being “an option” as your tweet seems to suggest — it’s a must for some of us.
However the reality is that if a cluster isn’t made, the teacher doesn’t lose their job. A teacher that isn’t in a clustered position merely moves on to a panel and gets a permanent job in another school close by. After all what is the point of the panel if we don’t use it?
The point at the end of the above tweet suggests that it’s a must for some schools. It’s astonishing the blindness because almost every school in the country is in the same boat. Only 416 schools (13%) got allocated hours that match full posts.
It again cements a misguided self-preservation over everyone else. If I’m alright, Jack, then who cares about anyone else? It might not be nice to hear this and I’d be aghast if people’s intentions were coming from a bad place but the truth is when one “saves” their teacher, one prevents at least one other teacher from getting a job.
Let’s examine that. You “save” a teacher from going on a panel means that at least one other teacher in another school goes on a panel. I say “at least” because if you’ve made up a cluster with several schools with bits and pieces of hours, it may affect a number of schools who simply can’t make up a cluster because you’ve taken the pieces of the jigsaw that fit best. In effect, you haven’t saved a job at all. You’ve actually cost at least one other teacher a job. I think that’s shameful.
Sure, I get that in most cases nobody wants to lose their colleague to another school but one can’t game the system, reap the benefits of it, and then complain about how you lost a weekend over it at the expense of one of your colleagues.
In much like the way a principal will stick up an Enrolling Now poster near to another school, in much like the way half the schools that got the STEM grant thought the process was fair, in much like the way some principal cottoned on to the fact that the SET allocations were released on a Friday night at 11pm and set the whole thing off, these are not the acts of the Department of Education.
Looking after number one shouldn’t mean screwing over your colleagues but the three examples above demonstrate, as hard as it is to hear, it comes naturally. I understand the reasons behind this attitude because the system is set up to get schools to compete against each other but when we have the choice to not engage, we should make that choice.
The Department of Education might toss out the breadcrumbs but principals do not and should not go near them. If principals didn’t engage with the system, not only would they be less stressed, the Department of Education would have to allocate the hours.
There are principals currently very angry at some civil servant in the Department of Education for uploading the allocations when they did. However, I’m not angry at them. The truth is that some principal out there saw those hours on Friday night and decided that they’d ruin the bank holiday for their colleagues: aPrincipal without principles.
By the time you read this, the SET Allocations for 2024–25 will likely be doled out and the pigeon principals will have descended on the town square leaving a big mess and they’ll do it year after year. The Department of Education will happily continue to throw out the breadcrumbs and the representative bodies will watch from the coffee shops in the square. At the end of the day, nothing will be left in the town square but the remains of a shit show.