Our primary and secondary educational system is one of the most valuable public goods in modern Western civilisation. A well-functioning school system is literally fundamental and literally essential to educating children. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend a civilisation, you need schools.” We need our schools to be reliable, even when there is a lot of sickness in our community.
As the Minister for Education, Julie Edge, said last year, “Young people have missed a lot of time in the classroom since the pandemic started, and there is no substitute for face-to-face learning.” Ms Edge was right when she said that. Schools are not just essential for students to learn academically, but to also learn to grow socially and build healthy relationships with their peers.
Mere weeks ago, the Manx TaxPayers’ Alliance published data showing that the actual number of staff employed in the Department of Education, Sports & Culture, had surged by almost 20% during the life of the last Tynwald – a massive increase in staffing levels from 2,069 staff in 2016/17, to 2,455 staff in 2020/21.
That’s why it is incredibly disappointing that Ballakermeen and St Ninian’s High Schools are unable to provide in-person schooling for some students this week. St Ninan’s has directed “all Year 9 students to remain at home on Friday 7th January” due to the school “experiencing extremely high levels of staff absence at the moment.” The school says they “have now exhausted all other contingencies to manage this for the remainder of this week.” Ballakermeen Head Teacher, Adrienne Burnett, wrote days ago that she was “sorry to report that we are once again experiencing high levels of employee absence… Furthermore, we have a real paucity of supply teachers to call upon, which is further limiting our options.” As a result, Year 9 and Year 10 students at Ballakermeen have been denied their right to in-person schooling.
This problem is not new. This comes months after Ballakermeen High School students suffered the same fate late last year.
Manx taxpayers pay at least £7,200 per secondary student – far more than taxpayers pay in England. We spend a lot of money on our school system because it is such an essential service. At such high spending levels, we should have sufficient resilience to deliver a guaranteed service to students.
Our community needs the Department of Education, Sports and Culture to now clearly explain why they have made insufficient provision for the current crisis – and more importantly, to explain the changes that they will make to ensure it does not keep reoccurring. Our students deserve a schooling system which delivers on its Minister’s assertion that “there is no substitute for face-to-face learning”.