Women have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic with teachers often finding themselves taking on the bulk of caring responsibilities on top of teaching from home during lockdown, NASUWT members in Northern Ireland were told.
NASUWT Northern Ireland President Angela Wallace said the crisis had also highlighted the poverty faced by children, particularly following years of austerity and underfunding.
Speaking at the NASUWT’s Northern Ireland Annual Conference, held online this year, Ms Wallace, a teacher of languages, careers and childcare at All Saints College, Belfast, said there were too many ‘experts’ trying to tell teachers how to do their jobs and they should be allowed to get on with it.
But she praised the teaching workforce who had “been able to turn around their way of working so fundamentally”.
She told members: “All teachers are great teachers. With only a few short hours of training teachers have been able to teach classes either using remote learning, live streaming, or a mixture of all three.
“Now not only are you teachers but script writers, producers, presenters and voice over actors and cameramen.”
Turning to the effects of the pandemic on women she said: “Women have borne the brunt of the pandemic and this has been shown in the increase in domestic violence, unemployment and rising levels of poor mental health.
“Women teachers have had to run their homes, cook, clean, teach their classes from home, home school their own children and possibly look after elderly or disabled relatives. Is it any wonder many have exhausted their physical and mental health and teacher burn out is on the rise?”
Ms Wallace said the Covid-19 pandemic could be an opportunity to re-examine the nature of the education system in Northern Ireland - there was an opportunity to make significant changes.
"Do we want to see the workload of teachers increased with sheer bureaucracy? Do we want to give in to examination board demands?" she said.
"Do we want to see children age 11 stressed out about transfer tests? Do we want to see an increase yet again in those school age children for whom the academic system no longer works?"
"I think now is the time we should be looking at those countries where educational systems outperform ours, countries like Finland where there is free childcare for all, where there is a sound comprehensive education and where their children grow up to have excellent levels in literacy, numeracy and science.
"Their children do not face selection or rejection at age 11. It is only at age 14 then they decide if they want to pursue and academic or vocational career and choose schools or colleges as appropriate.
"As a careers teacher this is very close to my own heart that children and young people can pursue the careers they want and that greater recognition is given to vocational courses."
Ms Wallace added that she was glad the assembly was introducing "proper government apprenticeships and paid internships".
"It is a step in the right direction but we do need much more. Now is the time to restructure our educational system - to move away from this constant tracking and testing approach; to recognise children for what they are and to encourage them to be the best they can be; to recognise teachers and schools for what they have achieved and to help form the new 21st century Northern Ireland."
She noted that research from Ulster University found that the north's education system, while having excellent exam results, was one of the most divisive.
"They too recognise a complete overhaul which in their estimation would take at least 30 years to succeed. I will not see this in my lifetime," she said.
"Our teachers and children deserve much more. We deserve a system that recognises the professionalism and dedication of our teachers, the commitment of our school managers and a better future for all our children.
"Some initiatives are to be welcomed. The mental health and emotional wellbeing framework, the task force set up to investigate underperformance, the independent review of education. Hopefully these will secure better outcomes for our students."She added: “Our teachers and children deserve much more. We deserve a system that recognises the professionalism and dedication of our teachers, the commitment of our school managers and a better future for all our children.
“Our young people are to be admired. Despite all of this they are confident, ambitious and articulate as witnessed by their meeting with the Education Committee.
“Our children are resilient. They will catch up. They will recover. They will be okay.
“They will grow up to become upright and valuable members of society because they will have great teachers behind them to encourage, support and believe in them.”