It is now widely accepted that reform of public services must continue over the coming years as both central and local government try to offer the same level of service with less money to spend. As a result we can expect further decentralisation, eradication or contracting out of some back-office functions and ever-closer relationships with partners in the private and voluntary sector.
The education sector here in Northern Ireland has not been spared. The Education Authority, established to provide a more cost-effective means of service delivery, finally came in to being in April of this year and stories about amalgamations, school closures and redundancies have been regular fixtures in the local press over the last few years as the Department of Education (NI) (DENI) aims to continue to effectively deliver its remit in an increasingly fraught financial climate.
More recently a story to hit the headlines was the withdrawal of the Regional Training Unit’s (RTU) summer school. Over the past 21 years, the Regional Training Unit has run a summer school for education professionals from across Northern Ireland. Attended by over 2000 teachers annually, the summer school was an opportunity for them to take part in professional development programmes, share best practice and network with each other. However, in June of this year it was announced that this year’s summer school had been cancelled by the RTU because of a 25% reduction in its funding.
Frustrated at the announcement, a group of individuals has come together to establish an alternative: niedcamp. Backed by GTCNI, the very first niedcamp will be held at Stranmillis College on 18th August.
Since 2012 local teachers have been holding weekly conversations on twitter on educational topics/issues under the hashtag #niedchat. It seems fitting therefore that the idea for niedcamp should originate on social media, following a suggestion from one of the participants on twitter that teachers come together to organise their own mini summer school. These same individuals have also been involved in Teachmeet, an informal gathering of teachers and other educationalists at regular intervals throughout the year.
But given the precarious state of the public finances, should our expectations, as employees or users of public services, be more realistic in the context of ever tighter funding? For example, despite withdrawing funding for the summer school RTU will continue to offer other opportunities for teachers’ professional development over the course of the year, so teachers’ professional development isn’t off the table. Or is the removal of a key service offered by the RTU for the teaching profession yet another sad indictment of the state of the public finances?
Essentially what has now happened is that some staff in the education sector feel that they have no option but to take matters in to their own hands when it comes to delivering an integral part of their professional development. It is certainly commendable that these individuals, through a combination of good will, respect for their profession and the opportunities afforded by social media have taken responsibility both for their own and others’ professional development. Let’s just hope that staff in other parts of the public sector don’t need to take the same drastic action and that other key services aren’t compromised as budget cuts continue to bite.