At a town hall in 2014, approximately 50 families living in a small village gathered over a shared complaint: they believed the principal of their local primary school was mistreating children, particularly those with additional needs.
Many signed a letter, complaining about the principal’s behaviour, and addressed it to the school’s board of management. Over the following days, families asked for their names to be removed from the letter, citing a fear factor. The chairperson of the board had labelled the meeting a witch-hunt. It came to nothing.
Jane, a parent who attended the meeting recalls, “The village split in two that night, between those who supported the school and those who did not. Neighbours stopped speaking and some still don’t speak to this day.”
The incident highlights an important aspect of the Irish education system: Voluntary boards of management and not the Department of Education govern our schools. In an average national school, the board comprises two direct nominees of the patron; two parents elected by parents; the principal; another teacher elected by staff and two extra members agreed upon by the representatives of the patron, teachers, and parents.
These volunteers on boards manage complaints against staff also. If the chairperson of the board lacks objectivity and integrity, the process is undermined. Parents back down – or they leave the school.
Jane adds, “Teachers and principals are untouchable no matter what. Too often boards of management are made up of people who want to go on a power trip.”
Over the years, individuals continued to fight the school.
Claire, another parent at the school, is currently at stage 3 of the complaints procedure against the principal. Stage 3 onwards is overseen by the board. The board makes the final decision and within the local complaints procedures that decision is final. It can be reviewed after three years.
“Before the meeting even started, I was told by the chairperson that they had already contacted the school solicitor.
I meet Claire, along with another mother Áine, in the lobby of a hotel.
Claire first clashed with the principal when her child was in junior infants. The concerned mother had suggested her son might have ADHD. She reports feeling ignored, and recalls being told that many children fall through the cracks in the Irish education system. Claire sought access to an SNA but still doesn’t know if the school requested one. Her son was offered poorly communicated, sporadic supports.
He was eventually diagnosed with ADHD, but the private diagnosis didn’t make his life easier in school. Other parents tell a similar story, that following private assessments, the principal seemed irritated.
The psychotherapist Claire engaged to assess her child is convinced that her professional involvement in the case irked the principal.
“I asked if I could come in and observe him in school as his anxieties were school-related. This is something I do all the time in other schools, but she refused. I was completely stonewalled. My job is to make things easier for young people, so I felt awful that I was making things worse.
“I experienced similar issues when I worked with another child in the same school. The principal didn’t want to know. Claire’s boy is the loveliest child but he is terribly affected by his primary school experience.”
Claire regrets her decision to leave her son in the care of the school but didn’t want to remove him from his friends. She hoped things would improve in time, that the principal would stop picking him out from the crowd, putting him down, telling him he wasn’t good enough.
“It got so bad, he became so very afraid of her, that he began to self-harm.
“We got no communication from the school that day, no accident report, nothing. They emailed us a few days later so they knew it had happened.”
Áine’s son Michael left the school halfway through his final year. “We moved him out of the school because of the way he was being targeted by the principal. A year after he moved, we found out that he had been contemplating bringing a knife to school. He wanted to have the option of going to the bathroom and killing himself to get away from her.
“Our boy went from being a happy child to being a school refuser. He has some learning needs, and his anxiety just grew and grew.
Áine did her best to maintain a positive relationship with the principal.
“My son was terrified of her. She’d constantly remove him from his class. On one occasion, she removed him and placed him on his own in a tiny room for an hour with a book. I asked her specifically not to be alone with him. The next day she removed him again and went through his work putting big marks through it. The teacher didn’t ask her to do any of it. She apologised to me all the time.”
Another parent tells the same story, about the principal’s tendency to have one-to one time with children in the small library room. She also removed her child.
Áine tears up as she continues. “She hounded him, over the smallest thing. I’d never claim that my son was perfect, but she once said to me that she couldn’t think of a single nice thing to say about him, no matter how hard she tried.
“Of course, she said it when we were alone. When I wouldn’t have proof. His teachers described him as ‘pleasant’, ‘friendly’, ‘well-mannered’, ‘good-natured’, ‘a pleasure to teach’, ‘polite’, ‘funny’, ‘well liked.'”
Mary, whose daughter, now aged 21, has profound physical and intellectual disabilities, says her daughter still suffers trauma from her time in the school. “I just wonder will she ever heal. It just keeps coming up for her, again and again, and I just hate that this is still happening in schools, where children are supposed to be protected and cared for.”
Mary’s daughter had an Irish exemption but in fifth class started coming home very upset with Irish homework. When Mary questioned the principal, she was told that the exemption hadn’t been filed properly. Mary gave her the documents but wondered why the principal hadn’t come to her, instead of forcing her daughter to study the subject for the first time in years.
She reports being told that it was no big deal, that the principal knew parents would come forward if necessary. After ongoing clashes, Mary moved her child to a different school.
Laura, another mother at the school, recalls her nine-year-old son being put into his sister’s senior infants’ class as punishment for the day. “We told the principal that this treatment of our son was demeaning and humiliating for him and that they were never to do it again. Their response was that it was a strategy that worked to teach children how to behave.”
A fifth parent, Jenny, says a psychologist’s recommendation for her son’s Irish exemption was refused. Covid hit, and her son never had to return to the school again. He got his exemption in his secondary school without delay. She later removed his younger sister after she said she felt unsafe.
The parents who come forward with their stories, seven families in all, say that many more children have endured similar treatment but don’t wish to be identified. Some have children still in the school and are fearful of any further mistreatment.
The school was last inspected in 2013. That inspection report suggests that “a significant minority” of parents felt that the school did not regularly seek parents’ views on school matters.
Parents complain that the principal lacks any understanding of neurodiversity. In some instances, parents in the school were told by the principal that SNA access was not appropriate, despite the parents of the children feeling differently.
In one case, a parent was denied access to their own child’s individual learning plan – they report being told that this was punishment for causing trouble in the school.
A parent assures me that SNAs left the school when the children with additional needs moved away for better supports, suggesting that the principal never wanted them. Others believe letters written to the board were never fully circulated beyond the chairperson, and simply disappeared.
A procedure for dealing with parents’ complaints against teachers was agreed in 1993 by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and the Catholic Primary School Managers’ Association. The purpose of the five-stage procedure, which relies on the integrity of the board, is to allow for difficulties to be resolved in an agreed and fair manner.
Since 2016, the Teaching Council has also accepted complaints against registered teachers. They accept a complaint if the complaints procedure of the school has been exhausted or in cases of high concern if paperwork is provided.
The Council outlines: “If school disciplinary procedures (established under section 24 of the Education Act, 1998) have not been exhausted, then the Investigating Committee is required to refuse the complaint in accordance with the provisions of the Teaching Council Act, unless in the Committee’s view there are good and sufficient reasons.
“It is up to the Investigating Committee to decide whether there are good and sufficient reasons.” In its last annual report, the Teaching Council noted 53 complaints against teachers. Thirty-eight of the complaints came from parents, none from boards of management.
The council advises that
In practice If the Board of Management doesn’t offer any assistance, the Department of Education advises that the next step is to contact the patron, in this case – the bishop.
Under Section 19 of the Education Act, the patron can communicate dissatisfaction with the board if their duties are not being “effectively discharged”. However, those working on behalf of patrons suggest it’s difficult because a personal intervention might affect procedure.
When Claire contacted the bishop, she received the following reply: “Unfortunately, I will only be able to offer you quite limited advice. The Child Safeguarding and Protection Service is a voluntary service, and we have no investigative role within schools.
When concerns such as you describe arise it is best that a complaint is directed to the Board of Management of the school initially. If no resolution can be found, a parent can make a complaint in writing to the Department of Education under S.29 of the Education Act 1998.”
Áine did so and was informed that under Child Protection laws she could direct the case to Túsla. Túsla is backlogged. A Hiqa report in 2021 observed “delays in social workers carrying out preliminary enquiries in 50 out of 57 cases examined by inspectors,” having received “more than 5,600 referrals last year, up from 3,842 in 2019.”
Both Claire and Aine, and a psychotherapist working with one of the children, reported their concerns to Túsla and the Ombudsman. No further action was taken.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Children may independently investigate complaints about schools recognised by the Department of Education, provided the parent has firstly and fully followed the school’s complaints procedures, through the Board of Management.
Áine recalls “The Teaching Council and The Ombudsman both said they couldn’t investigate the matter as I hadn’t followed the complaints procedure, (i.e., met with BOM). The bishop’s house said they are a voluntary organisation and have no investigative role in schools.
“They advised me on where else to go but it was all the places I had already contacted. The Community Sergeant passed my complaint on to her Superintendent, but no contact was made with me since.”
The ball is in the department’s court to establish a more objective procedure across schools in Ireland – limiting the autonomy of unsatisfactory principals and boards.
The National Parents Council Primary made a submission to then-Minister for Education & Skills, Ruairi Quinn, in 2012 requesting a strengthening of the role of parents in the Education Act 1998.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the Education Act 1998 be amended to guarantee the right of the child in individual cases. The introduction of a Parent and Student Charter complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
In 2022, the bill remains at the third stage of the Dáil. It was last discussed in July 2021.
In that most recent Oireachtas discussion on the matter, Deputy Verona Murphy said the bill would “bring consistency and uniformity among schools as to what parents and students are entitled to know, how to pursue a grievance and to allow parents to have their say in how their children are educated and to have all that be put on a statutory footing, which is only fitting.”
Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion, Josepha Madigan added: “Under the provisions of the Bill, the guidelines may require schools to provide information to students and parents on the number and types of complaints received and information on their particular outcomes.”
For Áine, this charter was significant. “I had almost four years of this pressure and stress, constantly feeling like I had to defend my son and no matter how many conversations I had with the principal, her behaviour just got worse instead of better.
“The worst part of it all is the isolation you feel as you’re made to feel like you’re the only one going through it. With the charter in place, families would get to see that other people are going through similar issues and this would give parents strength and confidence to fight for their children.
“It’s too late for my son and he still suffers badly at times because of her treatment of him, but I just hope speaking out can help prevent other families going through this.”
For Claire, the charter will bring about the means to change toxic cultures once they take hold in a school.
“It is wonderful that more people are aware of the insufficiencies in our system when it comes to children with additional needs. What they are not aware of is that some professionals are using pitfalls in the system to gain ultimate control.
“All I ever got from our principal were negative reports, putting my son down and putting me down as a parent. Gaslighting creates deep frustration for parents who are trying to create positive change and who are trying to protect vulnerable children. This charter removes the opportunity for any school to play a blame game against the people in their care.”