Yesterday, a new student union: the Secondary Students’ Union of Northern Ireland (SSUNI) was launched, in part as a response to students in Northern Ireland being “shut out” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the union’s page, students were “shut out of major decisions” made about their education during the pandemic, and “it’s about time students in Northern Ireland had a platform to speak up, a body to represent them, a Secondary Students’ Union”.
Speaking to Trinity News, SSUNI President Cormac Savage explained that over the lockdown period, he established a students’ union for the North of Ireland alongside a group of nine students from across the six counties.
“The idea stemmed from anger at the lack of student consultation Peter Weir carried out when he cancelled public examinations and introduced the calculated grades system this year,” Savage explained.
Weir is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) education minister in the Northern Ireland Executive.
The new union of secondary school students established this year aims to be a “voice for students in Northern Ireland”, so that they will “never again be locked out of decisions about our future”.
Savage said: “We’re hoping (similar to the Irish Secondary Students’ Union – who helped me get us set up in the beginning) to be a voice for students in NI in the future, provide a social space for students to interact, challenge educational authorities about the decisions they take and make sure students are always in the room when decisions about their education have to be taken.”
SSUNI joins the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU) in representing post-primary students, working through student councils across the country.
SSUNI is made up of three main bodies; members, the Northern Ireland Student Executive (NISE) and a legal board.
NISE is made up of nine members who lead the union, who are elected by the members.
Savage explained that they have an operating board of “expert educationalists” helping with the establishment of the union and their work, including Laura Lundy and Jannette Elwood, who are two Queen’s University Belfast Professors, Mark Langhammer, the National Education Union Regional Secretary, Lorraine Thompson, who is a freelance youth work consultant, and Peter Weil, the former Head of Youth Programmes and executive producer at the BBC.
“We’re hoping to launch this week and our first campaigns will be about giving advice to students about how to approach their school about an appeal of a calculated grade and the safe return to school,” Savage continued. “We’ll mainly be campaigning for Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to use the predicted grades given by teachers similar to what’s happened in Scotland and are launching a petition around this.”
SSUNI has also established a constitution that will govern the union. Their constitution includes objectives, such as providing a space for young people in Northern Ireland to interact that is free from sectarianism and to work for mutual educational goals, and promote and work to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Savage said: “Personally, I’m very excited about what the future holds for our new union, especially at such a crucial time for Young People in Northern Ireland.”
“Our first action will be to make sure that every single student in Northern Ireland gets the grades they deserve following the cancellation of public exams,” he continued.
ISSU was founded in August 2008, from the remnants of the old Union of Secondary Students (USS) that ran from 2001-2008.
In the academic year 2018/2019, 85 students from Northern Ireland accepted an offer to study at Trinity.