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  • Writer's pictureLove Ballymena

Education Minister Peter Weir’s statement to the NI Assembly on COVID response

Assembly Statement to the Ad Hoc Committee by the Education Minister Peter Weir.

6 January 2021

• • • • •

The Executive has correctly sought to prioritise education and the needs of our young people.

Any disruption to schooling for a significant period of time will have a devastating impact on children’s educational opportunities and future prospects, as well as being damaging to their mental health and well-being.

No matter how well managed or provided, removal of face to face learning and its replacement with remote learning impacts on children’s educational experience, with a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups and vulnerable children. It should therefore be only contemplated as a last resort in extreme public health circumstances such as we are currently facing, and should be maintained for a period no longer than is necessary.

I brought forward a range of measures within education settings aimed at curbing the spread of Covid in Assembly statements on 21st and 31st December. These were produced following discussions with the Department of Health, and cognisant of the requirement that schools could not reopen as normal in January. These included measures making face coverings compulsory in classroom settings in post primary schools, increased enforcement of face coverings on school transport, work with the Department of Health on widening the usage of test and tracing within schools, improved visibility of signage to parents on school gates, and targeted messaging to young people. Work has proceeded on these issues, and they will be ready to be implemented before any resumption of schools.

More significantly a package of measures has been introduced with regard to periods of remote learning. These were legally enacted on 3rd January, and specifically required:

- all mainstream primary schools and post primary schools would conduct remote learning for pupils for the first week of term 4-8 January

- post primary schools are given some flexibility for face to face revision classes for the first week of term for students sitting GCSE exams in the second week of term

- Pupils in years 8-11 would receive remote learning until the end of January

- Vulnerable children and children of key workers (at least one parent) will be

facilitated at school for supervised learning

- Special schools to reopen on usual dates and remain open

- Pre School education settings to reopen on usual dates and remain open

- Childcare to remain open

- Examinations required to be compliant with public health regulations

In light of the current crisis in public health, the following necessary actions, agreed yesterday by the Executive, are proposed.

This decision does not suggest that schools are no longer safe places for young people. Instead, limiting attendance is about reducing the number of contacts that all of us have with people in other households.

Effective immediately:

- All mainstream education providers, including pre-school education settings, primary and post primary schools are required to provide remote learning at home to their pupils rather than face to face teaching in school until the half term break in the middle of February.

- Vulnerable children and children of key workers will have access to schools for supervised learning. Vulnerable children include amongst others all children with statements of Special Educational Needs. Children of key workers would require at least one parent to be a key worker. These are the same provisions as were put in place during the first lockdown, which resulted in a very small uptake in places.

- Remote learning requirements and the removal of face to face teaching should be temporary and will last no longer than necessary, and therefore it will remain under review by the Executive.

- Special schools are to remain open as usual.

- I have also agreed that provision in lieu of free school meals will be made to those children entitled to free school meals while normally in school.

- Childcare settings, including those based in primary schools, are to remain open and childminders are also allowed to continue their provision.

- I have consistently said that my priority is to ensure that, if at all possible, exams should go ahead as planned. My overriding aim, however, is to ensure that our students are not disadvantaged in terms of their qualifications compared with learners in other jurisdictions and takes account of the rapidly changing context in which our schools and pupils are having to operate. We must also provide equity between our students completing exams under different examination boards from different jurisdictions.

- I have previously said that we are preparing for all eventualities and I had asked CCEA to take work forward so that plans are ready to be activated in relation to the 2021 examination series should they be required. I now feel we have reached a point where, while I still believe examinations are the most appropriate and fairest awarding methodology, with a further 6 weeks of remote learning having to be imposed, we cannot continued with exams in the way that was planned.

- I have therefore decided the following: all GCSE, AS and A2 exams due to take place in January, February, May and June will be cancelled. Work will continue on the alternative awarding arrangements and further details will be brought forward as soon as possible.

- Generic youth provision will move online under the discretion of Management Committees and EA Youth Service will continue to lead on targeted provision for vulnerable and at risk young people, including limited face to face work (with mitigations in place to limit the spread of the virus) where this is deemed appropriate and to provide support under existing protocols to PSNI.

I would like to reiterate that these decisions have not been taken lightly, but we must have regard to the prevailing public health situation, and the need to reduce overall community contacts.

I will return schools to face to face learning as soon as the public health situation permits.


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