Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Thursday, 25 June 2020
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr Roy Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Ms Paula Bradley
Mr Jonathan Buckley
Mr Gerry Carroll
Mr Pat Catney
Mr Alan Chambers
Mr Gordon Dunne
Mrs Sinéad Ennis
Mr Harry Harvey
Mr William Humphrey
Mr Gerry Kelly
Mr Chris Lyttle
Mr Daniel McCrossan
Mr Philip McGuigan
Mr Justin McNulty
Mr Andrew Muir
Ms Karen Mullan
Mr Mike Nesbitt
Mr John O'Dowd
Mr Matthew O'Toole
Mr Peter Weir
Miss Rachel Woods
Ministerial Statement: Education
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): We are now at the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, and everyone is very welcome. Sorry for that slight delay.
Agenda item 1 is the minutes of proceedings of the previous meeting, which was held on 11 May. Members are asked to note those minutes, which I have agreed. Members should also note that the Minutes of Evidence from that meeting have been published in the Official Report and are available on the Committee's web page.
Agenda item 2 is a statement from the Minister of Education. The Speaker received notification on 22 June that the Minister wished to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at today's meeting. A copy of the statement that the Minister intends to make is included in your pack at page 7.
I welcome the Minister of Education to this meeting of the Committee. There will be opportunity for questions after the statement. I will endeavour to ensure that all members get an opportunity to ask a question, but I remind you that it is questions, not statements, and if members are succinct they may also be invited to ask a supplementary question.
I have the task of chairing this meeting. As a guide, there will be approximately one hour for questions. It will be tight allowing everyone to ask a supplementary question in that time frame, and that is why I need your cooperation. I may bring you to a question if you prolong your preamble, and you may not be allowed to ask a supplementary question. I also encourage the Minister to be succinct in his answers, so that we can deal with this in the time frame and allow every member to ask a question.
I invite the Minister to make his statement, which will be heard without interruption.
Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to update the Ad Hoc Committee for the third time on the work that has been undertaken in the education sector in response to COVID-19. There have been important developments over the past weeks, and I wish to consolidate matters by making a statement today.
We are now just over three months from the beginning of lockdown, throughout which all areas of society have been dealing with great challenges. The issues that we are facing in education have never been encountered before. An incredible amount of work has gone into the development of policies and procedures to ensure that we continue to meet, as best we can, the learning needs of our pupils.
I would again begin by paying tribute to school principals, teachers, classroom assistants and all those who have been working hard and with such dedication in the wider educational sector at this challenging time.
In my previous appearances before the Committee I provided updates on a range of complex issues that have been addressed since lockdown. In recent weeks, those efforts have continued as we look to the future and put in place plans for the summer and the new school day. Whilst our response is ongoing, it is important that we begin planning for restart and recovery, and a process of phased reopening of our schools in a safe and effective manner, when conditions allow. Before I get to some of the detail of those plans, I would like to provide an update on a number of key issues.
In my updates to the Committee in May, I advised members of the launch of an income support scheme for substitute teachers who have been unable to avail themselves of any financial support through Government schemes related to COVID-19. The Department launched the income support scheme for substitute teachers on 19 May, with a closing date for applications of 26 May. I can advise that 1,650 substitute teachers will receive income through the scheme in June, and the vast majority of those received payments through the DE pay run on 16 June. A process is also in place to take any individual's special circumstances into account and, where applicable, payments for those will be made in the July pay run.
While the full cost of the scheme will not be known until late July, the costs will be lower than anticipated, mainly because not all those who were entitled to apply to the scheme did so. Substitute and permanent teachers will also receive the two-years' pay arrears for the 2017-19 pay settlement in the June pay run.
On 16 April I set out the details of the alternative arrangements for awarding GCSE, AS and A-level qualifications. Those arrangements placed a high degree of trust in our teaching profession and I know that teachers were very aware of their responsibilities towards their pupils. Despite the enormity of the task, schools met the tight deadlines set for submitting the centre-assessed grades to the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment. That data is now going through a process of standardisation to ensure that the final outcomes are fair and robust. While there is still some way to go through various stages of checking and validation, CCEA is on track to have results issued on the original published dates in August for all pupils, including private candidates.
I want to thank every teacher and school leader involved in that process. It has been an enormous challenge, and I am very proud of the way that our teachers rose to it to ensure that their students will be able to progress to the next stage of their lives in September.
While the work on awarding this year has been progressing, my Department has commissioned the CCEA to bring forward proposals for examinations in the next academic year. If anything, given the uncertainty surrounding public health, this is an even more complex planning process than the arrangements for this year. Account needs to be taken of the impact of lost teaching time on students as well as the impact of any restrictions on teaching and assessment arrangements in the next academic year. For example, how will social distancing impact on the different types of assessments that make up qualifications, and what adjustments, if any, can be made without impacting the integrity and, therefore, the value of those qualifications?
Work will carry on over the summer, and more information will be made available at the earliest opportunity. However, while the work is being progressed, the starting point is that exams are the best, fairest and most accurate way of awarding qualifications. Therefore, every effort must be made to make sure that exams take place. CCEA is progressing plans for the normal November exams series, taking account of evolving public health guidance. This series involves only a small cohort of pupils, normally those taking GCSE single- and double-award science, so it will provide an opportunity to monitor any adaptations to exam arrangements.
Any lessons that can be drawn from this exam series will be used to further refine the planning for the remaining series in 2021.
Earlier this week, I published guidance for schools on curriculum planning for the 2020-21 academic year. The guidance provides advice and support to schools as they consider how to tailor and adapt delivery of the curriculum to support recovery when pupils return for the new academic year. My Department has also commissioned CCEA and the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) to provide further guidance to schools on effective ways in which the curriculum could be planned for, implemented and assessed in the new academic year. Those guidance documents will set out ways in which existing resources can be used to support remote and blended learning approaches and provide exemplars of current practice and resources that schools can adapt to reflect their circumstances. The guidance will add to the wide range of resources that have been collated, developed and disseminated to support school leaders and teachers during the pandemic.
We are fortunate that the Northern Ireland curriculum is specifically designed to be adaptable and dynamic and is, therefore, the ideal scaffold to support and underpin teaching and learning. Limited prescription gives schools flexibility to choose what to teach, for how long and how often, and to use approaches that best suit their pupils. The key message across the system is that the aim for 2020-21 is to support pupils to be motivated to learn and to become competent and independent learners through a curriculum that gives equal emphasis to knowledge, understanding and skills.
I want to thank all the teachers and staff who are working so hard to ensure that our pupils are supported at this time. I hope that they will find the guidance provided by the Department and our delivery partners helpful in supporting their planning.
In my previous statement to the Committee, I advised of the £12 million emergency package for childcare provision for key workers and the associated establishment of the childcare support scheme. Application forms were issued to open and closed day-care and school-age childcare settings on 6 May. Application forms for the approved home childcarer scheme and support for childminders were issued on 7 May. In order to allow the maximum opportunity for applications to be received, the closing date for applications for closed settings was extended until 12 June. Funding for the current COVID-19 childcare support scheme ends on 30 June, and demand for childcare and expenditure across all elements of the scheme is being monitored in line with the available £12 million budget. The amounts paid out under the childcare scheme are determined by the volume and nature of the applications submitted by the sector and by the assessment of eligible costs.
However, despite support put in place to assist applicants, and the closing date being extended, only 46% of closed settings applied. The Departments of Education and Health continue to work with the childcare reference group on the reasons for the smaller than expected numbers of applications. Initial findings suggest that many settings were in receipt of financial support from other sources. A number of applications is still to be processed for April and May, in addition to payments for June, so that amount will increase over the coming weeks.
I will come to plans for childcare sector recovery later in my statement.
Turning to the arrangements for the summer period and beyond, the current arrangements for the educational supervision of vulnerable children and the children of key workers in schools will end on 30 June. Support for vulnerable children and the children of key workers will need to be reshaped for the summer. I am grateful for the support and provisions that have been provided by teachers and principals since 23 March 2020 when schools in Northern Ireland closed for all children, except for the children who were deemed vulnerable and for the children of key workers. Teachers and principals deserve a break over the summer, and we are, therefore, looking at alternative support mechanisms. The well-being of children and young people remains our primary concern and I recognise that certain groups may continue to need support during the summer months, but with focus shifting from the educational to play and leisure activities for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
To mitigate the impact of ending the emergency educational scheme, I have gained the Executive's agreement to a number of measures that could support summer activities for those children and young people. I can confirm that the Education Authority (EA) is working with a number of special schools to make summer provisions for 2020. It should be noted that, given the impact of the pandemic, this will not be in the usual format of previous years. The EA is working in partnership with special schools to provide ideas and activities online for pupils, and also some tailored school-based summer schemes. The EA will shortly provide further details.
Although generic, non-targeted youth work provision ceased in March, the Education Authority and youth organisations have worked closely to ensure that the needs of vulnerable children and young people continue to be addressed. The statutory Youth Service will continue to provide support to vulnerable young people as part of the ongoing response.
In addition to the existing support, the statutory Youth Service will provide some small-group work, along with some further targeted outreach and detached work. There is an opportunity for voluntary sector youth providers, uniformed organisations and private sector providers to deliver limited summer programmes that prioritise the children of key workers aged nine to 13 and that are consistent with the public health restrictions that are in place. These programmes will complement existing online youth services.
Many of the voluntary youth workers who are funded by the EA are maintaining contact with their members online and they are developing creative solutions to deliver the curriculum. For example, in the creative sense. It is anticipated that that will continue during July and August.
Feedback from the youth centre indicates that youth workers are keen to support young people over the summer. We recognise that there are associated issues with adherence to the public health guidance, the training of volunteers and staff to ensure compliance, individual and personal concerns for some staff and volunteers and having the appropriate insurance cover. Departmental guidance for safe working in all educational settings in Northern Ireland was issued by the Department on 4 June. That has been shared with the youth sector and will be made available to all those who are involved in the running of summer schemes. Work has also commenced to develop additional, specific youth guidance.
The provision of summer programmes will be conditional on compliance with the Department of Education's safe work guidance and the relevant permissions with regard to the Executive's five-stage recovery plan.
The disruption to our children's learning owing to COVID-19 cannot be overestimated. I am considering how to bring forward projects to support learning for children over the summer and beyond. I brought forward a project called "Engage" to provide literacy and numeracy support, mental health interventions and the widening of nurture support for the 2021 academic year in socially deprived areas.
Free school meals have been the subject of considerable recent public debate, particularly in relation to concerns that some children will go hungry over the summer period. Direct payments in lieu of free school meals are scheduled to cease on 30 June. Subject to the availability of funding, the Executive have agreed that a similar but separate summer food scheme will be established to alleviate the hardship over the summer months for the families of children who are entitled to free school meals direct payments. Details on how the scheme will be delivered are being finalised and will be published shortly. In addition, I plan to extend and expand the EA's Eat Well, Live Well programme to provide healthy breakfasts and lunches to around 5,000 vulnerable young people.
The provision of home-to-school transport in September will be an extremely complex and challenging area of work. Any form of social distancing will have an impact on the EA's ability to transport all children to school by bus or taxi.
The Education Authority is making every effort to maximise the number of children who can be safely transported, however, if any restrictions remain in place in social distancing, there is likely to be a substantial shortfall between the number of pupils who are eligible for home-to-school transport and the number of places available on vehicles, and that impact will undoubtedly be likely to be felt across all school sectors. I am looking at all options that could help to mitigate the disruption that would be caused to many families, and my officials and those of the Education Authority are working tirelessly with a range of key stakeholders on the issue.
Childcare is a key priority in Education Restart as well as being of the utmost importance in enabling parents to get back into the working environment. A paper on childcare sector recovery planning was discussed and agreed by the Executive on 18 June. The childcare recovery plan aims to restore the childcare sector to pre-COVID-19 capacity levels as quickly and as safely as possible. The aim of the plan is to ensure that parents can access childcare as and when they need it over the next few months. The widening of the key worker definition on 8 June and further on 16 June has been the first step in the reopening of the sector. In addition, in recognition of the need for childcare provision to align with Executive decision-making in relation to parents being able to return to work, from 29 June the definition of key worker will no longer apply for access to childcare, so it will be open to everyone. That will assist in the return to full capacity by enabling more providers to reopen and more parents to access registered childcare.
Childminders can care for children from four families in July and, from August, five families. There is no minimum or maximum number that a childcare setting can accommodate. However, childcare providers must adhere to the Department of Health's COVID guidance, which sets out the expectations on providers in terms of adherence to public health and infection control advice. For childcare settings, the guidance makes it clear that children should be cared for in play pods of up to 12 children and that pods should be kept apart. The layout of a play pod should comply with the minimum space-per-child requirements in the minimum standards. That will mean that some settings will not be able to operate at full capacity, although that will depend on how they organise the setting and the extent to which they can maximise the use of outdoor space.
The childcare recovery plan includes financial support for childcare providers to reopen. Further funding will be subject to Executive agreement, and the detail of a funding support scheme is being developed. In childcare terms, the announcement by the Executive on 22 June allowing up to six people to meet indoors will provide some flexibilities for families to access childcare support from another family member or a friend, thus providing informal childcare provision.
We are all too aware of the stresses felt by our teachers, our parents and our pupils due to the ongoing disruption and uncertainty regarding the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented significant challenges across society and has been particularly difficult for children and young people, parents and carers and the education workforce. About half of our schools have remained open for children of key workers and vulnerable children, although, as in other parts of the UK, the number of vulnerable children has been low. Many of those children particularly benefit from the structured support of a school setting away from what is often a challenging home environment, which is why supporting such children has been a key priority.
We will not know the final impact of the current crisis on children's safety, well-being and learning at this stage, but it is clear that the longer children remain out of school, the slower the recovery of lost learning. My strategic objective is to see the full-time resumption of classroom-based learning for all pupils as soon as possible, when it is safe to do so. Education is of vital importance for our children and our young people, not only for their lifelong opportunities but for their emotional well-being and development and for the fabric of wider society, including the economy. My Department is working on a restart programme that focuses on physical protection; well-being; vulnerable learners and special educational needs services; standards and learning; the new school day; and childcare.
Education Restart involves significant collaboration and co-design, and there is ongoing engagement with school principals, trade unions, managing authorities and sectoral bodies representing the various school sectors, parenting organisations and children and young people. Education Restart is also supported by the Public Health Agency and the Department of Health.
Education recovery planning is based on the broad assumption that the education system will not be able to return to business as usual from day one. An immediate priority is, therefore, the development of strategic guidance for practical arrangements for the safe reopening of schools in August.
I want to put on record my appreciation for the work of the practitioners' group, which has worked tirelessly to co-design the New School Day framework guidance by which schools will plan reopening. The group delivered finalised guidance, which was considered and endorsed by the Executive on 18 June and published on 19 June, representing a significant step forward in the process of planning for the safe reopening of schools.
The guidance is focused on day one and will be supplemented by a range of additional operational guidance papers that cover a wide range of matters, such as transport, catering, curriculum and early years arrangements. I want to make an important clarification arising from the Executive’s endorsement of the guidance and the social distancing assumptions under which planning for the reopening of schools will be planned. The Executive's decision was that schools should use a planning assumption of a two-metre social-distancing rule among adults and between adults and the pupils whom they are working with, and a one-metre social-distancing rule between pupils that, in order to limit transmission and movement within school settings, can and should where possible be further mitigated by the use of protective bubbles. The Executive have decided that the one-metre social-distancing assumption will apply to all year groups within a school setting, up to year 14 inclusive.
The practitioners' group reflected on the Executive’s decision and acknowledged that, while protective bubbles will not be applied for years 11 to 14, the reduced instances of contact across the whole school, through the use of a bubble strategy in years 8 to 10, would be a mitigating factor against transmission and would, therefore, provide an appropriate rationale for applying a one-metre social-distancing rule across all year groups. I am grateful to the group for the professional insight that they brought to the consideration of the matter, which, from a practical perspective, will assist with planning decisions.
I am conscious that every school building and every classroom is different. Therefore, the guidance is not prescriptive: school leaders will be best placed to consider the guidance and implement it based on their own circumstances.
We are all aware of the challenges of physical distancing. These challenges are particularly acute within educational settings. The ongoing need for physical distancing will impact on how schools return by affecting, for example, class sizes, attendance patterns, catering arrangements and the structure of the school day. These measures are designed to be deployed when schools return in August and September and will need to be reviewed in advance of the new school term to ensure that they align with the wider public health position at that point. In all our work, we will continue to be guided by the medical and scientific arrangements.
We remain in a fluid situation. My overriding aim remains a full return, for every pupil, to full-time classroom learning. The restart arrangements that I have outlined reflect the current position but I hope that, if the wider public health situation continues to improve, further decisions will be able to be taken before the start of the new term to enable schools to resume classroom teaching for all students, full-time, subject to protections to mitigate risk and to protect public health.
In closing, Mr Speaker, the challenges that we are dealing with in education are unprecedented. Although our overall approach to managing the COVID-19 virus must, rightly, remain cautious, the work towards Education Restart is a positive step in our wider recovery.
I would like to thank, again, all school leaders, teachers, non-teaching staff and parents for their continued work to support not just our vulnerable people and the children of key workers but the tens of thousands of pupils in our education system.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): I thank the Minister for his statement. There will now be approximately one hour for questions. I remind members of what I said at the start of the meeting: questions should not be prefaced by a speech or a statement. They should be succinct, particularly if you wish to ask a supplementary question. You should aim for a single sentence question and introduction if you wish to ask a supplementary question. Again, I encourage the Minister to be concise.
I call the Chair of the Committee for Education, Chris Lyttle, who, as normal, will be given a little more latitude.
Mr Lyttle (Committee Chair - Committee for Education): I also thank the teaching staff, non-teaching staff, parents and pupils across Northern Ireland for their leadership and hard work during the public health emergency.
As of today, 600 children in Northern Ireland have been waiting longer than the statutory limit of six months for a statement of special educational need. There are 285 children with statements of special educational need who do not yet have a school place for September 2020, and 156 of those children are without a place in a special school. These are some of the most vulnerable children in our community. The children, their families, their schools and the Assembly demand to know what specific action the Education Minister has taken to arrest the dysfunctionality of special educational need statementing and area planning that is failing children with special educational needs in Northern Ireland.
Mr Weir: I thank the member for his question. The figures that he mentioned are unacceptable. It is clear that the assessment that was done of, and the inquiry that was held into, the Education Authority produced a range of recommendations that showed dysfunctionality in the Education Authority in relation to special educational needs. Those recommendations are being implemented. There has been delay because of the COVID situation. As part of that — although, ultimately, a lot of this is internal to the EA — we are keeping a close monitoring arrangement on it and ensuring, for instance, that there is a representative of the Department on any implementation board. Those are, if you like, the systemic issues that need to be tackled in the short to medium term. There is also the very specific issue of the unplaced children. Today my officials have been meeting — the Executive have been meeting at the same time — the Education Authority to discuss the issue. We expect to see progress on that. For each family within that, it creates an enormous burden and uncertainty. It needs to be tackled as quickly and thoroughly as possible, because it is unacceptable that any child is left without a school place.
Mr Lyttle: Given the dysfunction of the special educational need statementing and area planning processes, does the Minister accept that his suspension of the independent review of education was wrong and that it must be restarted immediately?
Mr Weir: With respect, I have not suspended the independent review of education. Perhaps the member should check his facts in relation to that. The position is that the review, as well as the independent panel, is part of the New Decade, New Approach commitments, which we are progressing. There is budget for that. To establish them will require us to identify who the members will be and what the terms of reference will be — everything. Indeed, the approach that has been taken by the Executive as a whole has been to focus everything that they can on the COVID situation. Those issues will be progressed as quickly as possible and as soon as possible, but there has been no suspension of any of it, and it would be misleading to give the impression that it has been suspended.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his statement. I, too, on behalf of my party, thank the principals, teachers, auxiliary staff, parents and, not least, children for their forbearance during the COVID-19 situation.
In relation to youth work and voluntary youth work, the Minister said that youth workers are keen to support young people over the summer. I raised this issue yesterday at the Education Committee with the permanent secretary of his Department and the chief executive of the Education Authority. I implore the Minister and those involved in education, particularly the Youth Service —.
Mr Humphrey: absolutely crucial that interface work in areas like north Belfast should continue over the summer, to alleviate problems and pressures at interfaces.
very specifically — I do not think it was directly mentioned in the statement — particularly working with communities, working with the DOJ, working with the police in interface areas where we are seeing at-risk children, those are very much at the forefront of the interventions of Youth Service. Those programmes are being worked on on a multi-agency basis to ensure that they continue throughout the summer. That is in addition to whatever wider youth work is done throughout the summer. Certainly, there will a focus on that, and there has been a discussion at various departmental levels to ensure that that progresses.
Ms Mullan: Minister, thank you for your statement. I also want to pay tribute to teaching and non-teaching staff, parents, guardians and young people at this time.
Further to Mr Humphrey's question about youth provision, you have given an update this week and you have given an update in your statement, but youth settings, particularly community and voluntary ones, are still awaiting guidance. They have not received the update.
When should they expect to receive that guidance?
Mr Weir: Well, as part of that, which was, I think, suggested at the Executive, indeed in terms of dealing with the paper, I think it is also helpful that we are moving towards a youth sector reference group, which will mirror the childcare reference group. Youth workers and a range of agencies will be involved in that. The idea will be to have guidance available not simply for those who are directly doing youth work through the EA, but there is a very big role for the voluntary and community sector, private organisations, uniformed organisations and church groups and that there is permissibility over the summer, and that it is done in connection with the guidance. The EA will act as a signpost for that and will make sure that any group that is doing any level of organisation is given that guidance.
Ms Mullan: I also welcome that teachers and sub teachers received their two-year pay accrual in the June payroll. In relation to plans for sub teachers for September, is there a plan and funding in place to allow schools to employ extra sub teachers and classroom assistants to allow as many children as possible to get back into the classroom given social distancing?
Mr Weir: If we face any additional costs that arise out of a restart, those will be met by the Department. I think that will be very clear. Substitute teachers will play a role when teachers are off sick.
I have made it very clear that we are preparing for the scenario in which we try and maximise that, but I am very hopeful that we can reach a situation where every child is in school, and we can find a slightly different formula. There is a range of mitigation measures already in place as a result of the guidance, which apply, to some extent, whether you have schools that are 50% full, 80% full or 100% full. I am very hopeful that we can move towards that.
There will potentially be a key role for substitute teachers if funding for the Engage programme is accepted. It might not be the exact same, but members will remember the signature projects that were done a number of years ago and which were very successful. There will be a key role as we look to widen the number of those who will be involved in the education system. That will apply to substitute teachers as well.
Mr McCrossan: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. When GCSE and A-level results are sent out to parents, it is largely unchallengeable if there is significant discontent among parents and schools because CCEA's untested and unbenchmarked model has changed the moderated grades awarded through teachers' professional judgement. Are you simply going to tell everyone to suck it up and make the best of it, or do you have an alternative plan?
Mr Weir: The vernacular that the member uses is not what I would use. While the assessment of the grades is made by individual teachers, there has to be moderation between centres. It is part of human nature that, where you get two or more people, for example in an interview situation, you and I sit on a panel and we may both decide who the best candidate is, but you may score that person 80% and I may score them 60% because one of us is a hard marker and one is not. So, from the point of view of fairness, there has to be centre assessment. That will apply across the board and across different jurisdictions if grades are being awarded on that basis. Otherwise, there would not be the level of robustness and fairness in the system to ensure that we have a reasonable position for all students.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Can post-primary schools be assured that decisions around the content of the GCSE, AS and A-level curriculum and around exams, if any, that will go ahead in the 2020-21 academic year will be made well before the schools return in September so that teachers can prepare for learning and teaching?
I note in your statement that you said that normal exams will resume in November. How can it be normal when this has been a very abnormal year and children have been out of school since March?
Mr Weir: Maybe normality is in the eye of the beholder. A small number of exams normally take place in November. The intention is for those to go ahead.
As we scope the way ahead, it is likely that there will be a paring down to basics of the curriculum — I think that the flexibility of the Northern Ireland curriculum allows for that. We need not only that detailed advice from CCEA but, to be fair, broader advice on the curriculum. That is particularly true of public examinations at GCSE, AS level and A level. We also have to take cognisance that of the fact that it is not simply the Northern Ireland board, through CCEA, that delivers those exams. We need to ensure that, particularly where there is competition between different jurisdictions, there is a relatively level playing field, so that, above all else, none of our pupils is disadvantaged.
It is clear, and I think that there must be an expectation among parents, given the circumstances, that what can be delivered through the curriculum in the autumn of 2020 will not necessarily be the same as that in 2018 and 2019. There will also need to be a certain level of expectation management. However, the aim is to provide as broad a curriculum as possible. Where things need to be brought down to basics, they will be. We have the flexibility in the curriculum, which is not overtly prescriptive, to enable that to happen.
Mr Nesbitt: Can I just double-check that summer schemes or summer schools that take place on school campuses can go ahead, including those organised by the private sector?
Mr Weir: There is no particular problem with that. The only issue around any sort of summer scheme will be compliance with public health guidance. If the Public Health Agency puts a limit on numbers and use of space, for example, that will apply. That guidance will be there. The idea is that, provided people fulfil public health guidance and, therefore, do not step outside the regulations that are there, there is permissibility for those schemes to go ahead. That is critical because things that can be done from the broad statutory settings will take us so far, but I think that there is an opportunity and a strong desire amongst many community, voluntary and private sector organisations to provide some release for our young people, many of whom have been left in a very difficult situation since March.
It is important that that release is managed and controlled. In recent weeks, I think that we have seen, perhaps, at one end of the scale, very large gatherings of young people, which were not helpful. However, I want to pay tribute to young people. I have seen countless examples of the great work that young people have done throughout the crisis, particularly in providing support to the elderly, for instance, and in a whole range of ways. However, we need to ensure that the necessary release of tension that can happen over the summer is done in a managed and controlled way. I think that there is a key role for voluntary and uniformed organisations and private providers to do that.
Mr Nesbitt: Two specific questions, if I may. Is the social distance, indoor and outdoor, still 2 metres? Is the maximum group size, including an adult supervising or mentoring, still 10?
Mr Weir: On the basis that we are not quite at the start of the summer and issues around social-distancing regulations are evolving, it would be a matter of ensuring that what is there is compatible at the time. Again, as we are in a fluid situation, that might be something that may end up moving according to the level of easement. I think it is important that what is done is compatible with whatever the time frame is for a particular venture to take place. At the moment, the easement is going in one direction, so I think that anybody can assume that the most restrictive the guidelines are likely to be over the summer is where we are today.
Ms P Bradley: The Minister talked about a project called Engage; will he give us a little bit more detail on that and when it is due to start?
Mr Weir: We are looking at a number of things, including smaller learning interventions over the summer. Undoubtedly, no matter what great work has been done through remote learning, there will have been some loss of continuity of learning. There is a wider group in the Department looking at continuity of learning. However, it is clear that we need a focused, tailored piece of work that will stretch over most of the next academic year, where support can be put in place. That is particularly focussed, given the constraint on resources, on areas and schools where there is social deprivation. There is undoubtedly a concern that, often, those in deprived areas will have suffered most because of the lockdown and may have lost opportunities.
It is critical that we have that focused level of intervention. That will focus principally on literacy and numeracy, but there will be other areas of catch-up. The detail of that is being scoped out with experts and with the likes of the ETI and teachers, so that we can have a full scheme that, assuming that there is funding for it, can kick in early in the new academic year. That could have a major impact in bridging some of the gaps and the potential loss of learning that we have faced during the spring months of this year.
Ms P Bradley: How up to date is the definition of "socially deprived" in the Department? I represent North Belfast, which can go from one end of the scale to the other and has lots of pockets of social deprivation. Often, identified need is not identified. In the broader sense, can others be brought into it who are not recognised as being from a socially deprived area?
Mr Weir: From that point of view, we will want to try to get the best possible definition to ensure that resources are most targeted. We are looking at a scheme that will be significant in its ambitions, and we want to make sure that it can be relatively widely drawn to provide that level of support.
Ms C Kelly: Minister, given the underspend in the childcare support scheme, will you ensure that any new financial support package is less complex to allow providers to reopen their doors and support parents returning to work?
Mr Weir: There have been a few problems. You are right: we need to ensure that whatever is put forward and administered by Education and Health is less complex. Therefore, moving forward, there are lessons to be learned from the scheme.
It is undoubtedly the case that there have been a number of catch-22 situations. One of those has been that the support that has been available, particularly to childcare settings, has come from different sources and, effectively, the support has perhaps been available but has been drawn down differently. That has been significant. There have also been issues with the turnaround speed from a regulatory point of view from the Department of Health and the health trusts, and there has been a commitment from the Department of Health for that to happen much more quickly.
The critical issue is the alignment of supply and demand. You can provide all the support in the world for a setting to open, but, if it is so heavily restricted in the numbers that it can provide for, it will not be sustainable. That is why the widening of the definition of key workers and the movement to effectively open it up across the board have been critical. While public health is vital, any restrictions on numbers that are applied from a practical point of view on the ground must be sustainable to enable those settings to reopen. It is about trying to ensure that there is that alignment between supply and demand. One of the issues on the other side that, I suspect, will have some impact is that we are likely to come out of this with higher unemployment. For some families who would normally choose childcare, their most practical option may be for children to remain at home during that period. There is also an interlinkage between that and school openings.
Ms C Kelly: Will the Minister ensure that the community and voluntary sector, which provides preschool education in our local communities, is included in any new support package? It was not eligible to apply for the previous scheme.
Mr Weir: I will certainly raise that. The package is not entirely within my gift. It will need to be signed off by the Department of Finance and much of the regulatory side lies with the Department of Health, but I am happy to work with colleagues to ensure that that point is borne in mind as we move ahead.
Mr Harvey: Minister, will you assure us that rural country schools are invaluable, going forward? In most cases, there is more room available in them for working at the required distances, and, therefore, they make for safer working conditions for pupils and teachers alike.
Mr Weir: I had the opportunity to visit a rural primary school yesterday. One of the levels of complexity around what is doable is a combination of the physical size of the classes and the number of pupils. It tends to be that the smaller schools, particularly in a rural setting, are probably better placed to have a full return, even on the basis of social distancing.
I reiterate that it is important that our aim is to reach a point at which we can provide safe provision for everybody to be back all the time. I would like to feel that we are moving towards that goal as we move towards the new academic year. As part of that, we need to plan for a range of scenarios. However, I think that a lot of rural schools, particularly at primary level, are quite well placed to be able to do that.
Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. Can the Minister assure us that the necessary funding will be available for rural schools for that purpose?
Mr Weir: I do not want to create a turf war between rural schools and urban schools or, indeed, those in a suburban area. I think that the honourable Member for North Down would be growling at me at that point.
It is the case that, where there are additional resource implications in doing what needs to be done to help to reopen schools, those will be met, be that for deep cleans or the PPE required. There is a range of those types of issues.
Given the pressures on the resource budget, where additional money needs Executive support, I will work with Executive colleagues to see whether that can be found and to see what can be capitalised within the system. The pressure on capital funding, in the short term, is likely to be less of a pressure than on the resource side. I am confident that we can give assurance to schools that whatever funds are needed to be able to get them to reopen will be met centrally.
Mr McGuigan: As a result of COVID, blended learning is a new and sudden phenomenon for teachers, schoolchildren and parents. Despite the Minister's objective of, ultimately, getting all children back, blended learning is likely to continue. In his statement, the Minister mentioned guidance. When is that guidance likely to be made available?
Mr Weir: Guidance on remote learning has been given out. Having visited a number of schools yesterday, I know that a lot of work on remote learning, which forms the other side of blended learning, is being developed and supported.
The member makes a valid point about the necessity for some blended learning. Even if we are in a position, come August and September, where we have a route to get everybody back in, for a minority of children, perhaps because of a condition or a particular vulnerability, it may not be suitable for them to be in school all week. Some children may have a condition that means that they need additional protection, and, therefore, they have to work from home. It will be a necessity to have some remote learning and blended learning no matter what.
Having been thrown into an entirely unprecedented situation in March, schools have done a lot of work and a lot of thinking has gone on. I will not name the school, but I was at a school, yesterday, where a presentation was given on the various elements of preparation done, including on remote learning. The amount of work that has been put in is remarkable, as is the quality of that work.
However, I think that everybody will accept that any blended learning and remote learning is, at best, a substitute for classroom teaching. I think that everybody shares the view that we want, as soon as possible, to get children back into the classroom and back into something that, while it is not quite a normal routine, at the very least, means that they are in school five days a week.
Mr McGuigan: I echo the Minister's praise for the good work on blended learning that has been done in schools and by parents. Is it likely that additional training or practical support will be offered?
Mr Weir: Any support that is needed can be provided.
Training will be more difficult at times, because we will not be getting large numbers of people into one hall or one room — the normal method of training — to do it. There are resources, and there can be a level of support.
Throughout the crisis, every school has had a link officer appointed to it by the EA or the ETI to provide that level of support, so no school will be left isolated in that sense. That route of information and help can be provided to them if they need that level of additional help and support. The flip side of that is that schools should put any innovative practices that, they think, are worth sharing out through the system. One of the positives to come out of this major crisis is the number of schools that have come up with innovative ways of doing things and thinking about things. There are lessons to be learned when we get past the COVID crisis that can lead to better teaching methods and better ways of doing things. There is always something positive to take out of this terrible and unprecedented overall position.
Mr McNulty: Minister, will you pay tribute, along with me, to the multitasking parents who have been juggling their careers and homeschooling? A regular occurrence of the pandemic — a ray of sunshine in the gloom of the pandemic — has been the children who have gatecrashed Zoom calls and meetings. It has been wonderful.
On a more serious note, Minister, you said that direct payments in lieu of free school meals were scheduled to cease on 30 June 2020, subject to availability of funding. That is just over four days away. Are you saying that, from Tuesday, children could go hungry?
Mr Weir: No. Technically speaking, the vires for free school meals is linked in directly with the school year, so a different route would be taken. There is consensus and agreement among all parties about the need for those payments to continue. The methodology for the timing of the payments would be slightly different over the summer anyway. There would probably be a payment in July and a payment in August that would cover the full period. There is no political disagreement over this; everybody is on the same page. Northern Ireland should be proud of the range of families that we support and the level that is supported, because it is on a much more extensive level than happens elsewhere. For example, we estimate the level of support that will be provided over the summer to be around £12 million or £12·5 million for a cohort of roughly 100,000 children who would be impacted. If you compare that with England, which is 30 times the size of Northern Ireland in population, you will see that, over the summer, they will provide a maximum of around £120 million. There is a much greater level of support here. We are also supporting the Eat Well, Live Well campaign. It covers 5,000 of the most vulnerable children, not as an alternative to free school meals but in addition to them.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister and the teaching staff for their hard work throughout the pandemic. I welcome the clarity in the Minister's statement regarding the desire for full-time educational provision in September. The decision to move from social distancing of one metre is key to that happening, albeit that it still has its problems. Will the Minister outline his rationale for the move?
Mr Weir: Following the previous question, I omitted to mention that I join the honourable Member for Newry and Armagh in paying tribute to the hard work that parents have done throughout the process in juggling and multitasking, where possible.
The move to one metre was very carefully considered. There were discussions with PHA and the Department of Health, and we worked closely with them on the guidance. It is abundantly clear that the level of risk of illness or serious illness to children is much lower than it is to the adult population. The curve starts to move up for those of us who are 45 and over. I know that the honourable Member is in a category where the risk to him is a lot lower than it is for many others in the Chamber.
There is, perhaps, a bit of a misconception about distancing. There is no such thing as a safe distance. There is not safety at one metre, there is not safety at two metres, and there is not safety at three metres. It is about mitigating risk. The first step that we were able to take was moving the distance down to one metre, which is now being replicated in other areas. If we can have alternative arrangements and make a gear change that means that we are able to provide a different methodology that enables every child, barring the most medically vulnerable, to be in school, we should try to make that gear change, the medical situation permitting, before the end of the summer.
Mr Buckley: To date, the Minister's approach has been informed by the scientific and medical advice. Is he aware that the Secretary of State for Education is expected to announce that pupils in England will not be expected to adhere to social distancing while in school and that the current bubbles of 15 can be increased to include entire classes? Has the Minister had the opportunity to view or request the medical advice that informed that decision?
Mr Weir: We are in constant contact with the Departments of Education throughout the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Bubbling will play a critical role. I think that the vast majority of medical people would accept that, from a practical point of view, particularly when dealing with very young children, the concept of, for example, five- and six-year-olds socially distancing from each other is somewhat fictional. Therefore, the bubble scenario represents a good way forward.
We will look at what happens in August, September and beyond to inform our judgements on what can be done in schools. Clearly, we are not quite at that point, so we will have to consider how this is seen in the broader medical situation in the community. We are on a good trajectory, and I believe that this will lead to different ways of providing that level of safety.
We should remember that, during the COVID situation, we have got very hung up on specific measures, even social distancing, being the means to an end rather than the end itself. The end is ensuring that we have proper protection for all our people. As the situation moves on, some things will change, and I hope, in the very near future, to see a situation that allows a full return to school, albeit with a range of mitigating measures to provide that level of protection.
Ms Ennis: Minister, difficulties relating to internet connectivity and the level of access that some children and young people have to appropriate IT equipment for learning have been raised consistently with you over the last number of months. You previously stated that work would be undertaken to procure laptops for every child and young person who needed one for this academic year. May we have an update on that work?
Mr Weir: We talked about this being done in three stages. The first stage was devices that were, effectively, in the system. Initially, back in March/Easter time, there was a misconception that, if you simply took such devices out of schools, they would not be compatible with what had to be done at home. The system is one that can be quickly adapted by C2k, so those devices are starting to be lent out. Also around that stage, a consignment had been procured by the Education Authority, and I know, having spoken to a principal this morning who indicated that their primary school was handing out some of them this week, that those devices are starting to be rolled out. As part of that, the Department will procure additional devices as well. That should give relatively comprehensive coverage.
There is a more difficult situation to which the solution is limited to more old-fashioned methods. In some parts of the country, you could provide the best possible device but, if there is no broadband connection or a certain level of internet coverage, it will be of limited value. Schools know where those areas are. They have been working and will continue to work with fallback options. Sometimes, paper packs will be needed. There are certain things that lie under my control, and I can try to influence those.
However, the extent to which I can influence broadband coverage throughout Northern Ireland may be, in all aspects, entirely beyond my control. The aim is to try to ensure that all pupils are covered. The best possible solution is if we can reach a point where a large amount of home learning is not needed, because the children are in school.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for his response. Across South Down, I have been contacted by a wide spread of parents who are adversely affected by not having access to adequate IT equipment. Can the Minister guarantee that the parents and children who need it will have that equipment by the end of August?
Mr Weir: The aim is to have everybody covered. What we found, in surveying schools, was that, while some schools raised the issue of internet coverage — there will have to be different solutions to that — it was rare that there are no devices in a household. The pressure came from multiple members of a family needing to use one or two devices. That is where targeting will take place. We will roll that out as quickly as possible. With the provision of devices, there has been a structure in which priority is given to children in years 12 and 14, and then to vulnerable children. There is a range of priorities that we are trying to work through in the lending of those devices. From a financial point of view, the capital investment should not be eye-watering, unlike some other aspects of this crisis. It should be something that we can meet, and we are committed to it.
Mr Muir: I declare an interest in that I am on the board of governors of Priory Integrated College in Hollywood. Minister, why are 285 children who have statements of special educational need still without a place for September?
Mr Weir: Each year, there is a disjoint between the numbers who have applied and the number of places available. This year, it is much greater than in previous years. There has been, at times, a dysfunctionality on the placement side. While I was at today's Executive meeting, my officials were meeting with the EA — a meeting that was planned before these numbers were known — with the aim of taking whatever action is needed to help to resolve the situation.
There will always be a slight disjoint because some locations are completely full. On some occasions, a place has been offered to a parent, but the parent is not happy with the offer. It is not always as straightforward as there having been no offer made. There is less opportunity for variability, depending on the nature of the unit that a child may need to go into. There is a lot less flexibility in that than in the normal school system. As the member is aware, and as we have seen for a number of years in North Down, the demand for places has outstripped the supply. There is greater flexibility in mainstream school placements to have, for instance, temporary variations. However, if you are operating to a specific special needs unit, which is effectively restricted to, for example, 15 pupils, there is no opportunity to put in an extra couple of pupils. There is not that level of flexibility.
The numbers are unacceptable, and the Department is working with EA, which has the operational responsibility for this, to try to make sure that the problem is solved as quickly as possible.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his response. What responsibility do he and his Department take for this area-planning failure for children with special educational needs?
Mr Weir: I do not necessarily accept that it is an area-planning issue. A combination of concerns have been raised. A report has been written on the functioning of the EA as regards special educational needs. The report has made recommendations, and those are being implemented. One of the problems has been that making the corrective changes has not been done as quickly and as well as it would normally be. Across a range of things in government, the shift has been to dealing with the immediate crisis of COVID. That means that not everything that can be done is being done as quickly as it could be.
It is clear that that represents an ongoing need to provide a much more systemic challenge in relation to special educational needs.
We are also working on guidance. We are conscious of the fact that, as we head into August and September, there will be challenges for children with special educational needs, particularly with regard to schools. Consequently, in addition to the general guidance that has been provided to schools, the special schools' principals have been working alongside us to make bespoke guidance available to special schools. That is currently being reviewed by PHA to make sure that it is fit for purpose; I think that it should be issued fairly shortly so that we can make sure that we get things right for all our pupils this autumn.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his statement and for all his efforts in recent times during the COVID crisis. We all endorse what has been said about recognising the good work of teachers, especially in those schools that have stayed open for key workers' families.
I am sure that the Minister has been working on the challenge of providing transport to schools. Has he considered how he is going to transport children to schools? I appreciate that Translink has a responsibility, but he has responsibility for a fleet of yellow buses. How are we going to fit the children into those buses? Has he thought about using sanitisers or some form of mild protective equipment?
Mr Weir: Hygiene will be a critical issue and buses will need to be cleaned much more frequently. We are working with the Department for Infrastructure and Translink on the matter. Some of the mitigations for public transport are a live issue for the Executive and we are working to resolve them. It is clear that unless we get over those issues, that will create pressures on school transport. We need to look at where we can mitigate to ensure that we can cater for the maximum number possible. It is undoubtedly the case that children do not create the same level of risk as adults; that is something else that needs to be taken into consideration.
I anticipate that, next year, it is likely that there will be behavioural shifts in relation to travel. I am sure that many members, including me, would like to see much more active travel to school. However, in practical terms, the vast majority of additional travel will involve parents transporting their children, although there will also be a shift in that. We have to make sure that we align, as much as possible, school transport provision to what is needed.
Mr Dunne: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; you are very generous. I thank the Minister for his answer. Has he looked at using alternative transport providers? As he said, it is important that children are transported in a safe and hygienic environment.
Mr Weir: Yes, all of that will be considered. The only restriction on alternative providers is that the volume in the market will be such that that would add a level of easement to the situation. In and of itself, that is not a solution because I do not think that the volume that would be available could meet the anticipated need.
There is also a wider issue that the Executive need to consider. If we end up in a situation where, in transport in general, but for children in particular, there is a restriction on how many people can be on a bus, that will have major implications not just for schools but for the wider economy as well. That is why there needs to be an Executive-wide solution. If I may speak for my colleagues, the Executive are very cognisant of that and they are working hard to find a solution.
Mr O'Dowd: I am sure that the Minister is conscious of Mr Buckley's advice on Mr Williamson's social distancing for schools in England. It would appear from Tory media reports that Mr Williamson will be facing social distancing from the Cabinet by the autumn, so I would caution him about taking that advice on board.
I want to ask about children with profound special educational needs and summer schemes and activities for those pupils. Will the Minister outline what consultation there has been with parents and pupils in that sector?
Mr Weir: The Department of Health, the Education Authority and my Department have been working closely on that to scope out what can be done. It is also about what can be done by youth workers.
While there has been reference, for example, to what is happening in the Republic, some of that has been a little bit over-spun. I want to see the maximum amount of summer scheme support that can be made available.
I do not know whether the Member, when talking about social distancing in the Cabinet, was offering to swap jobs or whether he feels that he is well enough out of it.
We will look at the advice coming from not only England but from other jurisdictions. One advantage of us not being in a position to implement everything is to learn lessons from outside. For example, bubbling has been used extensively in a number of European countries. I am not going to become a Europhile all of a sudden, but we can all learn lessons from different parts of the world. It is about having the maximum amount of knowledge and being able to apply it. Sometimes, things are done elsewhere that are not applicable to Northern Ireland. We have our own unique circumstances as well.
Mr O'Dowd: I can assure the Minister that I do not envy any of the Ministers' roles at the moment, and I wish you all well.
Is the Minister be hopeful that there will be provision over the summer for children with special educational needs?
Mr Weir: There will be provision but not to the same extent as in previous years. It is the same with other Youth Service availability. There will be a level of restriction caused by coronavirus, but the Department of Health, the Public Health Agency and the Education Authority will be pulling together as well as coordinating with schools on what provision can be made available.
Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister. I pay tribute to the Education Authority youth workers, especially in my Lagan Valley constituency, who adapted quickly to provide services and support to children online. There has been some fantastic engagement in these difficult times, and those workers deserve our thanks.
I am concerned about the Minister's comments on the impact on transport services, particularly for children with disabilities. I have asked the Minister to keep a close eye on that and make sure that it impacts as little as possible.
I thank the Minister for his clarification on social-distancing protective bubbles. However, given the ad hoc way that the Executive have been making decisions on the relaxing of restrictions, what assurances can he give to teachers and principals that they will not have to work through the summer to put those arrangements in place only for the Executive to change their mind come September?
Mr Weir: There needs to be a level of preparation. I am judging that the member may be adopting a one-metre rule in his distance from People Before Profit. It does not seem to be sufficiently distant.
We have to prepare for all eventualities. I take on board the point that was made. If we reach a situation in which we can make a gear change —. Given that we are two months out from the start of term, we cannot do everything absolutely 100% at this stage. The vast bulk of the preparations that are being made will apply in all circumstances. For example, with regard to how to create a bubble situation in a primary school, one school that I was at talked about base classrooms where the teachers move around rather than the pupils. There will be arrangements on hygiene and on making sure that unnecessary interactions do not happen. Arrangements on school meals will be different from school to school. There will be arrangements on dropping off and collecting children, or how to discourage parents from being in reception. Until we reach a point at which COVID is completely behind us, those arrangements will be there, irrespective of whether we have one metre, two metres or a different form of social distancing, although it may mean that we reach a point at which some of the work gets overtaken by events.
Teachers, parents, pupils and everybody else will welcome a scenario in which we can move safely to a point at which we are able to resume something that is a lot closer to normal. If people, to some extent, then feel that some of their work was unnecessary, it will be in a benign manner that essentially says, "Actually, we are able to move forward for everybody's benefit". That would be welcomed by pretty much everybody.
Mr Chambers: Minister, I appreciate that you have been faced with many difficult challenges during the pandemic, as indeed have our dedicated professional —
Order, members. I have been given the task of having the Committee last approximately one hour. We regularly go over that and I allow some flexibility. In order to do so, I need your cooperation. I indicated at the start and have indicated a number of times that, if you have a long preamble, there will not be a supplementary question. I have called that on a number of members. There is a choice for members: if they have a long preamble, they will not get a supplementary question.
Mr Chambers: I will start again. Minister, I appreciate that you have been faced with many difficult challenges during the pandemic, as indeed have our dedicated professional educators. I acknowledge with gratitude the work that has gone into confronting those challenges.
Human nature will dictate that some children will have worked harder at home than others during the period of school closures. Some will have received more parental support than others. Indeed, the sad reality is that some children will have received no parental support during the closures. Will schools have systems in place to gauge exactly where each child is in relation to their educational needs on their return to the classroom? Will teachers have the time and opportunity to fill any gaps that they identify?
Mr Weir: The answer is threefold. First, schools will be in a good position to assess where their children are. We can make presumptions at this stage, but we will not know precisely until we see the lie of the land when children return in the autumn. The catch-up required will be reflected in the curriculum. It will be about returning to the basics of the curriculum. I mentioned specific interventions through Engage. Over the summer, we will also be looking at a number of smaller projects that are more limited in scope. Therefore, it will be a combination of those measures. Undoubtedly, different pupils will be at different stages and have received different levels of support. We have to do all that we can to help pupils to catch up.
Mr O'Toole: Minister, in your statement, you reiterate that there is a £12 million emergency package for the childcare sector. I believe that the Education Committee heard this week that only £700,000 of that has been disbursed. Is that right? Can you give an indication of why that is? Is it that the criteria were too tight?
Mr Weir: There is still some money being processed as part of that. We will not know the final figure until a little bit later. I indicated a range of factors. A range of the childcare settings have been receiving financial support from other sources. In some of those cases, this package is either not needed or the other sources are seen as less cumbersome routes. The methodology that was used probably did put off some people. However, principally, there is a need for greater alignment of the supply and demand. It may be too restricted in respect of key workers, for example. There was a problem, particularly at the start, in that the Department of Health's definition of a key worker was much narrower than that of the rest of the Executive. That limited the number of parents who could avail themselves of the service. Consequently, even with financial support, the number of childcare settings in which it made financial sense to open on a very limited basis was limited. It is also that there would not be a form of double payment for closed settings and, therefore, some settings found other schemes that were more lucrative or provided that support.
It is about adapting the system and making sure that, in our recovery, we widen the system to try to have that alignment between what parents need and what the economy needs and between supply and demand.
"only 46% of closed settings applied."
If just £700,000 has been disbursed, that is a little more than 5% of the overall number. What will happen with the rest of that money, particularly given that the childcare sector is in crisis? Will it just be sucked back into the centre?
Mr Weir: Strictly speaking, any money that is unspent has to be directly surrendered to the centre, but an additional bid has been made to carry things on beyond June. I suspect that, although this is beyond simply my control, there will be some recycling of that money to make sure that it is available. We need to make sure that resources are available to meet the demand that is out there.
Mention has been made of the closed settings, for instance. The closed settings, because they were closed, got a level of support, albeit that it was at a lower percentage than was hoped for. The message that has certainly come back to me via others is that, in some cases, that has effectively enabled childcare settings to keep their head above water and to be in a position to resume when we see more of an opening up in that sector. While the level of money that has been spent is disappointing, in many cases, it has made a significant difference to the provision and will leave the childcare settings in a better position to resume as things open up and as the economy opens up.
Miss Rachel Woods: I will get straight to my question, as I would like to ask a supplementary. I will pick up on Mr McNulty's question. Is the Minister confident that the Executive will sign off on the continuation of free school meal payments before next week — 30 June — and has a decision been made about that?
Mr Weir: The Executive are meeting at the moment. Given Executive confidentiality, I am not in a position to discuss precisely what is being said, but I will say that there is all-party consensus on the issue both outside and inside the Executive. I think that there is a strong will to do this. From the point of view of the timing, it is likely that there would be a phased payment of two instalments throughout the summer. The fact that money would not necessarily be in bank accounts on 1 July is not the key determinant; it is covering the nine-week period. I think that, in England, they are looking at a shorter, six-week period to be covered. The proposals that I put forward to the Executive covered the entirety of the summer through July and August. I believe that that will mean that the necessary support will be there. I am confident that the Executive will agree that position.
Miss Woods: Can clarification be given that the finances from the Department of Education that have already given for the summer preparation for youth services and the summer delivery of projects are not frozen for this year and can be spent?
Mr Weir: Whatever is needed to be spent will be spent. If, because of necessity, certain things have to be done on a somewhat restricted basis, that may not mean that everything will need to be spent on those things. There are plenty of pressures in the system through which we can try to provide that level of support. There is no unwillingness on our part to do the maximum that is doable during the summer, but, if, because of COVID, interventions are more limited, you will not necessarily spend the same amount. For instance, everybody who is a youth worker continues to be employed and to be fully funded. The COVID crisis across the piece means that, in some cases, there will be much greater financial pressures, but, even for schools, there will be areas where there will be less direct pressure on finances.
Mr Carroll: As regards the return to school, a sector that is often overlooked, undersupported and underfunded is children with special educational needs. The Children's Commissioner has said that there are systemic failures, and we have heard of hundreds of people not getting placements for September. What guarantees can the Minister give us that those young people will not be left behind, as they were in so-called normal times?
Mr Weir: As regards the placements, I have indicated that we are working with the EA to make sure that they are fully in place. The aim will be to ensure that there is resumption across the piece, including special schools.
Obviously, the vast majority of children with statements are not in special schools; they are in mainstream schools. For all those children, the aim is to ensure that those happen at the same time.
The member also makes a point about a concern that people will be left behind. That is why, in addition to the guidance for schools in general, we have a bespoke strand on special educational needs and vulnerable children in the restart and why there will be additional advice given specifically for that area. It is important that the circumstances of every child are taken into account as we move forward to the new term.
Mr Carroll: Thank you, Chair. Given the news that various Irish language playgroups and naíscoileanna have lost out on Pathway funding despite meeting the criteria, what assurances can the Minister give to my constituents and their family members who use those organisations that they will not have opportunities withdrawn as a result of that decision? Will he explain the rationale for it?
Mr Weir: The rationale for the decision, and we have a former Minister here who will be able to bear this out, is that the Pathway Fund effectively replaced previous funding of playgroups. To be fair, there was a reasonable level of criticism of the previous methodology that, effectively, funding was pretty much ring-fenced for the groups that got it year-on-year for about 10 years roughly. It meant that anybody who did not get that funding did not have the opportunity to get it. A different system was introduced in the Department of Education roughly five or six years ago, whereby a block of Pathway funding of about £3 million is made available on a rolling one-year basis and, each year, any group may apply. Where there is more demand than funding available, which, I think, has been the case each year, criteria are used to rank organisations. The criteria have not been altered since Pathway was introduced in, I think, 2014-15. One of the products of that will be that, each year, there will be some groups that received funding the previous year who are not ranked high enough and will drop out of the system and other new groups will come in. There will be a situation where groups will go in and out. That is done entirely by officials; there is no ministerial involvement in that. I know that some groups, from different constituencies, will have missed out this year, and some will have had a degree of funding. It is not sector-specific. It is applying the criteria, and the criteria have been exactly the same for the last five years.
Please take your seat. Some 20 members have placed questions and covered a wide range of areas.
Mr Lyttle, you wish to speak.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Education Minister said that I was wrong to say that he had suspended the independent review of education and that I should check my facts. A letter I received on 18 May from the Minister states:
"I have temporarily suspended work on the independent review of education".
It is appropriate that that is read into the record.
Mr Humphrey: Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of clarification in relation these COVID-19 Committee meetings, is it the case that members are not required to be here for the entire statement that a Minister makes? There is a courtesy issue about members being here and taking the time to come here, as they should, to hear statements. We have had members today who have not been here, who did not hear the statement and who came in, asked a question and left before proceedings concluded. Is that appropriate?
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): This is a Committee. There are no Standing Orders over the running of the Committee, and, of course, we operate under COVID rules, where there is a necessity, on occasion, for some parties to alternate their members in order that the others can ask questions. That does happen, but I am not aware of any rules. Perhaps you should take that up with the Business Committee or the Speaker, but I am not aware of any requirement [Interruption.]
Order. Listen, folks: there are no points of order. This is not the Assembly [Laughter.]
Please take your seats. I have been generous in taking a few questions. Mr Humphrey: very briefly.
Mr Humphrey: I asked whether it was appropriate; I did not ask for a ruling on it. I do not think that that is appropriate, no matter who the Minister is.
The other point that I would make is that I did not walk out because you did not call me to ask a supplementary question. However, although some members who were waiting to ask a question or to be called to ask a supplementary question did not get their chance, other members who were not present to hear the statement were given the opportunity to ask a question followed by a supplementary question. I do not think that that is fair.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): I understand the member's concern. I have endeavoured to follow the guidance given to me. Ideally, members should start with a single sentence and then ask a question. I stretched a little to try to allow everybody to ask a supplementary question, but I have to make a judgement at some point. I have done my best. I hope that I have been fair to all sides, although I am sure that some members will be feeling sore. We have had the Minister here for over an hour for questions, and members have had an opportunity to question him.
Mr Weir: Can I check whether I have permission to walk out? [Laughter.]
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Beggs): Item 3, members will be glad to know, is the date, time and venue of our next meeting. We have yet to receive confirmation from the Executive of any further meetings of the Committee. As soon as details are provided to the Speaker's Office, members will be notified.
I remind members that the next meeting of the Assembly is on Tuesday 30 June. I also remind members that Ministers may make additional oral statements. Relatively short notice has to be given, so do not assume that whatever is on the Order Paper represents all the business. Members have to watch their emails and messages. That concludes the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee.