Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Thursday, 18 March 2021

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Alex Maskey (Chairperson)
Mr Maurice Bradley
Ms Paula Bradley
Miss Nicola Brogan
Mr Jonathan Buckley
Mr Robbie Butler
Mr Gerry Carroll
Mr Pat Catney
Mr Stewart Dickson
Miss Jemma Dolan
Mr Paul Frew
Mr Harry Harvey
Mr Chris Lyttle
Mr Daniel McCrossan
Mr Justin McNulty
Mr Andrew Muir
Mr Robin Newton
Mr John O'Dowd
Mr Matthew O'Toole
Mr Pat Sheehan
Mr Christopher Stalford


Mr Weir, Minister of Education

Ministerial Statement: Education

The Chairperson (Mr Maskey): I welcome members to the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response.

I welcome the Minister of Education to the meeting. I invite him to make his statement, which should be heard by members without interruption. Following the statement, there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I start by commending our school leaders, teachers, school staff and parents for their ongoing commitment to the education of our children and young people in these challenging circumstances. While schools, parents and carers have worked together to support remote learning, most will agree that our pupils are best served through face-to-face school-based learning. That is not only about their education but about the mental health, social development and well-being of children throughout Northern Ireland. That is why the decision of the Executive on Tuesday is so significant. We have collectively stated that reopening schools for all pupils is an Executive priority as we strive to protect the education, health and well-being of our young people. Our decisions to date have seen preschool and primary 1 to primary 3 pupils return to school on 8 March, and years 12 to 14 are due to return to classrooms from 22 March. Last week, we agreed that the preschool and P1 to P3 classes will not revert to remote learning when years 12 to 14 return and that they will stay in school until Easter.

We have now taken another important step with the Executive’s decision to accelerate safely the pace of face-to-face learning and that all remaining pupils in P4 to P7 will return to school from Monday 22 March. That means that those pupils will have the welcome opportunity to reconnect in person with their schools, teachers and peers before the Easter break. Furthermore, subject to a final review of the prevailing public health conditions at the end of this month, the Executive have agreed that the remaining group of pupils in years 8 to 11 will return to school following the Easter break.

Those decisions mean that, after Easter, all pupils should be back in school for full-time face-to-face teaching, taking us to phase 3 for schools in the Executive’s pathway out of restrictions. That is a significant milestone in the return to a normalised educational environment. I am confident that, with the public’s support, we are now moving beyond the last widespread interruption to classroom learning and that, with additional mitigations, schools will remain fully open until the summer term and in future academic years, bringing all the benefits of school-based learning, social interaction and shared experience.

I recognise that there may be bumps in the road and the need for some localised responses to outbreaks, but our measured approach has created the best conditions for a sustainable return to the classroom for all pupils.

This is not an immediate return to business as usual or even to a pre-pandemic school environment. Although school meals will be offered to all children in attendance at school, whether they are in receipt of free school meals or are paying pupils, some areas of provision will remain paused in the short term until advised otherwise, including, for example, school-managed breakfast clubs, education visits, inter-school sports and after-school activities. My Department will liaise with the Department of Health to clarify the position before schools return after Easter.

Furthermore, Youth Service provision and targeted early years programmes such as Sure Start have not yet been permitted to reopen. I wish to pay tribute to both sectors for the innovative ways in which they have provided targeted support for vulnerable children and young people throughout the pandemic, but I appreciate the limitations and frustrations of continuing to operate in that way. The Executive’s pathway out of restrictions document states that, by the end of phase 2, there will be a partial reopening of generic youth services and a resumption of Sure Start. I will continue to make the case for that to happen as soon as possible.

I have continued to work closely with Minister Swann throughout the pandemic to ensure that my Department provides the most up-to-date guidance and support to schools, taking account of all available public health advice. Schools are safe places, and there will be additional measures to help schools to stay safe. The latest version of my Department’s guidance, which was issued on 5 March, includes additional requirements for face coverings in post-primary schools and on school transport. Schools have been supplied with additional signage to reinforce the key public health messages for parents and visitors, and the Education Authority (EA) will arrange a programme of compliance checks on school buses to ensure that the guidance is being followed.

A further mitigation available as part of the schools return is the regular testing of people who do not have COVID symptoms. The purpose is to find individuals who are unaware that they are infected so that they can be advised to isolate, thereby reducing the risk of their unwittingly spreading infection in school and elsewhere. This approach makes use of a type of self-test lateral flow device (LFD), which provides a result within 30 minutes. On Monday, Minister Swann and I made a joint announcement setting out our plans, and I have written to schools to provide more detail. Following a successful pilot, regular asymptomatic testing of staff and pupils in special schools using an alternative method also commenced this week.

The roll-out of asymptomatic testing in schools has three phases. In phase 1, from 22 March, all staff in post-primary schools and all pupils in years 12 to 14 will be invited to commence familiarisation to enable twice-weekly self-testing using LFDs. That will cover the period up to the Easter break, and it will allow staff and students who participate to self-test before attending school after Easter, providing further reassurance to staff and students who are returning after the holiday. Identifying infectious individuals early could ultimately reduce the risk of large groups of exam year classes having to isolate during that important period. We have chosen to begin with that group as years 12 to 14 are those with the highest prevalence of infection, and that is where testing will bring most benefit.

A range of information and resources for schools, students and parents will be provided to show staff and pupils how to correctly conduct a self-test. Engagement has also taken place this week with a representative group of school leaders, teachers and support staff trade union representatives. In phases 2 and 3, commencing after the Easter break, the programme will expand to include all staff in primary schools and then nursery, preschool and, at least initially, preschool education providers who are participating in the preschool education programme. Precise details of that later phasing are being established and will be clarified further prior to launch.

No test is completely accurate, but studies indicate that LFDs have a very high degree of effectiveness in detecting those who are infectious. If a pupil or member of staff has a positive result from the LFD test, they and their household must isolate immediately. In-school contacts are not required to isolate at that stage. The individual must then take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is available in local testing centres. If the PCR test is negative, the individual and their household can stop isolating, and the individual can return to school.

If it is positive, the COVID infection is confirmed. The person will continue to isolate, and community contact tracing, including in the school, will be carried out, as with any confirmed positive PCR test. The confirmatory PCR test is an important part of the pathway and reduces the risk of people isolating unnecessarily because of false positive results. It will ensure that we do not unnecessarily ask year 12 to 14 pupils to isolate during the key phase in their return to school and their preparation for assessments.

I understand that post-primary schools, when they return next week for their years 12 to 14, will be busy welcoming back their pupils and preparing for the assessment process. However, I encourage them to participate in the asymptomatic testing programme, as it is another tool to help to keep our schools safe and to minimise any disruption in the coming period.

I recognise that the decision on Tuesday has provided less time for schools to prepare for the return of P4 to P7 pupils than I would have preferred. I had previously said that I would like to give at least 10 days' notice for further changes. While that will apply for the return of post-primary pupils in years 8 to 11 after Easter, it has not been possible to do so for P4 to P7 pupils. I had originally intended that this decision would be taken last week, but the Executive decision-making on the restrictions meant that the P4 to P7 decision was considered as part of the scheduled wider Executive review of the COVID restrictions that took place on Tuesday, as set out in the Northern Ireland pathway out of restrictions process. While I accept that this is not ideal, I strongly believe that we should not delay the return to school for those pupils for a day longer than is absolutely necessary. I know that teachers and all school staff will do their utmost to ensure that pupils can return safely next week. I also look forward to going out to schools, as I regularly do, to see the great work that goes on there daily.

Schools are at the centre of our communities, and their full reopening is an important step on the gradual pathway out of the current restrictions. Our schools and education other than at school or EOTAS centres have provided a vital service to their pupils and wider communities in recent months through the delivery of remote and supervised learning for vulnerable and key-worker children. That meant that we could look after those who need school most and enable key workers to continue with their jobs.

I must also pay tribute to our special schools, which have remained open throughout this period, providing vital education and care to those children who are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. It is for that reason that the Executive agreed a vaccination programme for special school staff who are supporting children who are extremely clinically vulnerable. Those staff are now receiving their vaccinations. Equally, the work done in our EOTAS centres should be commended, along with the work that the Youth Service has continued to do, often remotely, over the past months.

It has been a very challenging period for all, and, given the significant disruption to our children's learning and mental health, our focus must now be on educational and well-being support, which will be critical to their prospects. With the backing of the Executive, I intend to invest in the necessary resources to help pupils address any disruption to their learning that they may have faced since the start of the pandemic. I will be bringing a paper to the Executive shortly seeking support for a wide range of summer schools and a further Engage programme.

The Chairperson (Mr Maskey): I thank the Minister for making his statement. I will now allow members to ask questions for a period of around one hour. It is my intention to allow all members who wish to ask a question to do so. There will also be an opportunity for supplementary questions. However, I remind members that that depends on members asking focused and succinct questions. The Chairperson of the Committee for Education will be allowed more latitude than other members in asking his questions.

Mr Lyttle (Committee Chair - Committee for Education): I, too, commend our education sector for the courageous and dedicated leadership that it has shown throughout the pandemic and the resilience shown by families across Northern Ireland. We welcome the news of the school return with open arms. However, in addition to when school will return, how it returns is of great importance.

Pupils and schools were initially told that there would be exams this year. Schools were advised, therefore, not to over assess. Of course, however, exams have since been cancelled, although recent guidance has told schools that assessment conducted in controlled conditions will have a higher value as evidence in centre-determined grades. As a result of that, I am receiving reports from distressed pupils advising that schools that took that initial guidance are now scheduling multiple controlled assessments, some of which has been referred to as an "assessment blitz".

This is happening at a time when advice is that school return should focus on emotional regulation, not testing. I therefore ask the Minister how such a situation has been allowed to transpire and what he will do to ensure that mental health, as well as assessment, is protected.

Mr Weir: I thank the Chair for his questions. It is the case that, with the cancellation of exams, the only other process available is some form of assessment. A tool has been made available as an assessment resource. It has also been made clear by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), in guidance given to schools, that assessment should not be overly used. Earlier this week, the chief executive of CCEA and I did a question and answer session that will go out on social media in addition to the guidance. Some schools may seek to over-assess. There is talk that some schools have tried to schedule 40 assessments, for instance, and that is way over the top. Schools should not be assessing to that extent. It is about keeping things proportionate. Even using the assessment tool that is being put in place for schools is voluntary. It is not compulsory. Rather, it provides schools with another opportunity for assessment.

We are moving from an exam situation to one of robust and evidence-based assessment that will be accepted, for instance, by universities and future employers. There is no easy way in which to make it a light-touch regime, in which no level of assessment takes place. A balance must therefore be struck. There will be some schools that will over-interpret the guidance. We want to make it clear that there should be a limited amount of assessment done by schools to produce the evidence needed for it.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his response, which we will explore in more detail at the Education Committee. What, if any, contingency planning is occurring for post-primary transfer next year in order to avoid the distress to pupils that this year's chaotic process caused them?

Mr Weir: That question lies a little bit outside of the remit of the statement to the Ad Hoc Committee. I am happy to answer, however. As indicated, it is the case that we are working with others to see whether any pathways can be suggested to make things easier. Along with others, I support the idea that, if possible, the tests should take place in primary schools. I am happy to talk to stakeholders about that. There has been considerable effort put into that. The criteria set by schools, and whether they use academic selection as a format, are legally a matter for those schools. It is not something that the Department is in a position to impose on them.

In Tuesday's Adjournment debate on the broader issue of post-primary provision in South Belfast, naturally enough, every Member who spoke eventually touched on the issue of post-primary transfer. There is a concern that, without any form of academic selection, schools will fall back on other criteria, which people will view as also being unfair. Schools may take into account whether siblings are enrolled at the school. We want to reach a situation in which everybody at least has a chance of getting into those schools. It is also the case that, across the board, and not just for the years involved in transfer, I want to see the Executive back the Engage programme, which will lead to a level of academic recovery. That is something that goes well beyond P6 and P7, affecting all the years.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for his statement. I join him in paying tribute to all those involved in the education of our children throughout the pandemic.

I noted the very positive media reports last night, following the announcement of the return to school of years 4 to 7. There was joy on the faces of the pupils. I do not understand it, because I was not that keen to go to school. Those young people, however, want to go back to school for all the right reasons. I also noted the support that was offered by parents as their children return to school.

I want to pay tribute to a principal in my constituency who has been unique in the way in which she welcomed back pupils in P1 to P3 by providing them with an ice cream when they arrived. Her intention now is to provide the whole school with ice cream when they return on Monday.

The Engage programme has been very successful. Indeed, I hope that it will be rolled out into the next academic year. Minister, will you apply for support from your Executive colleagues? Do you anticipate that you will, indeed, have the support of the Finance Minister as the new academic year comes around and Engage can be rolled out for those pupils?

Mr Weir: I welcome any such initiatives. I know of another school that will get an ice cream van on Monday. It means that, across the system, in every sense, "hundreds and thousands" will be welcomed in a number of schools. [Laughter.]

It is always useful when you get groans from your own side.

In all seriousness, there is joy at young people returning to school. I have mentioned this anecdote before: last year, one of my officials overheard a conversation involving a parent with two young children, one of whom was behaving angelically and the other less so. Eventually, the parent lost patience with the disruptive child and said, "If you do not behave yourself, I will not allow you to go back to school". Therefore, there has been an important change, which, joking aside, leads to a very serious point.

I will look, first of all, for the initial funding for the Engage programme, because it is related to the financial year, to be rolled on to the end of March. Therefore, I will look, first of all, for funding to take place for the rest of the school year. As part of that, I will also look for investment for mental health and for an Engage programme that can run from September onwards. At present, the position is — it may also be a moveable feast — that the final draft of the Budget for next year has not, as yet, been agreed by the Executive. Similarly, as part of that, there is a slightly moveable feast as regards the level of COVID funding that would be there. I will seek that support, because it is vital. I do not think that we will ever completely close the gap from what has happened. If we can, at least, narrow the gap between the disruption that has taken place and reaching what would have been normality, that would be good work that could be done across the system.

Mr Newton: Thank you, Minister. Do we know what the gap in learning is for pupils in both primary and secondary education?

Mr Weir: I think that some academic studies have been done. At this stage, the information is slightly tentative. I want to pay tribute, in particular, for the hard work that has been done, especially during this lockdown. With the first lockdown taking everybody by surprise, there was a slightly rough-and-ready quality to it. A lot of good work has been done by way of remote learning. It is difficult to quantify that, but we know that damage has been done to education because it simply cannot be the same as you would have through face-to-face teaching. It is also firmly established that that will be felt most acutely where there is deprivation and where the support in certain families is, perhaps, not as strong as elsewhere. Quantifying that will be difficult. As with mental health, it is not something for which there could be an almost two-dimensional point taken on one particular day; there will be reverberation for some time to come.

The Chairperson (Mr Maskey): Before I call the next member, I remind members that, as I said at the outset, I am determined to try to give every member who wants to ask a question the opportunity to do that. However, only two members have asked questions, and there is already no chance of my delivering that. I do not want to rain on anybody's parade, but I would cut the anecdotes, good nature and all that out and go straight to questions. I call Pat Sheehan.

Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis inniu. I thank the Minister for his statement today. Will he join me in congratulating St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar School in my constituency, West Belfast, for the decisive action that it took during the week to abandon the use of transfer tests for autumn 2021 on the basis of the unprecedented mental and emotional stresses that children and young people are facing as a result of the pandemic?

Mr Weir: I thank the member. In the interests of the Chairperson's ruling, I will not give any anecdotes. There is a wide range of views throughout the Committee on academic selection. I take a different view, but, ultimately, it is up to each school to choose its admissions criteria. While I am not necessarily on the same page as St. Mary's, I respect its decision.

Mr Sheehan: I will take that as a no, Minister. The adverse impact of the pandemic on the mental health of our young children has been flagged up repeatedly. Indeed, you advanced mental health as a reason for getting children back to school. Leaving aside for a moment your ideological commitment to academic selection, do you really think that it is fair to expect 10-year-olds to participate in high-pressure, high-stakes exams in the context of all the disruption that they have experienced during the last year? Will you now act decisively and avoid making the mistakes of this year by telling schools to abandon transfer tests for the coming year?

Mr Weir: The short answer is no. Schools have a legal right to use academic selection, and I believe that it acts as an enabler for many children.

The member talked about the stress that exists. In almost any direction that we go on some of those issues, there will be a level of stress. Stress is also there for families and, indeed, children who will be told, "Because of an accident of birth, you will have no opportunity whatsoever to attend a particular school". We have to look at that as well.

I suspect that, if we had more time, it would not be a matter that the member and I or, indeed, many other members would necessarily reach a common position on.

Mr McNulty: Minister, I pay tribute to our teachers, principals, staff and school leaders, especially those in our special schools, who have been back at the coalface for so much longer. I also pay tribute to our EOTAS and Sure Start teams for how they have adapted throughout the pandemic. The way that they all have maintained their composure and led our children has been extraordinary, and they have dealt with the challenges that we have faced in an extraordinarily assured manner.

A widening educational gap will be very evident as an outcome of the pandemic, and some kids will fall further behind. What additional resources will you contribute in order to help those kids to catch up? You talked about using the Engage programme, but how will you help them to catch up physically, mentally, emotionally and socially? What focus will be put on the kids that have been left further behind in order to help them to catch up through peripatetic and other support?

Mr Weir: I thank the member. I will be putting that in the paper to the Executive. I indicated that there will be a number of elements to that, but, ultimately, it will be dependent on the Executive signing that off as an overall package. It will involve the roll-out of the Engage programme for the next academic term and the rest of this academic year; a programme of academic and non-academic activities in the summer; a widened Engage programme for the next academic year; and direct COVID money for mental health. There is a level of interaction between those, and all will depend on receiving support and finance from the Executive. Ultimately, I can put in only whatever resources are made directly available to me, which will, basically, come through COVID funding.

On a broader level, there has also been a recognition of the need for mental health support beyond simply the COVID situation. That is why, a number of weeks ago, the Health Minister and I jointly launched an emotional health and well-being framework, with committed and resources that will be baselined. As with all things, if more money was available, all of us could do more, but it is important that we get the maximum amount of investment into our schools, particularly for that catch-up work during that period.

Mr McNulty: Thank you, Minister. I am really worried about the physical impact of the pandemic on kids. In your response, I did not hear any reference to sports.

What are the kids going to do? Will they all be piled back into classrooms from Monday onwards or from Easter onwards? They need to have a bit of fun in their lives. They need a bit of physical activity. What is the guidance on returning to the sports pitch to get children out into the open and let them have fun?

Mr Weir: That is part of the wider Executive decision. The first step toward the wider resumption is that physical education will be available. When schools have been open, PE has been available.

The position on sports in schools is largely aligned with other aspects of sport. As with sporting clubs, the next step will be for permission to be given for training rather than for direct competition in amateur sports. In many ways, they will tie in directly. Movement on school sports should certainly not happen any later than movement on sports in general.

I accept what the member said about the great benefits of sport. There may have been a false assumption, because the reference to opening up sports generally is at phase 2 of the sports pathway, and it is mentioned at phase 4 of the education pathway. Immediately after Easter, we will have reached phase 3. It is important that we move ahead as quickly as possible. I think that the member will entirely agree about providing holistic solutions for young people. It is not just about academia or mental health, as important as those are; it is also about the physical side of things.

Mr Butler: Thank you, Minister, for attending today. I know that many parents out there are very grateful that children will be returning to school. They have probably learned to appreciate teachers much more than they ever did previously. We can all see that.

The statement referred to years 13 and 14 in particular. It points to years 11 and 12 and mentions "preparing for the assessment process". As the Education Committee Chair pointed out, students were told that examinations were cancelled. Unfortunately, it looks as if examinations are not cancelled in some cases, and a lot of students are very worried. The CCEA sent out updated guidance this week, and that has helped to alleviate some of the stress.

Can the Minister please clarify something for me? The word "optionality" has been used twice in the past few months. The first reference was about the option of taking different papers, but it has latterly referred to the option of whether or not students take an exam or an assessment. Can you inform students today on how much say they will have in deciding whether an assessment is the best way for them to be awarded their examination results this year?

Mr Weir: Broadly speaking, schools have been deciding for themselves. If a school is not providing an assessment tool, there is the option for an individual student to opt in to that.

It is important to get the balance right. If no exams are to take place, there will have to be levels of assessment. There is no easy way around that. There is no easy way to unscramble that egg. However, it is important that schools do not go over the top. That worry was highlighted in other jurisdictions when they moved away from examinations. That is why there is no easy pathway outside of examinations.

The CCEA has issued advice this week, and I am doing direct question and answer sessions. I did one such session with Justin Edwards this week. That can be provided to schools and the wider public, and it will also go out on social media. It is about trying to provide balance. We must also realise that results will have to be seen to be robust.

Mr Butler: Thank you for your answer, Minister. I welcome the fact that you are giving some comfort to schools that they may not have to lean too heavily on assessment.

If we look at the physical dangers that COVID will present when young people return to school, we see that one of the key fightbacks is ventilation. Some of our school estate is old. What assessment has been done and what has been given to schools to make sure that they can ventilate their classrooms? That could be to ensure that there is finance for heating so that windows can be kept open so that the ambience is regulated and is conducive to learning. Can you give schools comfort that a relaxation on school uniforms might be appropriate as children return to school?

Mr Weir: I want to see what flexibility can be put in place for that. Ventilation will be a matter for each school. If support is needed, we will try to give support.

Other than schools that were built in the last few years, it has become apparent that there is massive diversity in the school estate.

Quite often, if you were blindfolded going into a housing estate or housing development in Northern Ireland, you would not have a clue which town you were in. It seems to me that each school, certainly those built more than 10 years ago, is uniquely different.

The other issue, apart from ventilation, was —.

Mr Butler: School uniforms.

Mr Weir: Yes, school uniforms. That is a decision for a school's board of governors. I do not have any power over that, but I encourage schools to look at that in a flexible manner, even in the short term. There is a wider discussion, which has exercised me and my predecessors, about the requirement to have school uniforms and how some schools overdo their cost. As we look to the near future, however, there is merit in showing a level of flexibility and recognising the unique circumstances that schools are in. All of that can contribute to ensuring that there is a smooth flow when it comes to schools remaining in place.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his engagement on the issue. Many parents whom I have spoken to — every parent, in fact — are overjoyed to see their child returning to the classroom to see their friends and their teachers, as much for their own well-being as that of their children. I thank him on behalf of those parents for leading on that matter. It has been a lonely furrow for him at times, and his dedication and commitment to seeing those children go back to face-to-face teaching are commendable. Does he agree that the return to school is essential for the social and mental well-being of children, particularly as they have had such a prolonged period outside the classroom?

Mr Weir: Yes, I agree with the member. There is a lot of focus on the academic side of things, but we have to realise that, for example, children in P4 to P7, who return next week, will, although they were in school until the Christmas break, have been out of school and out of direct contact with many of their peers for a total of 13 weeks. Years 8 to 11 pupils — in different jurisdictions, they have been phased in as the last piece in the jigsaw — will have been out of school for 16 weeks. To some extent, it may be easier to put programmes in place to achieve a level of academic catch-up. The impact from a mental health point of view will be severe for many young people.

I have said that the two groups in society that have suffered the most from the restrictions on their lifestyle as a result of COVID are the very elderly, some of whom have been left very isolated and have a particular vulnerability to the virus, and the very young. The freedoms that many of us enjoyed as young people, such as the opportunity to interact with our peers, have been, by necessity, denied to them for a period, and I hope that we can gradually move away from that situation.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his response. I want to follow on from Mr McNulty's point. We all know that, after a prolonged period outside the classroom, returning to school will be difficult for pupils who have been reaching different levels of educational attainment throughout the period, and for teachers. Has he had any discussions with school leaders on how they can break children in gently after what has been a very difficult period?

Mr Weir: Discussions are ongoing with a range of stakeholders, including the unions. As part of that, the advice and guidance that we are giving, particularly the measured advice that was given about P1s to P3s, is that the initial period should be about a certain level of familiarisation and drawing out any problems. On Monday last week, I was at Springfield Primary School, where P3 pupils were doing an exercise called the "Worrysaurus", which involved their putting down their concerns and the things that gave them comfort, and that was very good. There will have to be a period of adjustment, particularly for our young people, and for their teachers and their parents. The sooner that pupils are able to get back, the sooner that they will be able to adjust and move on to the resumption of their academic career.

Ms Brogan: I thank the Minister for his statement. Will the Minister outline how the public health situation will be assessed so that more year groups can return to school in line with the new timetable?

Mr Weir: We are working closely with the Public Health Agency (PHA). It is important to recognise that part of this will be about monitoring the level of compliance. That will largely be done through working with schools. We do not want to create something that is overly burdensome for them.

In terms of public health, on movement, the provisional position is that everybody will be back after Easter. That will need to be reviewed at the end of the month to make sure that it is all going well. I expect that, unless something dramatically changes with the figures between now and then, everything will be fine. We can also draw on the experience in other jurisdictions. It is not just Northern Ireland that is going back; most of the other jurisdictions are in the process of making a full return. It is about monitoring all those things and working together closely.

The paper that led to the timing of these introductions followed discussions with Health, and Health was perfectly happy to endorse that as a way forward. Therefore, we were able to reach a consensus in the Executive on the paper on school return. It is not about anybody going on a solo run or pushing a particular agenda. Across the Executive as a whole, there has been a desire to show support for our young people and that they ought to be prioritised ahead of anything else. It is very good to see that it has not just been rhetoric but that it has been translated into activity.

Ms Brogan: I agree, Minister. We have said from the beginning that the best place for our children is back in school. We are all pleased about that.

Minister, you will be aware that school principals faced a huge burden towards the end of term last year when they were effectively asked to become track-and-tracers in their schools. What work has been undertaken by you and colleagues in the Health Department to enhance the level of support that the PHA will offer school principals?

Mr Weir: There are two issues on that. There is expanded capacity in the PHA to track and trace. Part of problem is that this is very difficult to overcome, and I appreciate that it creates a burden on schools. If, for instance, there is identification of an individual or a group of children and they then test positive, knowing who they have interacted with may not ultimately be able to be clearly worked out. Guidance can be given, but it is very difficult to identify individuals other than in a school. We feel that, while this may lead, in some cases, to false positives and a short initial period of some children being off, the lateral flow tests will, alongside test and trace, hopefully create a situation in which, on a precautionary basis, we get a much clearer position of who should be in and who should not be in. Those processes, as they roll out, should be of benefit.

We should also realise that, while transmission of the virus can clearly happen between adults and children and vice versa, the evidence is that the biggest issues have been transmission between children or between adults, which is why there will be concentration on staff members as we move ahead.

Mr Frew: Will the Minister agree that Sure Start and the Youth Service provide critical support for many people? Will he agree to continue to press the Health Minister and his Executive colleagues to allow those critical services to reopen as quickly as possible?

Mr Weir: That is certainly my intention. I put papers to the task force — they have not yet been considered by the Executive — on a generic youth restart and on Sure Start, and I will work with the Executive task force and the Minister of Health to try to ensure that those papers lead to actions. Both are very important. I am acutely aware that, because of the nature of Sure Start, which is particularly targeted at areas where there is a greater challenge on the socio-economic side of things, there is a particular importance for those families, and these are dealing with very young children. I hope to see progress on both. It is likely that Sure Start will be the quickest potential route, but the sooner that we can get back to all these facilities, the better, because they are of benefit to the children and the families involved.

Mr Frew: Given that, of late, there has been a dearth of information flowing from the Health Department down to the public about lifting restrictions, what evidence has the Health Minister or, for that matter, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) provided to your Department on the chances of opening up Sure Start and youth services and on the reasons and rationale for keeping them closed?

Mr Weir: The papers were submitted to the task force, but, as yet, they have not reached the Executive. From that perspective, I do not think that there has been anything overly definitive, other than perhaps the fact that some in the Department of Health have a concern about the number of steps that can be taken together and what can be opened up at any one stage. As for the detail of the data on those specific areas, from a health perspective, the Health Minister may be in a better position than I am to provide some of that information to the member.

Mr O'Dowd: As the parent of a son in rang a ceathair— P4 — I am delighted that children are going back. I have to say that I am not half as delighted as his mother, however, who has been his teacher for the past three months. [Laughter.]

I am not sure that his views about going back are the same, however.

Following on Mr Frew's questions on youth services, I can understand why Youth Service's buildings have been closed, but your Department issued a direction on 6 March that has had unintended consequences for early years providers, because, if youth centres are closed, they cannot access them, and many preschools and playgroups use them for their activities. Will the Minister therefore undertake to review the direction issued on 6 March and amend it to allow preschool and early years groups to use those buildings?

Mr Weir: I will certainly commit to doing that. There should not be any unintended consequences. It is the case that the sooner that we can get our youth centres open, the better, because they play a vital role. I can understand that those involved in youth work feel as though they have been neglected compared with those in schools, given the greater level of publicity surrounding schools. Youth centres play a critical role, however. We need to realise that, although reopening youth services will lead to greater contact and interaction among young people, that will happen in a controlled environment. A lot of the problems that we have had with the spread of the virus have arisen because a level of control has not been put in place when different groups have been mixing. We will work alongside the Department of Health to see what can be done, but I am happy to review the direction to make sure that there is not an unintended blockage for anyone who wants to make use of those facilities.

Mr O'Dowd: I welcome the Minister's commitment to reviewing the direction, and I await the outcome of the task force's report on youth services.

Does he agree with me that, if we want to keep our children and young adults in school, which is the best place for them, we, as adults, have to ensure that our behaviour does not allow for the continued or enhanced spread of the virus? Unfortunately, if the virus were to reach the peak that it did pre-Christmas, we would again be faced with a decision over whether to close our schools, and that would be an entire shame.

Mr Weir: I agree with the member. In their day-to-day life, adults have, to some extent, been able to work around the restrictions, have a level of resilience and, effectively, get on with their life in a different way. One of the tragedies of the events of the past year has been that, in many ways, our young people have paid the penalty for the actions of adults who have disregarded either good advice or the regulations. There is a role for all of us, either as adults or as parents. Parents have done lots of great work, but there is still work to be done. For instance, signage is being used around schools proactively to say, "Observe social distancing. Wear a mask whenever you are doing the pick-up", but there are still too many cases of people standing at the school gates talking to one other, which creates a level of risk. In my day-to-day life, I am still seeing too many people in supermarkets and garages not wearing a face covering and others, to various levels, disregarding either the health guidance or, indeed, the regulations.

For all of us, being responsible has a critical role in how quickly we can get back to normal life, not just in the education sector. If people behave responsibly, we can stop the spread of the virus very effectively. It is up to all of us to play our part in that.

Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Minister, for coming here today. The statement says that there may be bumps in the road and the need for some localised responses to outbreaks. Further to what Mr O'Dowd alluded to in his question about the closure of specific schools or sectors of schools, what contingency plans are in place in the Department to ensure that closures are managed properly and that their impact is, ideally, minimised?

Mr Weir: All schools have had direction, from September onwards, that they need to be ready at any stage for remote learning. If we look at where incidents have happened, on some occasions the action to close the school for a short time has been precautionary. In most cases, there has not been the need to close the school entirely. In the interests of contact tracing, there may have been a number of children in a class or a class bubble who have had to be at home for a time. Therefore, contingencies need to be in place.

However, there has been a bigger impact, and it has created a short-term disruption, when, for instance, there has been an outbreak of COVID amongst staff. That creates a short-term scenario because it takes a few days to find substitutes, so that can have an impact. Everyone will accept that, during the autumn, we had high levels of attendance, as did other jurisdictions. There will be individual cases where a class or a group of individuals have to go out. The lateral flow tests will, hopefully, keep this to a minimum and target those with positive test results. No one is pretending that, for every student, things will be perfectly smooth and that there will not be some interruption for some.

Mr O'Toole: With regard to the academic impact on students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, what work is going on in the Department to draw on what jurisdictions around the world are doing to measure that impact? We all know that this will have had a terrible impact on all students, but particularly on kids from poorer backgrounds. To address that, in the short and long term, we need a serious quantitative information base. What is the Department doing to study that and take action on it?

Mr Weir: Specific to Northern Ireland, the Education and Training Inspectorate is working to do baselines on that and produce it in more of a thematic approach. The idea is not to say to a school, "Your results are very poor. Shame on you." It is about trying to draw out, on a more thematic basis, what can be done. A lot of the experience that we will see will be drawn from Northern Ireland and other jurisdictions, and it is about pulling that information together. That is the focus of the Engage programme. While there may be slight adjustments to the template, some help was given to every school, but the resource was particularly focused on schools with above average free school meal entitlement.

I appreciate that it is not perfect, but it acts as a proxy to give a greater resource. It is also about delegating, where interventions were needed, to schools themselves. On the ground, principals and teachers could see who the resources needed to be most directed at. We gave them that flexibility, rather than trying to create some sort of imposed system from the top.

Mr Stalford: I thank the Minister for his announcement. I declare an interest as a governor of Braniel Primary School. At least one of my children has already benefited from the ice cream largesse that Robin Newton referred to. Speaking as a parent of a child in P6, P5, P3 and one who is due to start nursery school this year, I am delighted by the Minister's announcement.

Will the Minister advise whether the recovery plans that he is talking about in order to help kids catch up academically are not set in stone and that, throughout the period, the Department will be prepared to take advice and suggestions from leaders in the field, especially school principals, who have a particular insight?

Mr Weir: Yes, that is undoubtedly the case, which is why it is about making resources available for the Engage programme. However, the decisions on how resources are spent will be very much delegated down to the schools. If we get an overall package of money for academic catch-up and broader well-being, I would like to see us try to make sure that there is flexibility between the different strands, which is one of the lessons that we have learned.

In a particular school setting, there may be a desire to do that in a slightly different way. Sometimes schools can do very similar things but in ways that are bespoke to an individual school.

"It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it",

may be the case. That is important and can get results for an individual school. It is about giving that flexibility.

For mental health issues, there needs to be adaptability. For example, something about which we may say on day one, "Here is as the ideal model", will have to be adaptable, and the same applies to the emotional health and well-being framework. Some of those models will need a certain level of testing before we make any adjustments that we may need. The COVID mental health and well-being response has been based on giving schools support and a high level of flexibility in not just the support that it gives to children but in the support that it gives to teachers. We are acutely aware of teachers' mental health, which tends to be a slightly forgotten aspect of the situation. A level of flexibility can be given to schools in order to provide that.

Mr Stalford: Still on the theme of academic recovery, I know that, in the past, the EA funded schemes to allow for extended school opening over summer holiday periods. Does the Department have any intention of expanding such programmes in order that the summer period can be used? I am particularly thinking of P6 pupils, for whom the coming November will be extremely important.

Mr Weir: Again, we are looking at a package of measures across schools. Last summer, there was a certain amount of trialling. Last summer, there was maybe the false expectation that we had seen the worst of the pandemic and that everything was behind us, so maybe there was not the same level of need. A range of academically focused activities took place last summer. Again, as with all those things, we sought the voluntary support of schools. Outside of the special schools, which had a bespoke programme, roughly speaking about 50 mainstream schools took part. We have sought to expand some of those activities this summer across primary and post-primary schools.

Initial expressions of interest from schools have been much greater this year than last year, so I think that people realise the extent of the package. Again, if the funding is available, the aim is to have some flexibility. Some schools may want to do activities for a week, two weeks or three weeks, and there should be that flexibility. We want to be in a situation whereby recovery is available for our young people and they can take advantage of the opportunity voluntarily. We do not want to inflict another cruel summer on our young people. We want a situation where there are opportunities during the summer while looking forward to the next academic year.

Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his statement. While the emotional health and well-being framework that the Minister references is welcome, it was in development prior to the pandemic, and that has been a recurrent theme of this afternoon's discussion. Given the wealth of additional challenges and pressures that our children and schools now face, will the Minister elaborate on the COVID-specific interventions that he intends to make as our children return to the classroom?

Mr Weir: The member is entirely right, and that is why this is being done on two levels. The Executive approved the emotional health and well-being programme, and funding is now being provided for that. It is part of the overall mainstream Education budget, and the funding has been baselined. At the moment, that will be done on the basis that there will be a contribution from Health of an overall package of about £6·5 million for that framework, and that is additional to the current spend on things like the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). It is important that we have something that is both mainstreamed and baselined, which means that we can say with confidence that we will have funding in 2021-22 and beyond.

There are specific COVID challenges. As part of the overall academic bid for next year, there will be a specific bid for funding from the Executive for a COVID mental health and well-being response, which, again, will be made available through schools and, to some extent, through the Youth Service. That provides flexibility on the ground. A seven-year-old in rural Fermanagh, for example, may be in a different position from that of a 15-year-old in some part of Belfast. It will not necessarily be a one-size-fits-all approach. We believe that those on the ground in schools and the Youth Service are in the best position to know where that tailored intervention is required.

Ms Dolan: Thank you, Minister, for that answer. You will be aware of concerns from the Audit Office that educational recovery programmes established in England to help to recover lost learning have not reached the most disadvantaged children, which is where they are most needed. What steps are you taking to ensure that we do not face the same problems here and that those children who most require assistance are able to access it?

Mr Weir: On the structure of funding, it is accepted that damage has been done across the board. That is why all schools have received direct funding, at a relatively low level in some cases, from the Engage programme this year. Effectively, it operates on two levels. Those schools with a lower-than-average number of pupils entitled to free school meals have received one tranche of funding, which enables additional hours of staffing to be bought in. Off the top of my head, it may be pitched at a particular number of days, depending on the size of the school. A higher level of funding is available to schools where the number of pupils entitled to free school meals is above average.

I appreciate that, ideally, this curve would have been smoothed. We needed something non-bureaucratic that could be implemented quickly. We could not have had a thousand different levels of funding across the board, but there will always be complications when schools fall just on one side of the line or the other. I am aware of that. We hope that, in general, that will enable that level of support.

One problem faced this year was that, as funding was made available to schools from the Engage and mental health programmes, there was, in some cases, a cruel irony in the fact that COVID both created the problem and acted as a barrier to the solution. For example, it may have been that, during this term, a school had wanted an additional teacher for a small bespoke group of pupils for face-to-face teaching in one classroom. With remote learning, obviously, the school was not in a position for that to go on to the same extent. Moving ahead, I will certainly be bidding for money for those elements, and the two are intertwined.

Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his statement. As he will be aware, there were previous concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 in relation to travel to and from school. What actions has he taken to mitigate that risk, particularly with public transport?

Mr Weir: It is good to see the member on-screen, although he appears to be without his trademark bow tie today. Maybe that shows a casual level of work from home.

These things are sometimes difficult to enforce. However, there was a shift, aligned with public transport, part of which was to make face coverings compulsory on post-primary school transport. There has been concern about mixing because, even with a little flexibility, it is sometimes difficult to get the sheer volume of children on to buses. Measures were ready to run from January onwards, but they became slightly moot in the last couple of months because of remote learning.

The EA is working with Translink and the PHA to provide a number of COVID marshals. They will do spot checks at bus stations and on buses to encourage children of an appropriate age to wear face coverings. It is about trying to push good behaviour. As with all issues, when you move outside the direct confines of the school, which tends to be a very safe, controlled environment, into scenarios beyond the school gate, it becomes more difficult. However, working alongside our Health colleagues, we are trying to make whatever interventions we can to be able to move that forward.

Mr Muir: Active travel is one of the best ways for children and young people to travel to and from school. What more is the Minister planning to do to encourage people to use that form of transport?

Mr Weir: We have had discussions with the Infrastructure Minister to try to encourage cycling or walking to school. That has particular pertinence beyond children being transported on buses. Children going directly into school removes some of the issues around dropping them off and, in particular, picking them up at the school gate. There will be encouragement, and that will be particularly pertinent as we move into the spring term. For example, from a practical point of view, walking or cycling to school becomes a more realistic prospect in April, May and June than when staring into a cold, wet October or November morning.

Mr Catney: Your statement mentioned the reasons why the notice period that you set for schools was missed on this occasion. Like many others here, I was contacted by principals who were looking to the BBC website for information. Can you guarantee that the notice period will be adhered to in future?

Mr Weir: I will try to give the maximum guarantee that I can. The problem is two-fold. First, I cannot guarantee when any papers are taken by the Executive. I understand the reasons why there was a desire for the wider decisions on schools to be taken in the context of the Executive review on 16 March, but the initial paper on restarting schools was submitted first to Health and then, on Friday or Saturday fortnight ago, to the task force. It was circulated to Executive colleagues a week and a half ago, and, eventually, it made it to the Executive agenda for initial discussion on Thursday and for final decisions on the Tuesday. I do not have direct control over that. I would prefer those decisions to be taken earlier, but you then face the choice of putting off a return to give greater notice or trying to ensure that we get our children back as quickly as possible.

It is frustrating for all of us that we often see stuff for the Executive or the Assembly making its way on to media platforms. I am restricted in what I can do around any announcements and any direct communications until a decision is made public. I entirely understand the frustration amongst parents and particularly amongst teachers and staff who see information leaked in the media before it reaches them.

I will not point the finger at anybody in the House, but, back in December, a statement on examinations was due to be made to the House at noon or 1.00 pm. It was emailed to every Member at about 10.30 am. Within five minutes, and even though it was embargoed, it was in the media. I could not say anything about that. Unfortunately, we have all been in that position. We are all victims of that, and we live in an age in which people getting hold of a paper means that it can become news almost instantaneously. That is not helpful. It is difficult to get around a situation in which you have to make a public announcement but are required to have announced that to a large number of people beforehand.

Mr Catney: I have to agree with you, Minister.

I realise how difficult the job of all the Ministers is.

Schools are at the centre of our communities. I think of little St Colman's, in Lambeg, in my constituency, which stayed open for the children of key workers. Minister, you intend to go to the Executive to look at schemes that will help children, come the summertime. Will you expand on that, bearing in mind that a lot of the care of the children will relate to mental health?

Mr Weir: I appreciate that the member wants to beat the drum for Lambeg. [Laughter.]

There are a number of aspects to that. We ask what can be done directly in school, during term time, on the academic and the mental health sides of things. We should build on what was there last year. I want a range of summer schemes to be made available. I think that that will be a mixture. I hope that it can be a concoction. If a school is making itself available for some of its pupils and is getting funding for that, for one, two or three weeks, depending on what it is willing to volunteer for, it should be a mixture of academic catch-up and fun and summer activities. We have to make sure that we are not too harsh on our young people. It is about creating a mix. I will seek that as part of a package from the Executive. It is something that I am keen to prioritise as we move ahead, but it will require funding from the Executive.

Mr Dickson: Minister, on 1 February, you and the Health Minister jointly announced a vaccine programme for staff in special schools. Will you tell us how many of those staff have been vaccinated to date?

Mr Weir: Discussions with Health have been ongoing. As part of that, staff who have a particular relationship or connection with some clinically vulnerable children were included in that programme. The steps were that the children had to be identified and then the staff members who directly related to them. The number of staff who have been directly identified and are in the process of getting vaccinated is just under 700. They are now within the vaccine programme. The opportunity to book through that is left to each individual.

I do not think that there is centrally held data as to precisely who is at what stage. Off the top of my head, I think that it was made available to 686 members of staff. That is obviously in addition to what is happening elsewhere. As the member is aware, anyone who is within a particular age group that the vaccine programme has reached, and that includes some of the special school staff, is able to book a vaccination separately. Therefore, there will be staff outside that number as well.

Mr Dickson: Minister, you recognise the disappointment, and indeed the fear and concern, amongst many of those staff. Although you said that between 600 and 700 staff have been included in the programme, the reality is that very few, if any, of them have had their inoculations so far. They are working in extremely difficult circumstances. Identifying that group has caused further concern for the staff who have not been so identified but feel that they are in similar, close proximity to children with special needs.

Mr Weir: I entirely recognise that. That is why my proposal to the Executive was to have all special school staff vaccinated. However, the Executive, as a whole, took the view that they wanted consensus with the Department of Health. Health was reluctant to go down a route focused purely on specific job-related criteria. What we have is as far as we could get it with Health. The only thing that could get past the Executive was a position that had the agreement of the Department of Health. Therefore, it did not go as far or as fast as I would have liked it to, but at least we are seeing progress.

Mr Carroll: I pay tribute to all education workers. The Minister has shown contempt for them by, once again, making a decision without giving them any real notice or time to prepare. Some schools have had only up to two working days' notice to make alterations.

The Minister said that schools are safe places. I wonder how they are more safe now than they were in December. How confident is he that reopening schools on that scale, with such a high proportion of education workers not having been vaccinated, will not lead to infection rates rising?

Mr Weir: I welcome the thoughts of the member. They were as positive towards me as they usually are. I have indicated that schools are a very safe environment. That is not something that simply I have said. Broad analysis from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and other experts indicates that, within the school walls, there has tended to be a high level of control and safety. As has always been indicated, the issue with whether schools should be open is around some of the behavioural impacts. For example, if all primary-school children are at home, that, generally speaking, means that at least one parent has to be at home with them. That reduces the level of contact that that adult will have. It will mean that the number of journeys that take place will be reduced. Any interaction, such as on buses, will be reduced. That has always been part of the issue, and that has been highlighted consistently by the medical experts.

Although I want to see teachers being prioritised for vaccination, studies have shown that education staff, as a profession, are at no higher risk than any other staff, which is why the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has gone down the particular route that it has in that regard. It is important, however, that we give support to our young people and staff. Everything that has been brought forward, including the mitigations that have been put in place, has been supported at the Executive by the Department of Health. As I said, it is not a Department of Education solo run against medical advice. It is in line with medical advice. Everything carries a level of risk, but the Executive as a whole are very much of the view that we need to prioritise as much as possible our young people and their education. That is the right approach.

Mr Carroll: Thanks to the Minister for his answer, but he did not indicate how schools are more safe now than they were in December. If infections increase in schools when they reopen, will he act? What is the baseline for the number of new cases a day or a week at which he will possibly implement measures to close schools?

Mr Weir: I am constantly amazed by the member. Clearly, we will look at what the public health situation is. The Executive as a whole want to prioritise schools. If there are issues around infection rates, those are more likely to be pertinent to what other actions we can take and how fast we can move to open up other elements of the economy and wider society. My priority, and that of the Executive, is to support our young people, to keep them in school and to have face-to-face learning for their benefit. The rush that the member seems to be in to keep the proletariat ignorant strikes me as ill befitting, given the views of his party. The default position of trying to keep children out of school is not one that any of us should adopt.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The Chairperson (Mr Maskey): That concludes questions on the statement.

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