Schools: Reopening Arrangements

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 30th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 2:00 pm, 30th June 2020

1. Dr Aiken asked the Minister of Education how he plans to communicate with principals and boards of governors on the reopening of schools as lockdown restrictions are eased. (AQO 493/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

My Department has established the Education Restart programme, which, working with a range of stakeholders, will put in place the detailed measures and guidance that will enable a safe phased reopening of schools. I am well aware that my Department cannot deliver the Education Restart programme without the support and confidence of the education workforce. Over the last number of weeks, my Department has been working to develop the required detailed guidance to support principals and boards of governors to reopen schools in August and September. The guidance has been co-designed with a practitioners group that consists of principals from across all sectors. Their insight has been invaluable, and their willingness to work at such intensity, above and beyond their day job, should be commended.

Schools are provided with regular updates via email and text message, and I wrote to all schools in advance of the initial guidance being issued. My Department has directly advised schools when further supplementary guidance has been published and will continue to do so.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. I declare an interest as a member of a board of governors who spent three hours on a Zoom meeting last night trying to look at some of those issues.

The drip-feed of information on social media, which seems to have been put out merely to test the water, has been demoralising for many teachers and boards of governors and has created confusion. Will the Minister commit to the schools and parents of Northern Ireland that his Department will only give out guidance that is complete, coherent and gives some certainty and planning?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I take on board what the Member has said. Unfortunately, during the process, there were two or three occasions when documents were leaked. Sometimes, those documents were for discussion only, giving a range of options, but they were then portrayed on social media or in the wider media as, "Here is what is happening", when it was only one of the options on the table and, indeed, one that had not gone down. That has not been helpful. The leaking of that information by anybody — it came from a number of different sources — has been deeply unhelpful.

On the guidance, there is an attempt to balance, as much as possible, giving complete guidance and certainty, notwithstanding the fact that there is a slightly moveable situation with the overall position, with trying to make sure that the guidance is put in place as quickly as possible. It is about striking that balance. If we were to wait for every piece of guidance that will form part of the overall picture to be there at once, it would probably not be available until some point towards the end of the summer.

We have tried to phase in the main guidance on the new normal school day and any bespoke guidance on, for example, special schools, on remote learning, as soon as we can get it. On the one hand, the message is that people want complete guidance; on the other hand, they want maximum notice.