Schools: Reopening Arrangements

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent 2:15 pm, 30th June 2020

8. Ms Sugden asked the Minister of Education how his Department plans to support teaching and non-teaching staff to return to the classroom for the 2020-21 academic year. (AQO 500/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

My Department's key focus has been to support and secure, as far as possible, the continued learning of pupils at home and in school during the current pandemic and beyond. The major strategy for achieving that will continue to be the production and dissemination of high-quality support and guidance for schools, learners and parents.

My Department, in collaboration with the EA, CCMS and CCEA, has collated, developed and disseminated a wide range of resources that will support schools and teachers as they prepare for the new school year. Recent examples include operational guidance on moving to blended learning, feedback and assessment, transition and pupil engagement.

My Department has also produced system-level guidance for schools on supporting remote learning and guidance for schools on curriculum planning for 2020-21. The key message of the guidance is that the aim for 2020-21 is to support pupils to be motivated to learn and to become skilled and independent learners through a curriculum that gives equal emphasis to knowledge, understanding and skills.

Furthermore, I have directed CCEA to put arrangements in place to ensure that young people can progress to the next stage of their learning with confidence in the qualifications that they have attained. CCEA is also exploring how young people can best be supported in the upcoming year to realise their potential to achieve high-quality qualifications.

The COVID-19 situation continues to move rapidly. Further guidance will, therefore, be provided and updated as the context changes.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I thank the Minister for his answer. If the current advice remains in September that the distance between teachers and pupils must be two metres, or even if that were reduced to one metre, what challenges would that present for teaching assistants, in particular, who support children with special educational needs in the classroom? If we move towards a classroom bubble, again, how would that work for teaching assistants who may support children across various classrooms?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will make two points. First, with regard to movement and the extent to which a classroom could be hermetically sealed, particularly for adults, to the extent that there would be no movement, part of the aim of the bubble would be to try to minimise cross-contact, even, for instance, for those at the upper reaches of the school, where a bubble would not necessarily occur. Therefore, the challenge is not simply with the bubble but with minimising movements between classes and indeed, for example, trying to get particular children to be in the same seats as much as possible. <BR/>Secondly, we are following PHA guidance with regard to teaching assistants specifically. One significant element of that will be the issue of PPE. There is an acceptance that, in general, in most circumstances, teachers would not routinely require PPE, but that some PPE would be available. However, there are those who deal with children with particular special needs or vulnerabilities, or who provide more intimate care of a child. Those are the areas that have been highlighted in the guidance. Again, it will be on the basis of following the PHA guidance. There may well need to be additional protection. The health and safety of our children and the workforce in general will be paramount.

We also need to be careful that unnecessary levels of PPE are not used. If, for example, all our teachers were going about routinely in PPE, I suspect that, particularly for younger children, it would not only be unnecessary but it could be quite frightening. It will be about ensuring that what is there and the detail of the guidance that is given is consistent with the public health advice at the time.