I thank the Member for his question. Everyone will have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic uniquely. The short-term disruption has been felt by families and pupils across Northern Ireland. The longer-term impact is more difficult to estimate. Indeed, ultimately, that will be something that we can all make educated guesswork on, but, until we see the impact as pupils return in the autumn, it will be difficult to assess 100%.
Our school leaders and teachers have been working extremely hard over recent months to build, support and develop pupils’ learning. Whilst it is important not to underestimate the task facing schools, evidence indicates that missed learning content is not likely to be a long-term problem for most pupils, as long as they are given supportive tools to facilitate learning.
As pupils return to school for the new term, our schools will recognise the key importance of ensuring that pupils have good emotional health and well-being, are engaged and motivated to learn and have the tools and skills that they require for learning.
While many pupils will have coped well with engaging with remote learning activities, some pupils may return to school disengaged and require support to re-engage and move on with learning. I am confident that schools will identify and support those pupils who are most likely to experience difficulties in engaging with learning.
On the long-term impact, schools will be considering the ways that they can address the experiences of COVID-19 in the school environment. It is important to help pupils share and reflect on their experiences, to help them consolidate their thinking and then be ready to move forward.
Taking a rough guide of children and young people who are entitled to free school meals, overall, the figures suggest that, in general, those children have been doing less well in school than other pupils. So, it is a priority to ensure that that attainment gap is closed. I am obviously concerned that those school closures have had the opposite effect.
Research indicates that children who have missed significant periods of schooling due to authorised absences see a larger impact on attainment. I will be looking at it on two fronts: first, to re-engage schools to provide support for continuity of learning. I am looking to put in a bespoke programme to target those children from socially deprived areas to provide that additional support; secondly, I hope to move fairly swiftly on the expert group dealing with underachievement in schools, which is identified in 'New Decade, New Approach'.
I am also conscious that, as well as the learning difficulties that children will have, there will be a clear range of mental health difficulties, emotional difficulties and behavioural difficulties. I am keen to support those issues as well. Every Minister would always like to be able to spend more, but there is an increase in the Department of Education's budget this year to deal with mental health issues and support. So, we will look to develop schemes around that, which can provide support to our young people.