Concern and Anxiety over the Reopening of Schools

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 9:00 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin 9:00 pm, 30th June 2020

I beg to move:

That this Assembly recognises the concern and anxiety that exists among teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as among parents and young people, in relation to the eventual reopening of schools; understands the challenges facing school boards of governors and principals in keeping children and teachers safe while providing high quality education; believes that any reopening of schools should be based on scientific and medical advice consistent with that provided by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control; and calls on the Minister of Education to engage and consult extensively with education stakeholders as well as parents and young people in advance of the reopening of schools in order to provide clear and early guidance.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and that has been published on the Marshalled List. Please open the debate, Ms Mullan.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, I offer my deepest condolences to Noah Donohoe's mother, Fiona, to his family and friends and to the school community at St Malachy's College, Belfast, at this very difficult time.

At the outset of this debate I place on record my sincere gratitude and appreciation to all our principals and to our teaching and non-teaching staff. They have stepped up and delivered for our children and young people throughout the course of this unprecedented public health emergency. They have put their shoulder to the wheel and, whether it was providing supervised learning for our children, or for the children of our key workers, or delivering remote learning, they have played their part during this difficult period.

Likewise, I also pay tribute to parents and guardians who had to quickly adjust and adapt to new home learning arrangements for their children, whilst also balancing all of their other everyday commitments. I, like many others in the Chamber, am well aware of how difficult it has been, at times.

For our children and young people, this pandemic and the associated measures that came with it have no doubt hit them hardest. Many will have found it difficult to access appropriate equipment for remote learning; many will have had to endure difficult circumstances at home; and for many the sheer isolation and boredom of not taking part in the usual school day and missing out on that crucial social interaction and relationship-building will have had a profound impact on their emotional well-being and mental health.

To support our children, families and our teaching and non-teaching staff, the Minister must work with them and listen to them. We cannot allow the chaos that marked the period leading up to the closures to be replicated come the end of August. That requires firm leadership as well as commitment to work in the spirit of collaboration and mutual respect. No doubt there will be some level of difficulty when schools do begin to reopen, but we can minimise those difficulties if we maximise cooperation and work together.

At this point, I acknowledge the role of our unions, which have worked extremely hard over this period, alongside the many stakeholders who provided support and came forward with solutions. Their role will be invaluable over the coming weeks and months.

It was wrong and absolutely unacceptable for teachers to hear dribs and drabs of information about the eventual reopening of schools, through unofficial channels. Our teachers and principals deserve far better than that. Official guidance released to date has been, at times, slow in coming, and it has also been marred by confusion.

We are now at the end of June and our teachers are preparing to take a well-deserved break. In recent days, many have been in their classrooms trying to redesign layouts and figuring out how many children that they can accommodate, and they are anxious about how remote learning and classroom learning will be delivered at the same time.

Furthermore, school leaders and boards of governors are trying to get to grips with coordinating what the new school day will look like in each of their settings. They are worried about health and safety and cost implications, and they are keen to get clarity on other pressing issues, such as transport.

As I alluded to, and as outlined in the motion, the widest possible engagement with stakeholders across the education sector is crucial. Understandably, one single, perfect solution does not exist, but in collaborating with, and collating all the experience that exists across, the sector, new and creative solutions will certainly present themselves.

I also re-emphasise, in accordance with the motion, the need to bring parents, guardians and young people into the process. We should be empowering them and giving them a sense of ownership, so that when the time comes for a return to school, they can have every confidence in the new arrangements.

I have touched on the mental health impact that COVID and school closures have had on our young people. It is important that, when reopening takes place, the schools are equipped with the necessary resources to support and address the emotional well-being of our young people. I understand that much valuable learning time has been lost due to COVID, but, in the short term, I am more concerned about ensuring that we support our young people in building their mental health and resilience back up.

With that in mind, it is appropriate to take the opportunity to once again commend the compassion and leadership shown by many grammar schools in their decision to suspend the use of unregulated transfer tests this year. That is a timely acknowledgement of the reality of how damaging those tests are for young people. I urge those schools that have not yet made the decision to suspend the tests to please reconsider. If there was ever a time to place the needs and well-being of our children above academic selection, it is now.

Childcare could be the defining issue of our recovery post-COVID. While I welcome the Minister's latest update on childcare, there remain many unresolved issues. That will be of particular importance come the autumn, with blended learning and the possibility that some children may be required to be at home during the week. Making the funding available is one thing, but the settings need to be able to apply for and access it. We do not want a repeat of the last round of funding, which has seen very little of the £12 million spent and seen money returned whilst the sector is struggling. We need our childcare sector resourced and ready to go in time for the reopening of schools, otherwise families will face further hardship.

There remains a lack of clarity from the Minister and from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) as to where we are with a review of curriculum and exam specifications for next year. I am concerned at the pace of the developments, and our teachers are in the position of having to plan their way ahead without distinct guidance from the relevant body.

The Minister should also remain aware of the fact that we are an island, and it would be helpful if regular engagement could take place with the Minister for Education and Skills in the South in relation to all these matters.

In conclusion, while much work has been done on all these issues through the education restart programme, it is quite evident that there remains much work left to do. I call on you, Minister, to enhance the approach, collaborate widely across the sector in a meaningful way and give reassurance and clarity to allay the concerns and anxieties of all those who will be at the focal point of reopening our schools. I ask Members to support our motion and the SDLP amendment.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Ms Mullan mentioned in her speech that we are at the end of June. It would be helpful if the debate did not conclude at the start of July.

[Laughter.]

There are 12 Members down to speak in the debate, which is an unusual level of interest for a debate held at such a late hour, so I will have to try to keep matters under control to ensure that we stick to time.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after ‘Control;’ and insert: "further recognises the limitations faced by many pupils in accessing online courses and private tutoring; recognises the need for an essential catch up programme to be established for all pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and calls on the Minister of Education to engage and consult with all stakeholders, including teachers, parents and young people, on the reopening of schools and to ensure that no child loses out upon the reopening of schools."

Thank you, Mr Temporary Speaker. I know that it is unusual for so many of us to be looking to speak at this time of night, and I have a two-hour drive beyond the end of the debate. It is good to see you in your temporary post up there. It is almost as if the naughty boy in the corner has been put to the front of the classroom for being bold, so it will keep you well behaved.

As SDLP spokesperson for education and as MLA for West Tyrone, I welcome this opportunity to move today's amendment on what is an extremely important, emotive and difficult issue facing many principals, teachers and parents across the North.

I want to start my contribution by acknowledging the vital role teachers have played, and continue to play, during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been active in ensuring that as many children as possible have access to distance learning and they have been planning rigorously for a return to the schoolroom and to teaching our children. I want to make it abundantly clear and put it on record that our teaching workforce is made up of very hard workers. They have not been on holiday; they have spent the last number of months preparing and ensuring that children continue to be educated with the resources available to them.

They commit every fibre of their being to improving the educational outcomes of every child across the North. I fully and wholeheartedly condemn any elected representative or member of the public, for that matter, who brings the teaching profession into disrepute or criticises the huge efforts and contribution that they make to our society and the education of our children. Those comments have been unhelpful, upsetting and inappropriate, and that has been shared with me by many teachers.

Although I agree with the contents of today's motion as proposed, I believe that it is missing a key component. The key component is ensuring that all pupils return to school on an equal footing following the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the last number of months, it has become clear that many pupils face limitations in accessing online courses and receiving tutoring. It is important for the Chamber to recognise that poverty prevents many children accessing online teaching and that many parents cannot afford private tutoring.

Dr Noel Purdy from Stranmillis University College published a report in June this year that sheds some much needed light on the issue. It states that only half of the children in the North have access to devices capable of accessing online courses for schoolwork. It shows that 25% of parents do not have access to a printer at home. The report states that there are significant connectivity issues caused by poor broadband provision in many parts of Northern Ireland. Collectively, those issues have prevented many children from progressing their education over time. The SDLP believes that it is incumbent on the Chamber to do something about that. Despite the Minister's roll-out of electronic devices, which was very welcome, the fact that it was done in late June has meant that catch-up has simply not been possible. It is vital that we acknowledge that poverty has had a major impact on the education of our children and that impact has been exacerbated in the past four months.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report in May stating that children from more affluent families spend 30% more time on home learning each week than children from more deprived backgrounds: a shocking figure. The Education Endowment Fund also published a report in June this year that adds weight to the claim, and it states that the impact of school closures on attainment:

"will widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers ... by 36%".

That is another worrying figure. That margin is shocking, and it is one that we cannot allow to continue.

While it is clear that all children have lost out over lockdown, it is especially the case for those from socially deprived backgrounds. The SDLP believes that a catch-up programme paid for by the Department of Education is essential to ensure that no child is left behind. I, therefore, urge Members to support the SDLP amendment. It is important that we do everything we can to support all children in education. However, the most disadvantaged must be looked after. It is reprehensible that the two governing parties in the Executive continue to fall out over the simplest of things and our children lose out as a consequence of that.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 9:15 pm, 30th June 2020

I thank the Member for giving way. I will clarify the point. First, I trust that he is referring to Northern Ireland when he talks about "the North" and is not talking about some other jurisdiction. Secondly, is there not a five-party mandatory coalition, or have I missed something in the last number of months? Is this not a classic case of, when it suits the SDLP, they will have a go, but, when there is credit to be had, they will take credit even for things they did not support in the first place?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am glad that the concerns I am sharing here will have such an invaluable impact on the education of our children. However, whilst we are talking about the Executive, if every Department is funded fairly — I absolutely include the SDLP in that, instead of the carve-up between the big two — I will be a happier man. Thank you for your intervention.

I now turn to the Minister's plans, which were published last week, on the reopening of schools. The SDLP has engaged with principals and teachers from across the North of Ireland where considerable concerns have been raised. They believe that the guidance has been insufficient and that they have not been given enough time to properly implement the Minister's plan before the end of August. That has been shared with Members from across the House. One of the main concerns surrounds the Minister's plans for a one-metre social distancing rule in schools and plans to create bubbles where that is not possible. At the same time, teachers are expected to maintain a two-metre distance. It does not make sense, particularly with younger children, who may be distressed, need comforting or whatever and will need the attention of the teacher. The two-metre rule will be very difficult. School principals have rightly called out the measure as being unworkable and believe that classrooms can accommodate only 50% or less of the class under the guidance. That is especially the case for many rural schools, which are traditionally smaller. Many are already oversubscribed.

The Minister's guidance also encourages schools to make use of all available space. Principals have not even been told what measures can be introduced to increase class sizes or teaching space. That brings me to a fundamental point.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. To follow on from a point that Mr Storey made, that is the same guidance as was passed at the Executive unanimously, including the SDLP. All the details, particularly those on social distancing, were approved and supported by the SDLP Minister, so there seems to be a bit of a double standard here.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Minister, for accepting my concerns about children. I do not want to comment on the antics of the Executive, because, believe me, you would not like what I have to say.

Those are all questions that have, so far, not been answered. They are all massive issues to be addressed if the plan is to work and be successfully implemented in nine short weeks' time.

The concern that I have is that teachers and principals have again been thrown in at the deep end and expected to bear a huge amount of stress in order to solve the many problems on which they have been asking for clarification since lockdown began. It is not fair that our teachers and principals continue to carry the burden of such stress.

It is imperative that there be additional cleaning staff in schools. I have addressed that issue with you, and I appreciate that you have recognised that there are issues that need to be addressed there. Other countries have reopened their schools successfully and employ cleaners on a full-time basis to ensure the health and safety of staff. If social bubbles are to work without there being rigid infection controls, there has to be no cross-contamination. That will be difficult to ensure, especially if areas such as toilets are not regularly cleaned. Schools need more guidance and reassurance on the issue, and it should not come at added expense to already stretched or overstretched budgets.

Principals say, "We want guidance that is clear". Guidance has now been provided, although I do not agree with the method by which it was provided — through the BBC largely — but, now that they have received the guidance, the principals' big question is this: "How do we implement the guidance? How do we ensure the safety of staff and pupils if we are not being allocated an extra pound or penny to ensure the safety of staff and pupils?". For the public to have confidence in the safe reopening of schools and to ensure that children are safe and staff are comfortable returning to schools, we need schools to be safe and to have the money to put in place the necessary resources for that aim.

School transport, Minister, will be a huge issue. We can talk about the start and the end of the school day, but it starts when the child leaves the house in the morning and ends with the child's return. If we are to talk about social bubbles and social distancing in schools, we need things to be put in place to ensure that, whilst on school transport, children are kept at a sufficient distance to ensure their safety.

Minister, I will finish on this. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has caused some confusion. You are on record as saying continually that there is no real requirement for it to ensure the safety of staff and pupils. Why is it that other scientific and medical advice has suggested that it is absolutely essential in a confined space, be that on public transport or in other areas? Minister, will you accept that it is a vital —?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

On a point of —.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

On a point of order, Mr Temporary Speaker. I have never said —.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Point of order, Minister Weir.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Is it correct, Mr Temporary Speaker, for the Member to misrepresent my views? I have never said that PPE is not needed in any set of circumstances. I have indicated the limitations of wearing it. The guidance directly gives the circumstances in which it is needed. I have never indicated what the Member suggests.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Order. That is not a point of order.

Mr McCrossan, your time is up. I thank you for your kind words. The only criteria for the post of temporary Speaker are extreme old age and the possession of a pulse: nothing else. No talent whatever is required.

Talking of talent, I call the honourable Member Mr William Humphrey.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Thank you, Mr Temporary Speaker, and I congratulate you on your elevation. I declare an interest as a governor of two schools.

We are minded to support the motion and the amendment, despite what we have just heard, because they underscore what the Minister has been doing, and he has been doing what they call on him to do.

Addressing the issues around schools returning safely and protecting pupils and staff is key to rebooting our economy, as is addressing the vital issue of childcare. I, too, pay tribute to our school principals, teachers, ancillary staff and governors for all that they have done to ensure that our young people stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, if you look at the motion, it talks about keeping children and teachers safe. It believes that the reopening of schools should be based on:

"scientific and medical advice consistent with that provided by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control; and calls on the Minister of Education to engage and consult extensively with education stakeholders as well as parents and young people in advance of the reopening of schools in order to provide clear and early guidance."

Consistency of message around COVID-19 and the pandemic are absolutely crucial, and other Members have said that. Therefore, today's funeral, where Sinn Féin Members breached COVID-19 regulations, ignored advice from the Health Minister, the Chief Medical Officer, scientists, the Public Health Agency, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, flies in the face of all of that. Indeed, at the press conference yesterday in the Long Gallery, the same deputy First Minister, when asked about social distancing and today's funeral by the BBC at the press conference in the Long Gallery, said:

"Everyone who is attending the funeral should observe public health advice".

Therefore, what a message today's events are to the thousands of people who have responsibly stayed at home to shield because of their health. What a message to those people who have been practicing social distancing. What a message to those National Health Service workers and key workers over the last number of months. Indeed, my view is that the advice has undermined the Executive's message.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I am sure that the honourable Member will go back to the core issues. Thank you.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Indeed, my view is that today's behaviour undermined the Northern Ireland Executive's message and policy, undermined the Health Minister, undermined the Chief Medical Officer, undermined the scientific advice and undermined the Public Health Agency advice — not only undermined it, but, frankly, ignored it.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Surely we would be in the most bizarre situation if, as a result of this evening's proceedings in the House, with the motion having been passed, as it most likely will be, teachers deciding that, when the schools are reopened, they will just ignore all the guidance. What message would that send to parents? Yet, today, we have the deputy First Minister and Ministers and Members of the House flagrantly breaching the regulations in a way that has set a disgraceful example.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Member for his comments and I agree with them entirely. As I said, they have not only undermined the guidance that has been given for months, they have totally ignored it. Indeed, I believe that Sinn Féin have undermined their position and credibility on the issue. Therefore, the question is —

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

— about how these Members have behaved and whether their behaviour is a breach of the ministerial code?

No, I have already given way.

The Committee for Education's members will know that the Minister has made himself very accessible and he has been very responsive to the Committee and the House. They have said it in the House and in the Committee. I understand that the Minister has engaged face to face and on Zoom with some 750 principals during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minister has held two public press conferences, and he is the first Executive Minister to do so. The Department of Education, under this Minister and his leadership, was the first Department to co-design a government policy document with stakeholders — principals — in the form of the New School Day guidance. Minister Weir has sought to work constructively with trade unions and he has sought their opinions.

Northern Ireland provided restart documentation well in advance of the other United Kingdom regions. Indeed — if I might be given some time — with regard to the public health position, in the Republic of Ireland, it states very clearly that the position is:

"Public health guidelines to govern the reopening of schools in late August and September will not be published for some time, according to comments made by the Minister for Education in the [Irish Republic] ... Schools had been hoping for guidelines on social distancing and other public health matters to be sent out before primary schools close at the end of this month. However [the Minister for Education] ... said this afternoon [24 June] that the reopening of schools was 'nine or ten weeks away' and there was time to continue to consult public health experts to develop and plan appropriate guidance."

The source RTÉ. Therefore, it is very clear that the Minister has been giving the leadership, not just in the United Kingdom but across these islands, including the Irish Republic.

Mr Temporary Speaker, I congratulate you on your elevation to your new temporary position and wish you well. We will support both the motion and the amendment depending on how the debate proceeds.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 9:30 pm, 30th June 2020

To lighten the mood a little bit, I will say that I am glad not to be following Daniel McCrossan for a change. I follow him on the Education Committee, and I was psyching myself up. I was thinking, "We will have to do this in alphabetical order instead of me following this guy when we are talking about education".

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I welcome the motion and the amendment and their intent. As has been picked out, they perhaps have some imperfections but, in the round, we will support them. When we talk about our pupils' return to school and the safety of the staff and all those who are connected with schools, it is really important that we are careful not to "catastrocise" every conversation that we have.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I am not sure that that is a proper word.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Catastrophise. I will have to eat more Soreen loaf and drink more tea.

[Laughter.]

The motion is good; its intent is good. It talks about looking at the concerns and anxiety of all the stakeholders across the piece, of which there are many. In the debate over the last number of weeks, teachers have been used and abused from different quarters. There seemed to be some people in the print media, for instance, who were itching for a fight. They were itching to get teachers into a corner and pitch them against parents. A number of petitions from other professions were doing the rounds, which worried me greatly. Those professions seemed to be pitting themselves against teachers and calling for the mass return of children to schools in September. I understand why some people might want to see that, but let us be clear: we have never dealt with anything like COVID in our puff; never once. There is no rule book for this.

We are doing our best. I believe that everybody is doing their best. I believe that everyone in the Chamber and each party are doing their best. What we need to do is give the leadership where it is needed. Even after today, we need to give that leadership. I do not want to see teachers getting caught in the crossfire. Mr McCrossan expressed it really well when he said that teachers have stepped up to the mark. The Minister, to his credit, has made himself available to engage with teachers at every opportunity, whether that is through their unions or directly. The Committee, through the Chair, has done that on every occasion. We have met different teacher unions. I have sat in on different Zoom meetings, as the Minister has, with the Ulster Teachers' Union and other unions. There is no doubt that the intent is to have our children return as safely as possible, but the protection of everybody involved is crucial. To be fair, I do not think that the Minister has been found wanting on collaboration, even though we disagree on certain points in the guidance.

Mr Graham Gault of NAHT — he will probably want to kick me in the shins for mentioning his name — posted a tweet of 140 characters on Friday night. I reckon that, in that 140-character tweet, he summarised what the guidance should be. I do not think that it needs to be a huge document. The reality of where we will be at the end of August and the start of September is that, if COVID has been dealt with, we will return. If social distancing is not an issue, we will return.

A Member:

What was the tweet?

[Laughter.]

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I will print it out tomorrow and put my name to it. You will probably claim if it is good, Daniel.

The reality is that what we need to be talking about tonight are the priorities. There are serious priorities, and I want to raise a couple of them. Transport will be a big issue and a serious issue if we are still facing the COVID pandemic. Even more than that, there are our special educational needs children and the complexities of their medical care and their vulnerability. We have all these new terms like "key workers" and so on that we are all getting used to. The reality is that a lot of these children are already facing challenging times in their education.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Will he recognise the constructive meeting that the Education Committee had with the National Deaf Children's Society, which is a particular cohort of children whom we need to be conscious of in our response to COVID-19?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I will absolutely. I thank the Chair for bringing that to my attention. They are another community within the education sector that is disadvantaged at times. We chatted with them on Monday and they brought a number of things to the fore. If the Minister has not spoken to them already, I am sure that he will. That is where our priorities need to be.

Mr McCrossan raised the issue of the correlation between poverty and educational outcome. Something new happened this time, with COVID. It was not just the children who find themselves socially disadvantaged. The children whose parents are key and front-line workers have not been able to avail themselves of the learning and support during these past three or four months. That leads me to my main point: I have a serious concern about the outcome of blended learning and what we expect it to be. I am not sure how we mark that. The discrepancy between those who have and those who have not has been pointed out. Even if we did give it to them all, the safest, best and most equitable place for any child to learn is in the classroom.

We need to do everything that we can, collectively, to see every child back at school, but safely, and give the guidance as best we can to the teachers and stakeholders that we are speaking about.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The next Member to speak is Mr Lyttle. It would be usual for the Chair of the relevant Committee to speak early in the debate, though Mr Lyttle has indicated that he is not speaking as the Chair but as an individual MLA.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to consider how we work with our outstanding teaching and non-teaching staff, parents and guardians and pupils to rise to the challenges facing education.

The first task is to move beyond the unacceptable narrative that some in the education sector are attempting to avoid doing their job. Our teaching and non-teaching staff need us to back them, not attack them.

We also need to move beyond a situation whereby the Education Minister tells me, via the media, that my job is to not be convinced by anything that is said to me. I make no apologies for finding the school leaders, teachers, parents and pupils with whom I engage to be convincing on a wide range of issues. I can respectfully give way to the Education Minister if he wishes to specify by whom he thinks I ought not to be convinced.

We need to work together. There is enough ingenuity in our community to deliver the leadership, communication and support needed by dedicated and innovative teachers and hardworking parents to help pupils to access their right to education. To be fair to the Education Minister, he and his Department have established ways in which that can be achieved. Clearer communication and engagement are possible via the Education Restart programme, the stakeholder group, the practitioners' forum and the childcare reference group that I was glad to propose, with the addition of improved parental and pupil engagement, and the cessation of announcements via the media and social media on Fridays at 5.00pm.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that a lot of frustration among principals and teachers is due to the lack of clear communication from the Department of Education and the Education Authority?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I agree with the Member. As I say, I think that the Minister has established avenues through which improved communication can take place if they are used in lieu of some of those other times and avenues.

Clear guidance is needed on social distancing. Whether it is 2 metres, 1 metre or no social distancing, clarity is needed, and acknowledgement by the Minister that anything less than no social distancing may have an impact on the ability of a school to provide full-time access for parents and pupils.

An Education Restart budget is needed. Regardless of the social distancing in schools in August, parents and pupils will need additional support. Additional support will also be needed for school accommodation, cleaning and staffing; classroom assistants; ICT equipment, whether devices, printers and broadband access to deliver digital equality; training for teachers in online learning, the like of which, I understand, is being provided via Stranmillis and C2K; guidance on blended learning; and a curriculum that is appropriate for the amount of time that children will be in learning, focused on educational, social and emotional recovery.

Leadership is also needed on post-primary transfer. It cannot be fair or necessary to test children in November and December 2020.I think that the Education Minister accepts that position somewhat. He said that those who think that children should not be tested in November and December for post-primary admissions have to come up with an alternative. His Department recommends alternative admissions criteria and statutorily requires boards of governors to have regard to them. They include criteria such as free school meals, applicants from feeder and named primary schools, applicants residing in a named parish, applicants residing in a geographically defined area, applicants for whom the school is the nearest suitable school and applicants who have a sibling currently attending the school. They also recommend criteria that ought not to be used. Time will not allow me to go into those. However, I think that the Minister and I probably agree on some of them.

I ask the Minister this: what is unsuitable about the admissions criteria recommended by his own Department for post-primary admissions? Also, I seek clarification from the Education Minister as to whether his guidance requires primary schools to return P7 classes on a full-time basis in August, regardless of the impact of that on other year groups' access to school. Why is year 7 prioritised and not year 8, which is an actual transitional year to a new school?

Also in relation to post-primary transfer, I ask the Minister to reconsider his decision to decline my request to meet parents to discuss post-primary transfer.

We need leadership in special educational needs. The dysfunction in special educational needs provision alone is reason to immediately lift the temporary suspension of work on the independent review of education. We need urgent delivery of the childcare strategy and the emotional health and well-being framework.

We need to work together with the education sector to overcome the risks and challenges of COVID-19 and deliver the quality, equal educational opportunity for all.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The next Member to speak will be Mr Frew. Just before that, I alert Mr Sheehan that because Mr O'Dowd has stepped aside, he has risen up the list considerably and will be the next to speak, after Mr Frew.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Having looked at the motion and the amendment, I see no issue with them. I think that what they request of the Education Minister is reasonable enough. It is important that we take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the principals, teachers and staff of schools, not least, all the non-teaching staff, who are working and have worked hard over the past months, beyond the call of duty on many occasions, to provide the children with as much stable education material as possible.

We also pay tribute to all the parents who have had to homeschool under really trying, pressurised circumstances at home, where they are trying to work from home and get quality time with their children too. The whole thing becomes a mishmash, and that is really detrimental to family life. I must say that, when my children were younger, my wife took up the burden of homework duty in my house. The stress and strain of homework is mighty enough, but to homeschool children too must be a massive burden.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Member very much for giving way. Does he agree that one thing that might ease that burden would be to bring in proper broadband across Northern Ireland? Maybe some of the excess profits that BT has been making from the Land and Property Services contract could be used to provide all pupils across Northern Ireland with excellent broadband facilities.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

The Member raises a very important point. Going forward, it is crucial that children and business, right across the Province, have adequate broadband. He is absolutely right to raise that.

Principals know their school and their staff best. Principals and teachers also know their pupils best. As regards the responsibility for moving forward safely, in this day and age, given the risks involved, there is no person better placed in a school to measure risk in that built environment than the principal of the school.

We do teaching staff and principals a grave disservice when we say that they do not have clear and proper guidance.

The Minister has traipsed round the Province, meeting school principals and teachers in every art and part of Northern Ireland, and he must get credit for that. He has listened and moved where he can and I applaud him for that. Many of the principals and teaching staff whom I speak to on a weekly basis have concurred with and echoed that sentiment and are thankful for it.

There is absolutely no doubt that we are living in very pressurised times and there are strains and uncertainties that will have to be ironed out. We have always worked with the maxim that missing one day's schooling is detrimental to a pupil's education. It is important that we try to get as many pupils back to school on a full-time basis as soon as possible in order that their educational opportunities are not hurt. That is vital going forward, and the only way to have equitable educational facilities and learning examples and experiences is to have pupils in school; there is no doubt about that. That is what we should strive to do.

Let us look at the wording of the motion. Everything is in a context, especially when we look at the day that we have had. The motion says:

"That this Assembly recognises the concern and anxiety that exists among teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as among parents and young people".

What of their anxiety today when they see and read the news and see Sinn Féin practising no social distancing and no responsibility with regard to what it has been preaching over the last number of months? What of the anxiety of teaching staff when they see that "Do as I say, not as I do" attitude? That has been so hurtful to the messaging and to the psyche of our people when they see the work that they have put in over the last three to four months. They have been trying to keep people safe and now they see people flaunting the regulations with disregard for the safety measures.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP 9:45 pm, 30th June 2020

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

It is unbelievable that that has taken place today. It is a shame on the party on the opposite Benches that it has allowed that to happen. There have been many occasions in the past number of weeks —.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The Member must bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I will leave it there.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

As I said earlier, the debate has attracted a lot of attention. Unfortunately, I have to report that we will have time for only three more contributors — Mr Sheehan, Mr McNulty and Mr Aiken. I realise that that is a considerable disappointment to Ms Armstrong, Ms Hunter and Mr Carroll. Everyone used their time to the maximum and there were numerous interventions.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle Sealadach. Agus labhraím anseo anocht i m’athair ar bheirt ghirseach a bheas ag dul isteach i rang a haon agus rang a cúig i mbliana. Agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an phríomhoide, na múinteoirí agus an fhoireann iomlán i mBunscoil an tSléibhe Dhuibh.

I speak tonight as the father of two young daughters who will be going into primary 1 and primary 5 respectively this coming year. I want to put on record my thanks to the principal, the teachers and all the staff in Bunscoil an tSléibhe Dhuibh and Naíscoil an tSléibh Dhuibh for their dedication and diligence in helping us as parents over the last number of months. Bunscoil an tSléibhe Dhuibh is an Irish-medium primary school.

Agus, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle Sealadach, is cinnte go mbeidh fadhbanna ag earnáil na Gaelscolaíochta ag athoscailt dóibh i mí Mheán an Fhómhair i dtaobh sláinte agus sábháilteachta de agus an scaradh sóisialta.

It is certain that the Irish-medium sector will have problems with the reopening in September with regard to health and safety as well as social distancing. As it now stands — the Minister will be aware of it — 60% of the accommodation in the Irish-medium sector is housed in prefab or modular accommodation or buildings that were not designed as schools. That lack of purpose-built facilities will have a detrimental impact on schools facilitating their students, in particular those Irish-medium schools that are located outside urban areas, where alternative space might not be easily found in the surrounding area.

Irish-medium schools are already at full capacity. The Irish-medium sector is the fastest-growing sector and we want that trend to continue, not regress. Take Coláiste Feirste in west Belfast, which is the largest Irish-medium post-primary school on the island of Ireland. When a significant new development was opened in that school a few years ago, it had a capacity of 550. The enrolment now is around 680. How will it practise social distancing in classrooms?

There are concerns about a lack of available school space affecting parents in choosing Irish-medium schools for their children. The Education Authority and the Department of Education have based their social-distancing guidelines on classrooms of 60 square metres. As I mentioned, that does not accurately reflect the reality in Irish-medium education, in which some classrooms are as small as 37 square metres. Additional classroom space will be required and the Department has an obligation to work with the bodies that represent the sector to facilitate that.

Ba mhaith liom labhairt anois ar easpa na múinteoirí cáilithe a bhí ann roimh an phaindéim agus a bheas ann faoi mhí Mheán an Fhomhair i mbliana. I also want to talk about the lack of qualified teachers who were in the Irish-medium sector before the pandemic. Of course, that shortage will be exacerbated when schools reopen in September.

The Irish-medium sector is likely to be more acutely affected by teacher shortages, as a lack of teachers already existed before the current crisis. That will be made worse as schools return, with the risk of a severe shortage of qualified Irish-medium teachers to fill current vacancies, and Irish-medium substitute teachers to cover for teachers who are shielding. If the Department is to act decisively on the development of the Irish-medium sector, it needs to begin to address that shortage of teachers. We need to begin to engage with teacher training colleges as a matter of urgency to deal with that ever-growing issue.

Ba mhaith liom aird a tharraingt anois ar cheann de na ceisteanna is tábhachtaí don earnáil, is í sin, ceist na n-acmhainní oideachais. One of the areas that I want to draw attention to is the lack of educational resources in the Irish-medium sector. It suffers from a lack of bespoke resources for teaching and the remote learning undertaken by teachers during the lockdown period will have compounded that. Irish-medium principals —

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

—requested online resources and apps for appropriate distance learning. That needs to be considered by the Minister in the time ahead.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I am pleased to report that Mr Aiken has generously removed his name from the list and, of course, Mr McNulty is entitled to speak in summation of the amendment. I am glad to say that we can get at least another two Members in. We have Ms Armstrong, Ms Hunter and potentially, if things go well, Mr Gerry Carroll.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you so much, Temporary Speaker. I was not expecting that. I will keep it brief, because I would like Mr Carroll to have his opportunity.

From the very start, I will declare an interest. I am a mum of a 17-year-old who is due to go into her A-level year, so my heart is broken with her. I am also a governor of a primary school and a post-primary school.

Of course, we will support the motion and the amendment — why not. However, can I please ask, as my colleague said, that we start building a bit of teamwork? We are talking about our young people across the whole of Northern Ireland. They do not need to hear politicians ripping lumps out of each other. What they do need to hear is that their schools will be a positive experience, that we will come out of coronavirus and that they will be able to get back with their friends again in a safe way.

Mr Frew brought it up, and I have to say to all the parents out there that there is a reason why I did not become a teacher — homeschooling has proved that completely.

I take my hat off to all those parents: to those who are at home all day with their kids, trying to work as well as homeschooling; and to parents who have had to go out to work and been worried sick about how their children are getting on while with whomever they have been with, perhaps they have been at a school in which they sit beside two or three others from very different age groups.

One size will not fit all. I do not know about the rest of you, but I get many calls from the parents of children with learning disabilities asking how, with social distancing, the at shoulder support is supposed to happen and whether we can give them a solution.

We cannot lock the toilets in post-primary schools. Girls have periods: let us not shy away from that. We cannot exclude our young people from having access to space.

We need to see the teamwork for ourselves and for our teachers, while working with pupils and parents. We need to recognise not only the physical but the emotional needs of our young people, which will be one of the toughest things for classroom assistants and teachers, alongside parents, to deal with.

Young people need time to talk. Some have not had a good lockdown experience. Sadly, we know that the increase in domestic violence across Northern Ireland means that a number of young people have had to leave their home. Some have seen family conflict. Let us face it: we are fighting with each other in the Assembly because we are stressed out. It is non-stop. Our whole day, morning, noon and night, is work. We never get to leave it behind when at home. The children who have experienced loss and bereavement need time to speak. They need time to talk to each other, which is very hard when half of their classmates work at home for part of the week and the other half are at school. They then swap, meaning that they never see the other half of their class.

My heart breaks for pupils who are transitioning from P7 to year 8 — first year, in old money — and for those in upper sixth or fifth year who have left school. There was nothing: there was no real end for them.

We have to be aware that there will be difficulties because of the horrendous pandemic. We could see a rise in racist bullying in schools. Across the water, people of Asian background have been picked on and bullied by people saying that they are the cause of the virus because they are Chinese. There is a lot going on.

You know what? The message that we send from this place needs to be more positive. It has to be a message that young people are listening to because they want to hear about their schools, and we are talking about something that interests them. This is a great motion. We have a good Minister, and he cares. We have a Committee that also cares, and it meets people so often that I do not know how Chris Lyttle does it — my head would be turned. We have a good team here, and, for the sake of your young people, we should be talking more positively.

I am the mummy of a 17-year-old who regularly does my head in. She is looking to get out and torture wee fellas, but she is not getting to do that.

[Laughter.]

She wants to get back to school but is scared. She is scared. If a 17-year-old is scared, what is it like for a seven-year-old? We have a job to do, folks, and I really hope that we can do it and get these young people back to school as soon as possible. Let us work together on this.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Many Members were shocked when Mrs Armstrong revealed that she had a child of 17. That is quite remarkable

[Laughter.]

After Ms Hunter, we may have time to get Mr Carroll in.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I echo Ms Armstrong's comments and sentiment about working together, which will be highly beneficial for us all. The SDLP recognises the sheer level of pressure and uncertainty that has arisen for teachers and pupils right across the North as a result of COVID-19. Today, our concern pertains to ensuring the physical health of pupils in the coming months with the slow reopening of schools and reintroduction of classes.

My concerns derive from the different school sizes. Some schools, often the new builds, have capacity for more pupils due to being more spacious. Others, often the rural schools, may have to compensate through more pupils staying off, which could further impact on their education. I hope that the Minister can provide clearer guidance on that today.

We are happy to learn that the Department has received new IT devices for distribution to children who are experiencing difficulty accessing digital learning. Over the past few weeks, other MLAs and I have been contacted by families that are struggling to attain access to broadband, as mentioned earlier, and to the other technological tools needed for remote learning. This is a welcome announcement as we fear that some students, especially those from low-income families, have been left in the dark, and no child should suffer academically as a result of that.

In the light of these difficulties, we welcome the news that an increasing number of selective schools have decided that they will not use academic selection for 2020-21 and 2021-22.

I think that that shows great compassion and consideration of young people's mental health. At times, when students have been faced with so many difficulties over the past few months, academic achievement bears so much weight to young people. Speaking to young people, it is evident that academic achievement is a huge factor from which they derive their sense of self-worth. Sadly, some schools decided to continue with academic selection, despite the undeniable, unfair education deficits that have occurred as a result of the pandemic.

I have spoken with a young family in my constituency, a single mother who is a front-line worker. She is a carer. Her child gets less homeschooling than other children, due to the fact that, as a mother, she had to continue to work over the past few months. Is it fair that her daughter should be held accountable for an academic decline through no fault of her own? I feel strongly, and agree with other parties, that no child should be left behind. I hope the Minister can provide us with more clarity on health and safety within the schools. A catch-up programme is necessary. We want no child to be left behind. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP 10:00 pm, 30th June 2020

Mr Carroll, you have four minutes.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Thank you, Mr Aiken. Feel free to step aside in any debate that I am not going to be called.

[Laughter.]

I will happily speak on most things and I am sure that people here, and the public, are delighted to hear me on every issue, so thank you very much.

In all seriousness, the fears outlined in this motion and the amendment are true for teachers, parents and indeed for pupils. I am more than happy to support the motion and the amendment. I thank the Members for bringing them.

Like others, I have been contacted by parents and teachers, and we continue to stand with them, ensuring their safety and the safety of pupils of all ages is maintained and protected.

All along, throughout the pandemic, we have consistently called for the Executive to make decisions about reopening, and lifting elements of the lockdown, on the basis of scientific and medical advice, consistent with the likes of the World Health Organization and other bodies, as the motion urges. However, as Members know, that has not always been the case. We know the devastation caused and the failure to protect the vulnerable, particularly in care homes. As a member of the Health Committee, for two weeks in a row, I have asked for the scientific advice pertaining to implementation of amendments to the Coronavirus Regulations, and I am still waiting on it. It is frustrating that we are not getting that information, and we should, very quickly.

While I support the motion, the fears that the Members who proposed the motion outlined about schools reopening, are the exact same fears that workers in hospitality and other sectors will face by the end of this week. They may be forced into work, essentially, or lose their jobs, as the case may be, and nothing is mentioned or done about that. Obviously, the regulations passed today cement that in legislation.

There has to be a serious level of consistency in approaching this crisis. Earlier, the junior Minister referred to there being no linear approach. I think he is right, and he is being kind. The approach that the Executive have taken throughout the crisis has been very worrying and disastrous in cases.

Trade unions, who represent workers in bars, clubs and restaurants, who have been loud and clear about their inability to socially distance in the workplace, will no doubt wonder, as I do, why there is no motion calling for protection for them in the workplace, based on scientific and medical advice, as there is in tonight's motion. Staff in care homes will raise similar issues.

I support the motion and the amendment, and will take any opportunity to support teachers, parents and pupils, but other workers have been left without adequate protection and that needs to be addressed.

Robbie Butler said that teachers are used and abused, and that has very much been the case. Disgracefully, we have seen MPs attack teachers and their unions. Some of them are still waiting on an apology from Mr Wilson. He should do the right thing and apologise for his comments towards them. We have to pay tribute to our teachers and teaching staff for working throughout this pandemic, and working to educate our young people throughout the year, and also for taking action to close schools, when the Minister would not act and he dithered. It was teachers who —.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Can the Member bring his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I will leave my comments there. I am happy to support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Thank you, Mr Carroll. I now call the Minister of Education, Mr Peter Weir, to respond to the motion. Mr Weir, you have 15 minutes in which to speak.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Thank you, Mr Temporary Speaker, sir. I know that you have been waiting to hear that terminology for quite a period of time. I congratulate you on your post.

I want to join with other Members, including the mover of the motion, who mentioned the sad death of Noah Donohoe, and pass on my sympathy to his family and his school, St Malachy's College. While, to the best of my knowledge, we have been fortunate enough that no school-aged child in Northern Ireland has died from the COVID-19 virus during the pandemic, it has, perhaps, gone unnoticed that, during that period, a number of pupils throughout Northern Ireland have, sadly, passed away for a variety of reasons. Equally, I want to pass on my sympathies to their families and schools.

I thank all Members who have spoken in the debate. I welcome the opportunity to speak on these issues. I am sure that not everyone will agree with everything that I say. I would not necessarily agree with everything that was said in the debate.

I will say at the outset that I do not see any particular problem with the motion on the anxiety that exists, or the amendment. As is often the case when motions are tabled in the House, a number of elements of them have probably been overtaken by events that have either already happened or are in progress. However, that is no reason to divide the House.

I am fully aware from speaking to principals, school staff and pupils that there are genuine concerns and anxiety about the reopening of schools. Previously, I have noted that the issues that we face across society, and particularly in education, are unprecedented. Young people have outlined their concerns in a range of surveys. They include the 1,000 children who have contributed to the Youth Forum survey, and, indeed, many young people continue to respond to the Education Authority's weekly survey, which is facilitated by Youth Service.

While there is no consensus on the issue, the biggest concern out there, which is shared by parents, teachers, trade unions and pupils, is about the lost learning and opportunities, and a desire to get back to school. There is consensus on that. I will reiterate what I said earlier during Question Time: I believe that we are on a good trajectory at present, and, if things continue to move in the way in which they have been moving, I hope that the Executive will agree that we are able to move to a position before the start of term where we can ensure that every pupil in Northern Ireland will be in school five days a week. Surely, that is a hope that we all share.

I am conscious of the practical challenges. An incredible amount of work has been done in a short space of time to develop responses to the situation. Again, I want to put on record my appreciation for the incredible work that is being done by schoolteachers, leaders, classroom assistants and, indeed, all those who have been working with such dedication in the wider education sector throughout this challenging period.

The new school-day guidance, which was published by the Executive on 19 June, sets out a framework under which schools can, now, plan to reopen. The guidance was co-designed under the auspices of a practitioners' group, facilitated by my Department, by 20 school principals. It represented every sector and age range in education. It included the controlled, maintained, voluntary grammar, Irish-medium and integrated sectors. It included special schools. It involved nurseries, primary schools and post-primary schools. It had a very broad range. While the broad principles will be similar across other settings, it is recognised that there is additional work to be done in youth and early-years provision. Indeed, last week, we were able to issue particular guidance for special schools. I pay tribute to the work of the principals. They operated with an intensity that was beyond their day jobs and provided invaluable professional and operational insights.

Drafts of the guidance were also shared with trade unions, sectoral body representatives, the Chief Medical Officer, the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency. All feedback that is consistent with the remit of the practitioners' group is in the drafts of the guidance.

The time frame and notice that we have been able to give schools for preparations has been mentioned. There needs to be a balance. If we are to take account of the views and have that co-designed process, that will mean that, naturally, things will not move as quickly as they can in other bits, but we are ahead of the game compared with other jurisdictions.

Mention has been made that, as yet, there is no clear picture of what is happening in the Republic of Ireland, where one of the parties here sits as the main Opposition in that jurisdiction.

In England, prior to 1 June, there was relatively little notice given. Indeed, we still await the guidance as to what they intend to do in September. Scotland, which is starting at an earlier stage than us, has also issued guidance. It is on a fairly similar time frame to us. Wales, where schools resumed on 29 June, issued guidance on 11 June, which was 18 days beforehand. Whatever criticisms that can be made about timescale, we are a couple of months ahead of that.

Mention has also been made that the Department will try, as much as possible, to provide financial support where additional necessary resources are required for schools to help in reopening. We will work together with the sector on that.

Mention has been made of childcare. There is now an Executive childcare recovery scheme. It will learn from some of the weaknesses in the current system, but it is critical that childcare is aligned with school reopening. Indeed, reaching a point at which schools are able to be fully open is one of the biggest single actions that can be taken to ease the pressures on childcare.

Mention has been made about year groups. The position of years 7, 12 and 14, as transition years, is consistent with what has happened in other jurisdictions. For example, in England, apart from the very youngest in primary schools, their P6, which is the equivalent of our year 7, was one of the areas prioritised, as was those entering the final year of GCSEs and A levels.

The principals that we worked with emphasised that guidance needed to have broad parameters but also have a level of flexibility. Indeed, the aim was to get that guidance out as quickly as possible with Executive approval. There are a range of other issues that will need to be considered and, indeed, are being considered.

A Member:

Will the Minister give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

With respect, I am trying to get through quite a few items. I know that there will probably be other issues that can be picked up tomorrow in the Education Committee.

I am aware that some feel that the guidance does not go far enough. I suppose that it is striking the balance between producing a 52- or 54-page document when I know that it has been suggested that it can all be put in 140 characters. I suspect that if the Department issued 140 characters as a response, there would be complaints.

Mention has been made about the issue of transport. Again, that is an issue that the Executive are looking at collectively. It is critical, and I think, probably grasping the nettle of finding routes in terms of transport which means that actually strict social distancing is not particularly compatible with full school transport. The previous position of the Department for Infrastructure was a 15% cap on those who can travel on buses. That is something that I do not think would work or be acceptable.

On the one-metre distancing side of things, this obviously predated any decision as regards the wider Executive position on one metre. Ultimately, there is no distance that is safe. It is about providing mitigation measures. Indeed, if you speak to medical experts, they will not say, "One metre is safe" or "Two metres is safe". It is about providing protection. We worked on the detail of it. The draft guidance was shared with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser. We worked alongside the Department of Health and the PHA on the detail of the guidance. I would maybe quibble slightly about the references to WHO or others in the motion, but we have worked with bespoke teams in Northern Ireland. It has that level of support and adherence.

As indicated, on the curriculum, detailed guidance has been published on curriculum planning for 2021. CCEA is continuing to work on how we will deal with examinations. This is not just a Northern Ireland issue, but there is an impact on the curriculum in respect of where we are, and that is inevitable. So, it is about concentrating on the basics.

Again, one of the slight restrictions in the curriculum, particularly for those later years when there are public examinations in which pupils here sometimes take examinations from outside Northern Ireland.

We have to ensure, working with colleagues, that we have a level playing field across a range of jurisdictions. We have to make sure that Northern Ireland pupils are not disadvantaged.

Mention was made of doing things in conjunction with different Ministers. I am in regular contact with the Education Ministers in England, Scotland and Wales. I have spoken directly to and had conversations with the now outgoing, departed Minister in the Republic of Ireland and am seeking an early discussion with the new Minister there. There will be an opportunity to learn from that experience. We are fortunate that the Northern Ireland curriculum is specifically designed to be adaptable and dynamic. Therefore, it can create the ideal scaffold to support and underpin teaching and learning. The limited prescription that we have gives schools the flexibility to choose what to teach and for how long and how often and to use approaches that best suit their pupils.

I turn now to the amendment. In April, my Department conducted a survey of school principals to look at strategic approaches to distance learning and access to online learning. The survey showed that all schools were using either online or hard-copy approaches. I take on board the point that has been made about broadband. Obviously, that lies outside the remit of my Department. The proposals that are being put forward by the Department for the Economy for rolling out broadband will be of long-term help but will not be there in every case. School principals who reported that pupils might be experiencing barriers to online work reported that the main reason was lack of access to a device, often followed by that lack of access to broadband. Consequently, we have adopted a three-stage process, first of all looking at what devices were already in existing stock. Then, there had been about 3,500 devices that were being sought by EA and being procured. We are now at that second stage, and, during the last week, a number of those have been rolled out to try and address that. The Department is also in a position where it is going to central procurement to try to fill the gap as well.

We will not know definitively where we are until we see in September, but we can all make an assessment that, no matter how brilliant the teaching that has been done and no matter how good the remote learning that has been done in a lot of cases, it is, as, I think, somebody mentioned, there is no substitute for that face-to-face classroom teaching, which is why I am so keen to see that resume in full. We have also been giving some thought for some time to how we do that level of catch-up. Again, while they may have been overwhelmed by the focus on the reopening of schools, as part of summer schemes and, indeed, summer and beyond recapture of learning, proposals were put to the Executive. I will outline briefly the strands within that. I am glad to say that today, in the June monitoring round, there has been agreement by the Executive, and funding has been made available for that. That is for the remainder of this financial year. There may well be other costs that will run into the following year. It has three strands. There are two smaller interventions during the summer. Where schools are looking voluntarily to provide some level of additional summer learning, the Department will provide financial support. Teachers deserve a break, however, and, consequently, it is only where schools have volunteered to do that and want to do that. We feel that they should not do that to their own detriment, and therefore there is a degree of support. We are looking at support over the summer of a virtual classroom that people can tap into. Both of those, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively low-cost, but we are looking, as we roll out into next year, at an engage programme that will ensure that, in particular, those from a socially deprived background are provided with additional support and additional interventions in their learning. From that point of view, I think, I am at one with the amendment, if not always necessarily in the words that are used in the speech — I look forward to Mr McNulty’s summing-up — but at least in terms of the spirit of what is there.

The issue of mental health has also been raised. While a lot of young people are very resilient — perhaps more resilient, at times, than some of us adults in that regard — there is a need for support for mental health. If there is additional help we can give from the Department of Health, it will be welcome, but there has already been an allocation of an additional £5 million into the budget this year for mental health. As with all Ministers, if the budget were considerably bigger, I would be happy to make that stronger.

I appreciate that there are probably issues that I have not been able to touch on in 15 minutes. I am sure that, in one of our lively exchanges at the Education Committee tomorrow, they will be revived in that regard. Although we may have some salvos fired across different parts of the Benches, I take on board the fact that there is a broad consensus on what is being done, what needs to be done and the outcome that all of us seek, which is to ensure that our children get back to that full level of learning. That is shared not only by all MLAs across all parties but by teachers, parents and pupils.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 10:15 pm, 30th June 2020

It is a pleasure to wind on this important debate. I will begin, however, by offering my condolences to Noah Donohoe's mum, Fiona, his family, his friends and his classmates at St Malachy's College and to the volunteers, the police and the rescue organisations who all put in such a heroic effort in trying to locate him.

I also pay tribute to our schoolteachers, principals, classroom assistants, school staff, pupils and parents. Their roles and environments have been completely reconfigured, and it is sad that many teachers feel that they have been used and abused during the pandemic.

Given the hour, I will not rehash verbatim what each Member has said in the debate. You all know what you have said, and it is in Hansard anyway. Across the Chamber, we are in agreement on a number of matters, including concerns about addressing IT, broadband and online inequality; acting to address the education of children who come from deprived areas or from families with lower incomes; social distancing capabilities and capacity in schools; staggered starts; an accelerated catch-up programme for all kids; social bubbles; blended learning provision that is fair and equitable; accelerated school maintenance; appreciation for the work of trade unions; and the addressing of school transport concerns.

We have heard a lot about mental health issues but not enough about physical activity, and incorporating physical activity into the restart is another concern. Further concerns to be addressed are staff numbers and possible shortages in specific areas and the ability of schools to meet the needs of students with special educational needs. A major challenge for the education system is that no child should suffer academically as a consequence of the pandemic. We need a reopening procedure that has the capacity to address any mental health issues, zero tolerance of bullying and childcare that must be aligned be aligned with school reopening. There was a bit of disagreement on academic selection and the example set by some political leaders today, but, it is important to reiterate what the Minister said: it is a cause for celebration that no school-age child has passed away as a consequence of COVID-19. That is a cause for celebration.

Principals, teachers, pupils, staff and parents seek clear, unambiguous and realistic guidance on a safe return to education in the classroom. As the Minister said, teachers want to teach. I have not met one teacher over the past two or three months who was in holiday mode. They were very caught up in trying to adjust to and address the challenges they faced in teaching kids, some in the classroom and some remotely. Parents have had to change their routines enormously too and have adapted to become even more hands-on in the education of their kids, all the while juggling their day jobs. Major tribute should be paid to them. Most of all, I think of the girls and boys of school age who are dying to get back to see their friends and teachers and dying to get back to school. It is a unique situation where kids are crying for school. At the end of August and start of September, I think, we all want to see a safe, fair, positive, challenging and encouraging learning environment for every pupil, every teacher and every staff member to return to. I support the amended motion.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I call Catherine Kelly to wind up the debate. Catherine, you have 10 minutes.

Photo of Catherine Kelly Catherine Kelly Sinn Féin

The motion was tabled before the Minister's statement last week. Since then, guidance has been provided, but we feel that tonight's debate is important and has been useful to ensure that the concerns that remain are highlighted.

The past three months have had a significant impact on our children and young people, parents, childcare practitioners and school leaders, many of which we have heard about this evening and I will touch on later.

Never before has our education system faced so many challenges. Many of our preschool children are to begin formal education in eight weeks. Their parents are busy buying uniforms and preparing for their children's first day. What will that actually look like? Some settings and classes are not big enough to hold all the children attending in September. Some settings and classes may be big enough but they do not have sufficient staff numbers to allow for more than one protective bubble. Recent guidance, issued by the Department, mentions a blended learning approach for preschool similar to that of schools. How can this apply to preschool children, when their education is based mainly on play? How do preschool leaders ensure that learning is being achieved at home through play? Department of Education guidance does not take this into account. It is not sufficient to attach the preschool restart with school restart. This is a worrying time for preschool leaders. Will the Department issue its PEGs funding earlier so that preschool leaders can prepare their settings and, if needed, recruit and vet staff? Will the community and voluntary preschool settings receive support through a new scheme from the Department of Education or the Department of Health? Both Departments need to consider these questions. Settings need support to sustain themselves so that they can open their doors, with confidence, in September; reassure parents who are dropping their children off on their first day; and hold on to their skilled staff, whom we rely on so much to educate our children.

Another cohort of parents who received guidance on the return to school was parents of children who attend special schools. Many parents and school leaders had been waiting on the guidance, hoping that it would include a plan and details for a safe return but that has not been the case. Schools have been left having to read between the lines and incorporate their own plans for September. Friday's guidance has not reassured parents. If anything, they have even more questions. How do special schools that are already at maximum capacity welcome all children back and ensure that they are socially distancing? If remote learning will, again, come into play, the Department needs to ensure that all children are being taught remotely. In the past three months, many parents have raised issues around the lack of remote learning and the absence of any digital connection with teachers, classroom assistants or friends.

Some of us will remember a young person, a number of weeks ago, explaining their feelings during lockdown as being sad, isolated and lonely. There cannot be a return to this kind of remote learning. The guidance also mentions a reduction in health therapies and/or support provided. That is very concerning. For many children and young people, those therapies are a lifeline. I urge the Department of Health and the Department of Education to ensure that every effort is made to remove any barriers to children and young people being able to avail themselves of this.

Tomorrow is 1 July and, as yet, parents have not had sight of what summer provision will look like for their children. There is huge frustration amongst children, young people and their parents. The most vulnerable in our society need to know when summer provision will begin, what it will look like and who will be delivering it. Since March, many parents and their sons and daughters have had little or no interaction with the outside world, no school and no respite. Summer provision is crucial to support families after such a long period with little or no support. The mental health and well-being of children and their parents is paramount. They are crying out for some sort of provision, urgently, to reengage their children. This must begin as soon as possible and without delay. We are all more than aware that our childcare sector is on its knees. My party colleague mentioned in her opening statement that childcare will be a defining issue, and she is right.

We have seen many welcome interventions in recent weeks, where the key worker definition no longer applies to childcare. Capacity has ceased within settings, albeit that a play pod has been introduced, and indemnity will now cover all children until the end of August. These are very welcome easements and especially today's announcement from the Finance Minister that £10·5 million in financial support will be allocated to the sector to enable sustainability.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I recognise the consistency with which she has raised childcare provision at the Education Committee. Does she agree that it is vital that details of how to apply for that additional funding for childcare are made clear, as quickly as possible, to the childcare sector?

Photo of Catherine Kelly Catherine Kelly Sinn Féin 10:30 pm, 30th June 2020

Thank you for your comment. I agree wholeheartedly. We need guidance and detail as soon as possible and urgently. We have no detail yet on how this will be administered, but one thing is for sure: it cannot be a repeat of the previous scheme, with its complex and bureaucratic application process, and with many still waiting for support, after the scheme was first announced over eight weeks ago.

The new allocation needs to be readily available, with no barriers in place. Families need childcare now more than ever, and that is why our health and social care trusts need to work as quickly as they can to ensure that settings and childminders can reopen their doors safely, and parents can return to work, content that their child is in the best possible care.

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on how crucial to society our childcare sector is. Without it, it is likely that many women would not be working, and children would be without vital early education and care. Until we have more information on how the funding that was announced today will be allocated, what the process will be for applying for funds and when applications will open, this vital economic sector is at risk of collapse. Not only will that have significant implications at this time of crisis, but, in the weeks and months ahead, when we are trying to rebuild our economy.

Many comments have been made tonight. Mr McCrossan mentioned the hard work of our school leaders over the past three months. Mr Butler mentioned transport and the huge issue that that is: how can we ensure the safety of children and young people when they travel to and from school? Mr Lyttle talked about the need for a restart budget, given the many costs that are associated with restart when school budgets are already at capacity. Mr Frew mentioned parents and how the past three months of homeschooling has been incredibly stressful. Those are only some of the hugely important issues that have been highlighted this evening, and I thank Members for their contribution. It is imperative that Minister Weir takes into consideration all the points that have been made tonight. I urge Members to support the motion and the amendment.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Leave out all after ‘Control;’ and insert: "further recognises the limitations faced by many pupils in accessing online courses and private tutoring; recognises the need for an essential catch up programme to be established for all pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and calls on the Minister of Education to engage and consult with all stakeholders, including teachers, parents and young people, on the reopening of schools and to ensure that no child loses out upon the reopening of schools."

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises the concern and anxiety that exists among teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as among parents and young people, in relation to the eventual reopening of schools; understands the challenges facing school boards of governors and principals in keeping children and teachers safe while providing high quality education; believes that any reopening of schools should be based on scientific and medical advice consistent with that provided by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control; further recognises the limitations faced by many pupils in accessing online courses and private tutoring; recognises the need for an essential catch up programme to be established for all pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and calls on the Minister of Education to engage and consult with all stakeholders, including teachers, parents and young people, on the reopening of schools and to ensure that no child loses out upon the reopening of schools.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I remind Members that the next plenary sitting of the Assembly is on Monday 6 July.

Before I finish, I thank Mr O'Dowd and Mr Storey, who remained throughout the debate and did not even have an opportunity to speak. That they were prepared to do that is an example to all MLAs. I thank everyone who kept to time to ensure that the debate finished on time.

Adjourned at 10.33 pm.