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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. Good evening

    Stormont

    That concludes Thursday's live coverage of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

    In a unique turn of events, we'll be back tomorrow with live coverage of the Agriculture Committee.

    Normally the assembly would not sit on a Friday, but as we know these are far from normal times.

    At 10:30 the Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots will be briefing MLAs about the additional £25m his department has received from the executive to help farmers tackle Covid-19.

    Until then, stay safe.

  2. 'Wholly misrepresented my question'

    Christopher Stalford

    The principal deputy speaker rises to thank the minister and bring the committee meeting to close.

    He takes a point of order from Alliance's Chris Lyttle who says the minister “wholly misrepresented my question” as a call to "ban grammar education".

    He asks the deputy speaker if he will "remind the education minister not to misrepresent members of this assembly".

    Mr Stalford replies, "it’s not the role of the chair to determine the content of questions or on the content of answers".

    He adds, that he doesn't think Mr Lyttle's intervention was "strictly speaking a point of order".

    Mr Stalford then adjourns the session and tells members to "stay safe".

  3. Flexibility for the return to school

    Philip McGuigan of Sinn Féin joins previous speakers in condemning the threats made against David Hilditch.

    He says "it's pretty clear that there can't be one size fits all" regarding the reopening of schools.

    He asks if there will be a degree of flexibility left to individual schools.

    The minister says it's a good point.

    "It may well be that the approach you take to 15 year-olds will be different to five-year-olds," he says.

    However, Mr Weir says there also needs to be "a level of consistency" for schools.

    Philip McGuigan

    Matthew O'Toole of the SDLP says he's going to make two statements that he believes the minister will agree with.

    Firstly, that poorer kids do less well in the transfer test, and secondly that poorer kids are more vulnerable to lower educational outcomes from the shutdown.

    "Would you therefore agree following those two statements that proceeding with transfer tests this year will mean that poorer kids do worse?" he asks.

    The minister says he's "not prepared to write-off children".

    He says his belief is that if there is no academic selection "we will move whether it's in the short term or the long term into a situation as we see in England and other places".

    He says it is likely there would be a situation where people who have the ability to pay can send their children to the best schools.

  4. 'Probably need to be some alteration to the curriculum'

    Paula Bradshaw of Alliance asks about children with autism and what provisions the minister will make for them in terms of reopening.

    Mr Weir says is it one area the department is working on and says there is a need to ensure "what can be provided is tailored for those needs a much as possible".

    "This is not simply a one size fits all," he adds.

    Paula Bradshaw

    David Hilditch of the DUP raises begins by thanking all members for their support following his receipt of threats.

    He asks the minister if laptop provision will be prioritised to vulnerable children, and asks about mitigations for those due to sit key exams.

    Mr Weir says there are efforts being made to ensure provisions for everyone.

    On mitigation regarding key examinations he says, those in year 11 and 13, who are due to sit GCSE and A Levels are "seen as the most important cohort in post-primary" education.

    On the "IT side of it" the minister says there is a drive to be "inventive with resources"

    He says there is a "broader challenge that there will probably need to be some alteration to curriculum as we move ahead".

    David Hilditch
  5. PPE and guidance for pregnant women

    Jim Wells, the DUP MLA who has had the party whip removed, asks the minister what guidance he has given to those teachers expecting a baby in the next few months .

    The minister says there has been specific guidance and that further guidance will be offered.

    He says "there's a clear desire from teachers, they want that level of engagement but they also want as clear guidance as possible".

    Mr Weir says his department will cooperate closely with the Department of Health and PHA.

    Emma Sheerin

    Emma Sheerin of Sinn Féin asks the minister about what PPE and sanitisation schools will require to reopen.

    The minister says there was work done on this with the finance and health ministers.

    He says a "pool of PPE stock" was opened to be "available upon request".

    Mr Weir says what may be applicable in primary school may not be the same as post-primary school.

  6. Admissions criteria for post-primary education

    Rachel Woods of the Green Party refers to a growing campaign against post-primary exams going ahead this year, and the minister's avowal that he will not legislate to effect this.

    She asks "what exact powers have schools over setting admissions criteria for post-primary education".

    The minister says schools have the power to include academic selection within their criteria.

    Rachel Woods

    Gerry Carroll of people Before Profit says there has been "a strong element of teacher bashing in England" and he wants to pay tribute to teachers and all education workers.

    He says that instead of giving young people a pat on the back for putting up with the emergency measures "we are punishing them" by forcing them to sit exams "which we know in and of themselves are very stressful for them".

    The minister says nobody is forced to take any exam. He says he is limited in what he can say due to an ongoing court case.

  7. 'Solutions for a six-year-old not the same as for a 16-year-old'

    Mike Nesbitt of the UUP asks about stopping payments for free school meals over the summer period.

    He says there is "no logic" in stopping the payments, as those children who are likely to go hungry in "May and June are at equal risk in July and August". He adds this is something the executive should look at.

    Mr Weir replies that continuing the scheme through summer "will require a considerable amount of resource".

    He says it may be an issue for the Department for Communities which is "looking at providing food for all those that are vulnerable in society".

    He says there is "no point in me pretending there is money in the department to do that over the summer".

    Joanne Bunting

    Joanne Bunting, the minister’s DUP party colleague, asks what insights he is taking from experiences of other countries.

    Mr Weir says there will be “shared experience” with other jurisdictions.

    He references what has happened in European countries such as Denmark, and adds there are lessons in terms of “traps to avoid”.

    “The solutions for six year old will not be the same as for a 16-year-old,” adds the minister.

  8. Academic selection and the role of community

    Sinn Féin's John O’Dowd asks the minister for assurance that he will use his "energies and resources" in the department to represent all children, including those whose parents do not wish them to sit a test for academic selection.

    Mr Weir says he will "try and treat all children equally and give them the fullest of support that I can".

    Mr O'Dowd, in a supplementary question, says he believes there is an alternative to academic selection - that schools could follow those which do not seek tests for entry.

    The minister replies by referring to a Churchill quotation that suggested that following the First World War, the "arguments in this part of the world resurfaced after all that happened".

    He says the same may be said of Covid and arguments over academic selection.

    John O'Dowd

    Justin McNulty of the SDLP asks the minister about the “restart programme”. He asks if consideration has been given to workforce availability and using community facilities to help teach.

    Mr Weir says he’s not going to argue with the member “given his haircut at the minute”.

    In terms of the member’s question, he says there may be a role for the community sector.

    The minister says there is a need to “scope out” and get “detail” on issues through engagement.

    He pays tribute to the level of support given in communities during the crisis.

    Justin McNulty
  9. Childcare when schools close over the summer

    Sinn Féin's Catherine Kelly (below) asks about childcare and "the big job ahead to ensure sustainability".

    What role does he see for the childcare sector when schools close for the summer, she asks.

    Mr Weir says there is a financial package which may be ongoing over that period.

    "I think it's widely recognised by the executive the importance of childcare," he adds.

    Catherine Kelly

    Michelle McIlveen of the DUP welcomes the support offered to substitute teachers.

    She says homeschooling has proved "extremely challenging" for many parents and carers.

    She asks if "a standardised approach" was ever considered regarding communication between teachers and parents.

    Mr Weir says "link officers" will be working with ETI (Education Training Inspectorate) to ensure there is a standardised approach as much as possible.

  10. Key school cohorts back in 'third week of August'

    Robbie Butler of the UUP asks about the CCEA appeals process for AQE and GL tests.

    Mr Weir says that for those sitting GCSE and A Levels, "what is able to be done is based upon a higher level of robust data" in terms of marks and appeals.

    He says due to Covid, "you would be going back to data that was available on P5 testing".

    He says there is a consultation ongoing at the minute into the issue.

    Robbie Butler

    The DUP’s Mervyn Storey asks the minister about planning conversations and detail around opening dates for schools.

    Mr Weir says “there are different ways” in which schools could be phased in.

    “Part of the idea is to have the maximum level of engagement,” he says and adds this will happen during summer.

    “It’s unlikely there all be too many people leaving on holidays during that period," says the minister.

    He says conversations will take place around social distancing, what the time table will be, what hygiene arrangements will be in place.

    He says the current plans are looking to bringing back "key cohorts in the third week of August".

    Mervyn Storey
  11. 'There is not a monopoly of wisdom in this place'

    Karen Mullan of Sinn Féin and deputy chairperson of the Education Committee asks the minister about work being done to include stakeholders in the process of outlining what the reopening of schools will look like.

    Mr Weir says there will be a “clear role to ensure the medical and scientific advice is there”.

    Karen Mullan

    He adds that some of the issues will be cross-cutting, and outlines the issue of transport.

    “I’m keen to receive views and have as much interaction as possible,” he says.

    The minister says he is speaking to school principals, pupils and others.

    “There is not a monopoly of wisdom in this place or indeed anywhere else,” says the minister, adding it is important to have a majority agreement on the issue.

    Daniel McCrossan

    Before calling Daniel McCrossan to question the minister, Principal Deputy Speaker Christopher Stalford also condemns the threats made against his party colleague David Hilditch.

    Mr McCrossan of the SDLP echoes those sentiments.

    He turns to the minister, and asks about access to broadband for those preparing for post-primary tests.

    Mr Weir says it’s about “trying to get the best solutions for our young people”.

    “It is about trying to ensure we can get the best solution,” says the minister.

  12. Provision of IT equipment

    The DUP's William Humphrey begins by welcoming his party colleague David Hillditch back to the chamber despite the "appalling cowardly threat he received to his life".

    Mr Humphrey says he represents one of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom, and that he has raised the matter of access to resources.

    He wants to know when the minister's scheme to provide IT equipment will begin to roll out.

    William Humphrey

    The minister says the roll out has already started - some schools have begun to distribute some of their own equipment.

    He says that C2K can be used at home "with a small level of adaptation".

    There were already 3,000 computers on order by the EA (Education Authority).

    The minister says the department has found the problem has not been with "the household where is no device," but that there are a number of people trying to use the device.

  13. 'Level playing field'

    Chris Lyttle, the chairperson of the Education Committee, asks the minister about provisions for pupils accessing remote learning and possible resulting issues around post-primary transfer tests.

    Mr Weir says there is work being done to try "to make as much of a level playing field on remote learning as possible" for pupils.

    He says no one can say for sure that "everybody will be in the same place".

    Turning to academic selection, Mr Weir says "it is clear that as much certainty needs to be provided as possible".

    He says testing is one procedure used by schools to deal with "over-subscription in terms of selection".

    He says it is "difficult to see another route" to provide robust data other than testing.

    Chris Lyttle

    Mr Lyttle asks the minister if he would consider using power to pause testing this year.

    Mr Weir says if the member is asking "will I be using power to ban academic selection, I will not".

    "The member is in danger of saying one thing and meaning another," says the minister.

  14. 'No overall opening of schools this academic year'

    Mr Weir says "we're beginning to look to the future".

    He says there will be a process of "phased reopening of schools" and says it "must be led by medical and scientific" guidance.

    The minister outlines the "likely timeframe as regards schools" reopening and says while schools have been closed, there has been an increasing number of pupils attending since Easter.

    He is "keen to see more vulnerable children attending schools" but says longer term there will need to be "engagement, preparation and implementation of actions".

    There is "one chance to get this right and it cannot be done overnight," says the minister.

    peter Weir

    Mr Weir says there will be "no overall reopening of schools during this academic year" and says there will be steps to "enable safe, phased reopening of schools".

    Work on this will be done during the remainder of term and during summer, and he says there will be compliance with social distancing.

    During the holiday months, Mr Weir says his department is looking at "what role the voluntary and private sectors can make for young people".

    He says there will be a "phased reopening of schools" with "key cohort years" potentially coming back in August.

    There will "not be a return to school as it was prior to Covid" says the minister, but will be a "medically safe regime".

    He says there will be a mixture of different schedules for pupils attending and some remote learning at home.

    In closing, he makes note of the fact that this is the biggest public health crisis faced in living history.

  15. The transition to distance learning

    The minister now turns to ensuring the continuity of learning for pupils, which he says is "a key focus for the education sector".

    He says that schools were able to make "a rapid transition to distance learning" at very short notice.

    Unlike other systems "we have in place an educational technology system which is effectively supporting online learning, Mr Weir says.

    The system, C2K, provides "a comprehensive range of tools to support teaching and learning," he explains.

    The minister says that feedback from principals has shown "a wide range of strategies and resources being adopted by schools".

    Peter Weir

    Special schools have supplied "sensory or physical equipment" to pupils who need them, he says.

    Mr Weir notes that a recent survey showed 50% of parents had used BBC learning resources with their children.

    He says the department and the examinations and curriculum body CCEA have been working with the BBC to develop further resources.

    "We have begun from a strong starting point," the minister says, adding that planning has begun on a gradual return to school using "a blended learning approach".

    On the cancellation of scheduled examinations, he says his officials have been working with CCEA and colleagues across the UK to develop appropriate arrangements "that are robust as well as fair".

  16. Substitute teacher support scheme

    The minister addresses the substitute teacher scheme announced on Tuesday.

    He says the Treasury confirmed they would not be eligible to be furloughed and says the executive confirmed £4m in funding for an income support scheme.

    He says he has re-prioritised the education budget "to meet the balance of £8m".

    He says those eligible for the scheme will be able to access income for the period "April to June 2020", with applications made online by Tuesday 26 May.

    Peter Weir

    Mr Weir turns to the issue of direct payments for children eligible for free school meals.

    He says 55,000 families have received direct payments to their bank accounts from the Education Authority (EA).

    He says there were a "number of families for whom we could not make direct payment".

    "The EA is now issuing cheques to over 1,600 families for almost 2,500 children and payments backdated to 23 May 2020," adds the minister.

    Mr Weir adds that an agreement has been reached with the Home Office to make payment to asylum seekers though Aspen card.

    To date, the minister says payments totalling £10.7m have been made in respect of 101,500 children.

  17. 'Increase in number of children attending school since Easter'

    NI Assembly

    Education Minister Peter Weir has been addressing MLAs in Stormont.

    He began by expressing his “sincere gratitude” to those working on the front line of education.

    He said in a short time frame there have been policies and procedures put in place to help pupils “as best we can”.

    The minister said the department’s Covid-19 strategy supports the executive’s plan.

    He outlined that some schools have remained open to provide support for vulnerable young people and children of key workers.

    He said there has been a rise in the number of children attending schools that have been open, since Easter.

    While daily statistics fluctuate, the minister said about 450 settings have been open, with 2,000 staff supporting learning for about 1,700 children.

  18. Committee opens to the public

    Christopher Stalford

    Principal Deputy Speaker Christopher Stalford welcomes MLAs to the chamber.

    He runs through some business before introducing the Education Minister, Peter Weir.

    Mr Stalford reminds MLAs and the minister to be concise in their questions and responses during the session.

    Before his opening statement, Mr Weir quips to his party colleague, “it’s good to see the power hasn’t gone to your head”.

  19. Short break

    We've got to leave the Health Committee at this point on order to hand over to the Assembly chamber, where the Ad-hoc Committee on the Covid-19 Response will be hearing from the Education Minister, Peter Weir.

    The meeting starts at 13.30. Join us then.

  20. 'Disappointing' unions not able to support Stay At Home project

    Pam Cameron the deputy chair of the committee asks about the Safe At Home project.

    The DUP MLA says it’s “very disappointing" the unions haven’t been able to support the project and asks what the barriers are to that support.

    She also asks what more can the independent sector can do.

    Ms Shepherd says "we need to find some method of moving forward".

    She says as lockdown relaxes there needs to be "consideration of people seeing their loved ones".

    Pam Cameron

    Turning to Safe At Home, Ms Shepherd says she hasn't been "privy" to the discussions which have been carried out between the department and unions on this matter.

    "I can't answer your question about the barrier, I'm not sure what they were."