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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today.

    Stormont

    It's been a long week for the minister and the committee members and it's still only Tuesday.

    We will be back with further live coverage from the Education Committee on Friday when they will have another briefing from the exams body, CCEA.

    We hope you can join us then.

    In the meantime, let's hope the weather improves.

  2. Meeting brought to a close

    Education Committee

    Committee chair Chris Lyttle thanks the minister and his officials for their contribution to the meeting and asks him to agree to return to the committee when children have returned to school.

    The minister leaves the room and the committee clerk runs through the actions the committee raised during the meeting.

    The members agree that they will be briefed by teaching unions on the restart plans, and will be given an update on exam results by CCEA during their meeting on Friday.

    The meeting is then brought to a close.

  3. Catch-up programme

    The SDLP's Justin McNulty (below) asks if there are "any plans for a catch-up programme" for pupils.

    The minister says, yes, the executive has approved a programme they are calling 'Engage' for which £11m has been ring-fenced for the current financial year.

    He says this will "give an additional level of support to schools where they have greater levels of social deprivation".

    Justin McNulty

    The DUP's Maurice Bradley asks about school transport and whether there has been any financial support for private bus companies that operate school services in order to fit screens etc.

    Mr Weir says this "would probably be more a Department for Infrastructure issue".

  4. 'Different issues to main-stream schools'

    Catherine Kelly of Sinn Féin says she wants to focus on guidance for special schools.

    She says she feels like they have been treated as “add-ons” in certain parts, and that they have “very different issues to mainstream schools”.

    Mr Weir replies that there are elements within the guidance that relate to special schools.

    Janis Scallon of the Department of Education says there is a meeting taking place with special school principals today.

    She adds that there will be some supplementary information provided for special schools on top of the generic guidance.

    Janice Scallon

    Committee chair Chris Lyttle asks a supplementary question. He wants to know when special schools will restart.

    Mr Weir says “we would envisage all schools being in place together”.

    Mr Lyttle also asks about the 30 pupils with special educational needs who were without a special educational place, how many have still not been placed?

    Mr Weir says the list is down to five pupils, with four who are placed, but there have been concerns raised that the placements may not be where the children should be.

    Therefore there is one child still to be placed, he says.

  5. 'Is there anything that is going to be risk free?'

    Daniel McCrossan of the SDLP opens with the comment: "I long for the day when I can sit here and say something positive."

    He says the teachers he has spoken to say they want to get back to school when it's safe to do so.

    He asks Mr Weir to acknowledge that there is "a higher level of infection in our society and our community today than there was when schools closed originally".

    Daniel McCrossan

    Mr Weir notes that a similar approach has been adopted in a number of other jurisdictions, including the Republic of Ireland and that it is a question of minimising risks.

    "Is there anything that is going to be risk free? I think the answer has to be 'no'," he says.

  6. 'There has to be a little bit of flexibility'

    Robbie Butler of the UUP is up next.

    He begins by asking the minister about “isolation rooms” which are mentioned in the guidance and are to be used when a pupil presents with symptoms.

    Mr Butler wants more clarity around the wording used around such rooms having windows, and ensuring they are open.

    Mr Weir replies that there “has to be a little bit of flexibility” as the layout of a specific school’s windows may not mean this is doable.

    He adds it’s about finding the “best possible solution where there are symptoms” and minimising “contact that child has with others”.

    Mr Butler says in his view the solution would be that a room shouldn’t be used if it doesn’t have a window and that the guidelines should make this explicit.

    Robbie Butler

    Mr Butler turns to a point made in the earlier debate in the chamber about the algorithm used to formulate A-level results.

    He says that PWC was mentioned and asks “did CCEA not have the capacity” to do that themselves?

    Mr Weir says “you want to have some level of quality assurance and sometimes getting and outside set of eyes is useful as well”.

  7. At-risk children

    The minister's DUP colleague, Robin Newton, asks how at-risk children will be supported on return to school.

    Mr Weir says that during lockdown there was an emphasis on getting the children of key workers and vulnerable children into school.

    Robin Newton

    He says there were low levels of vulnerable children coming into school, "maybe because they do not have a great school attendance record to start off with".

    The minister says on return to school there will probably be the need for inter-agency work to achieve a level of individual support.

  8. Risk assessments

    Sinn Féin's Karen Mullan is the committee deputy chair.

    She says she agrees that the best place for children is back in the classroom.

    Ms Mullan asks whether each child with a medical condition will receive an individual risk assessment and who will carry it out.

    Karen Mullan

    Janis Scallon of the Department of Education says they have been advised by the Department of Health that "there are a very small number of children who may still need to shield and for those children they are being assessed by their medical consultant".

    There is another group of children with special educational needs or particular medical issues "and that's an operational risk assessment for the schools leadership team" with advice from the parents and health professionals.

  9. 'Not practical to be sitting for six hours plus with mask on'

    Committee chair Chris Lyttle reads correspondence that he has received from a mother who is concerned that her child will be returning to a class of 30 children without social distancing being enforced.

    He asks the minister what additional funding will be made available to help schools during the restart.

    Mr Weir replies that there will be some additional money for schools - something that has been agreed by the executive.

    He then outlines some of this funding, around £6.5m for PPE items including “face covering, soap and hygiene” but says this will not cover the full year; £35m of which the detail is being worked out “in terms of broad school restart”.

    Mr Weir discusses transport to schools and predicts a behavioural change in some instances.

    Peter Weir

    Chris Lyttle then turns to face coverings and asks the minister if he can “deliver clarity that children and young people, (aged) 13 and above” should wear face coverings on school transport and in school.

    Mr Weir says there are two separate positions in relation to face coverings.

    The minister says “we are not recommending they are mandatory” and adds that “we don’t believe that’s particularly practical”

    However he says that it would be recommended in the event there is a “large gathering within a relatively small space that involves children or adults”.

    But the minister says that it’s “not practical for children to be sitting six hours plus with a face covering on”.

    The SDLP’s Daniel McCrossan chips in with a supplementary question for the minister about social distancing on school transport.

    He wants to know if it will be mandatory.

    Mr Weir replies that on “dedicated school transport" it is not enforced, but should be encouraged where possible.

    He adds that around 80,000 children use school transport and that with 1m of social distancing, a quarter of children would be able to use buses.

  10. Advice from the Chief Medical Officer

    As committee chair, Chris Lyttle has the first opportunity to ask questions.

    He notes that it is four working days until many pupils return to school.

    Mr Lyttle asks what consultation there has been with interested parties and says that one of the education unions, the NAHT, "didn't consider the process to constitute consultation".

    The minister says the 70-page document largely originated in a "parent document" issued in June.

    He says the main changes are around the timings of the school day and details regarding school transport.

    The minister says the co-design aspect with unions and an education practitioners group occurred at the earlier period.

    He says that if a second co-design process had begun "we would have been talking about a number of weeks".

    Mr Lyttle says there hasn't been co-design on the latest document even though it says there has been.

    Department of Education official John Smith says work has been ongoing on the document since March.

    Wide shot of the committee

    "We would have liked to have a lot more time to have worked through these issues in detail," he says.

    Mr Lyttle says the document states it has been developed with advice from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and other experts.

    Mr Weir says there was a meeting with the CMO, the Chief Scientific Officer and the health minister.

    He says they agreed that there were lower levels of risk with children and a range of mitigation measures could be put in place.

    Mr Lyttle asks what happens if Northern Ireland has to go back into lockdown and if the minister is concerned about the current rise in the R number.

    "Frankly, I think everybody should be concerned if we're seeing rises in levels of Covid cases," Mr Weir replies.

    He says it is generally agreed that keeping schools open should be "a top priority" and they should only be closed in "a worst case scenario".

    Departmental official Janis Scallon outlines the procedure to be followed in the case of a child exhibiting Covid symptoms and how the contact tracing system will be applied.

  11. 'Schools only safe if society continues to act responsibly'

    Turning to mental health, the minister says for “many children and young people not being able to attend schools since March” will have experienced an impact on their “cognitive and academic” development.

    Mr Weir says a partial reopening of schools would mean pupils would be at home for 50 or 60% of the week which would have knock on effects to parents, the economy and public finance.

    He outlines the different approaches being taken by other jurisdictions.

    Enhanced hygiene and cleaning mechanisms will remain and “are viewed as both vital and non-negotiable”.

    Strict social distancing requirements between students will be relaxed from a “specific distance to the best spacing that can be achieved” but will remain in place between adults, and “as far as practical between adults and pupils” says the minister.

    As much social distancing should be implemented as practical, adds Mr Weir.

    Protective bubbles will be a part of the new school day the minister says, adding that they will be used as “a key mitigating action where possible”.

    For pre-school, special schools and primary schools, the minister says, “a relatively straightforward approach can be adopted” and that a class will be one consistent bubble with “minimal prolonged interaction” with other classes in the school.

    Peter Weir

    For post-primary, the minister says there will be a different approach.

    Pupils in years 11-14 will not have a single consistent classroom due to different choices of study for pupils, he says.

    He says all decisions about plans to restart schools have been made in line with other stakeholders and the PHA.

    Mr Weir turns to transport to schools and says “there is no requirement for children to follow public transport guidance for social distancing between pupils on dedication home to school vehicles, but where it is possible, pupils should do so”.

    Those pupils using public transport services will have to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

    He says the publication of the revised guidance is “not the end of the process” and that consolation meetings will continue in the coming weeks.

    “I full expect school leaders will rise to the challenge and deploy effective measures to manage risk but they will continue the continued support of parents, pupils and wide society to be vigilant and act responsibility within the wider public health guidelines,” says Mr Weir.

    “Schools will only be safe if society as a whole continues to act responsibly.”

  12. 'Pupils learn less when they are not in schools'

    Education Minister Peter Weir begins his opening statement.

    He applauds the “ongoing and tenacious efforts of all our schools leaders and staff” throughout “these challenging times”.

    On 19 June, the department published guidance about schools restart, says the minister, adding that it was “envisaged and made clear at the time that this guidance would be responsive” and would reflect scientific advice.

    The minister says his objective has been to achieve “maximum face-to-face in-class teaching time where it’s safe to do so at the earliest opportunity”.

    He adds that there has been revised guidance published “with the view that all schools and settings should return to more normal patterns of operation during the week beginning 31 August”.

    The priority cohorts of P7, year 12 and year 14 will still return on 24 August, says the minister, with schools resuming a more “normal pattern of attendance” during the following week.

    However, the minister emphasises this will not be a “return to business as usual”.

    Peter Weir

    Mr Weir outlines that “long-term educational impact on children and young people as a result of disruption to face-to-face teaching”.

    He says that “pupils learn less when they are not in schools, or when school attendance in reduced”.

    In relation to blended learning - a mixture of remote learning and in the classroom - the minister says it is “useful” but “not optimal as it means reduced face-to-face teaching time”.

    But the minister adds that schools “should continue to plan for blended or remote learning as a contingency arrangement”.

    “A return to full-time education will enhance educational opportunities,” says the minister and will “begin the process of reengaging many vulnerable children and young children”.

  13. Education minister briefing

    Chris Lyttle

    Welcome to this afternoon's coverage of the assembly's Education Committee.

    Committee chair Chris Lyttle calls the members to order and runs through some committee business.

    The members have reconvened from the earlier meeting of the assembly when a motion was debated on A-level results.

    This afternoon, the Education Minister, Peter Weir is briefing the members on the subject of the return to school.

  14. Education Committee meeting

    We're taking a break now until 15:30 when we will join a meeting of the Education Committee.

    Education Minister Peter Weir will be briefing the members on the subject of school restart.

  15. 'I was more focused on messing around'

    Wide shot of the assembly

    The SDLP's Justin McNulty winds on the motion.

    He says he "was more focused on football and messing around" at school than on his work and that some of the most successful people he knows did not pass their A-levels.

    Mr McNulty sums up the points made by members earlier in the debate.

    He questions Robin Newton's claim that "our education system is second to none".

    Mr McNulty says "our teachers are second to none".

    The motion is passed on an oral vote with the SDLP amendment.

  16. 'Ensure young people not disadvantaged to peers elsewhere'

    Peter Weir continues, “alternative arrangements were put in place after careful consideration of a wide range of options”, which he says were formulated with input from stakeholders.

    “The standardisation process at A-level differed from England, in that prior performance at AS level provided the central focus of standardisation process” says the minister.

    The DUP minister says the examination system “isn’t just important to young people’s future but the future of our economy”.

    Turning to the use of standardisation, Mr Weir says it is an “important feature of the qualification process every year” and is “widespread across all countries where examinations take place”.

    He says it “ensures qualifications awarded in NI are recognised as comparable to qualifications awarded elsewhere”.

    Peter Weir

    “Members have made reference to the algorithm and to have it published,” says the minister and confirms that the algorithm has been published on the CCEA website.

    Mr Weir says while “appeals continue” around results that were issued last week, given his announcement yesterday, “there will not be the, by any means, need for appeals”.

    “It will undoubtedly be the case that while there has been very good professional judgement being made, you cannot ensure without standardisation that one pupil in one school will be treated exactly the same as a pupil in another,” says Mr Weir.

    “That is simply human nature.”

    “My principal concern was on the basis of ensuring our young people were not treated in a disadvantaged manner than to their peers elsewhere,” says the minister.

  17. 'We set out to provide a system that was fair and credible'

    Peter Weir, the Education Minister, responds to the debate.

    “There will be many young people watching this, perhaps watching the assembly for the first time,” he say, thanking members for the tone of the debate and the focus that has remained on young people.

    “The Covid pandemic has inflicted much suffering and hardship in our society,” says the minister, adding that “for some the A-level results process has been very upsetting”.

    Turning to last week’s results, Mr Weir says “they were up from 2019, there was arise in terms of A* - C within A-level of 1.6%”.

    He adds “what we did see last week” is that “non-selective schools performed relatively speaking, better than grammar in terms of closing of the gap”.

    pETER Weir

    While dealing with the difficulties that have arisen, Mr Weir says it is important “we acknowledge the successes where it’s happened for our young people and pay tribute to the work they have done”.

    The minister outlines the process through which the decision to close schools was made.

    “The worst possible scenario would have been to start examinations and in the middle of examinations had to take a completely different route,” says Mr Weir.

    Therefore, in a “short window” a new system to award qualifications had to be designed, says the minister.

    “We set out provide a system that was fair and credible, and as I’ll come to later, any system that was to be put in would have problems with fairness,” says the minister.

  18. 'A forced decision'

    Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit is next on his feet.

    He says many of the members have welcomed the changes announced by the minister as a good decision.

    "We in People Before Profit accept it for what it is - a forced decision," he says.

    Gerry Carroll

    Mr Carroll says the situation has exposed many of the underlying problems in the education system, whether that is the division of children "on the basis of academic ability or the expectation by the state that children in impoverished areas should under perform compared to their counterparts in more affluent areas".

  19. 'Did the minister have complete sight of the algorithm?'

    “This is a shambles made in Stormont,” says TUV leader Jim Allister.

    “It’s not the first and, I fear, not the last,” he adds.

    He welcomes the minister’s announcement on Monday regarding grades, but says he remains “critical of the fact of the blindness and deafness of the department and the minister to the problem for so long.”

    “What everyone else could see on Thursday, the minister denied,” he says.

    “What everyone else could see on Friday, the minster denied.”

    Jim Allister

    Mr Allister adds that on Monday, the minster “had to make the u-turn on GCSE’s” but “compounded the insult to teachers in our community”.

    The North Antrim MLA says it is “vital” that those who had university places denied due to the results they were previously given, should be given those university places.

    “Is CCEA fit for purpose?” asks Mr Allister.

    “Did the minister have complete sight of the algorithm which has failed? Or did he leave it to CCEA? And in leaving it to CCEA was he let down?”

  20. 'Incredible distress'

    Green Party MLA Rachel Woods welcomes the changes made by the minister as "an equitable resolution"

    She speaks of the "incredible distress" felt by students but says it is not unusual.

    Rachel Woods

    Ms Woods says Northern Ireland has the worst levels of young people leaving education with no qualifications.

    She outlines the many disadvantages experienced by many children in the education system.