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Decision on Northern Ireland school exams grading is close, minister vows

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Education Minister Peter Weir

Education Minister Peter Weir

Education Minister Peter Weir

The Education Minister has said a decision on cancelled school exams in Northern Ireland during lockdown will be made within days.

Appearing before the Stormont Education Committee on Wednesday via video-link, Peter Weir was asked why pupils and parents in Northern Ireland were still in the dark two weeks after alternative arrangements have been made in England.

The UK Government decided that pupils with exams cancelled due to Covid-19 would be given grades estimated by their teachers.

Mr Weir said: "We actually have an advantage in Northern Ireland when it comes to issues around fairness and about getting the right grade for people which aren't there in England."

He added that there was a greater link between AS and A-level grades in Northern Ireland.

"That means in England their data set is a lot less than we would have," he said.

"Their only real option is purely teacher assessment. Ours, whenever it is announced, will have a mixture of the data that's available on individuals with also then a level of teacher prediction."

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The minister said the "more complex" proposal has taken more time, to allow for consultation with the five main teaching unions in Northern Ireland, head teachers and other stakeholders.

Detailed advice is being prepared for schools before an official announcement.

"I want to be in a position, when the announcement is made on the detail, that that advice is ready to go instantaneously."

The Department of Education permanent secretary, Derek Baker, added that exam bodies for post-primary transfer tests are "urgently" looking at options for tests this autumn, but this was outside the control of the department.

The education committee also quizzed Mr Weir on financial support for substitute teachers, arrangements for special schools and help for vulnerable pupils.

Mr Weir said some special schools had deemed it unsafe for pupils to come in, due to difficulty in enforcing social distancing rather than a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Mr Baker said that the vast majority of special schools were currently closed as there was no demand from parents for them to open.

He said special schools are also conducting risk assessments, in co-operation with health and social care services, for individual pupils to decide if they can be accommodated while coronavirus restrictions remain in place.

With concerns of an increase in domestic abuse during lockdown, the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan asked about difficulties for schools in identifying vulnerable children who may be at risk at home.

"Social services don't always reveal the details [and it] can be on a need-to-know basis," he said.

Mr Weir said he did not expect schools to second-guess social services, but encouraged teachers with concerns to pass on any additional information.

Mr Baker said the Department of Health was also developing a cross-department strategy for vulnerable children during coronavirus measures.

On a possible hardship fund for substitute teachers, Mr Weir said support would vary between those on a contract and casual workers.

While those on a contract would receive "a certain level of pay" based on their previous hours, Mr Weir said support for casual workers would need additional funding.

"I can't conjure it up, there isn't a budget line for those people," he said. "They would be in the same position at the moment as someone who is unemployed and would potentially be receiving benefits."

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